It’s too early to tell whether the new musical “If/Then” is the Next Big Thing, even with original “Rent” stars Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp on the National Theatre stage, along with “The Color Purple” Tony winner LaChanze. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and this is a technical rehearsal of the world premiere show two weeks before the first performance. Designers are adjusting the intensity of the lights, the shifting of the set.
But this highly anticipated follow-up to the hit musical “Next to Normal” by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey already looks hip, at least in the 20-second bit that gets repeated over and over for half an hour as technicians retool and rewind. On cue, Menzel, playing a woman in her late 30s rebooting her life, moves off center stage. A wide mirror angles overhead. The cast wheels sleek-looking wood frames into place, suggesting parts of a city being built. The lighting is warm. The feeling is now.
“It’s about older young people from New York City,” Yorkey says an hour later, sitting in the emptied theater with Kitt. “Facing those turning points in life, knowing sometimes those turning points are right there in front of you — and not knowing sometimes.”
If musicals are beginning to be a little bit cool, then Kitt and Yorkey deserve real credit. The popular “Next to Normal,” one of those rare shows to tour nationally with its Broadway star (Alice Ripley), was a searing blend of rock music and recognizable issues as it chronicled a woman’s mental illness and her family’s struggle to cope. First conceived by Kitt and Yorkey in the late 1990s, it flopped off-Broadway in 2008, was reworked at Arena Stage later that year and returned to Manhattan in 2009 for a Broadway triumph. It wasn’t a “feel-good musical,” noted the New York Times. “It’s a feel-everything musical.”
“The composer Tom Kitt,” wrote a different Times critic, “did more than anyone since Jonathan Larson in ‘Rent’ to advance the inevitable integration of rock sound, rhythm and attitude into the Broadway musical.” “Next to Normal” became the first musical since “Rent” to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, earning only the fourth Pulitzer for a musical in the last 50 years.
No wonder Michael Greif, director of “Next to Normal” and now “If/Then,” uses the word “adult” several times as he describes the Kitt-Yorkey stamp.
“Extremely melodic; thoughtful, considered, smart,” says Greif. He adds “fearless,” noting that the writing partnership of Kitt, 39, and Yorkey, 43, goes back to their college days at Columbia University.
“I think they always go back to that well together,” Greif suggests. (He also says that the longtime friends nurture a serious silly streak.)
“I don’t know people who write for the theater who have bigger hearts, and are so willing to write for emotion,” says David Stone, producer of “Next to Normal,” “If/Then,” and something not by Kitt and Yorkey (but starring Menzel) called “Wicked.” “It doesn’t sound like what you’ve heard before.”
That’s part of what made “Next to Normal” a phenomenon. The age of the characters — parents with kids born not 20 years ago — and the roller-coaster passions of the story made rock the dominant idiom. So did Kitt’s affinity for Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, and Yorkey’s undisguised rock star dreams.
But it oversimplifies to call “Normal” a “rock” musical.
“The theater critic for the Seattle Times described the ‘Next to Normal’ score as Philip Glass meets Jon Bon Jovi,” Yorkey says. “It’s a little crazy, but it’s kind of true.”
“I didn’t want to box myself into writing just rock music,” Kitt says, “because you can try to force it into moments that don’t want it. So if the moment seemed to be leading us down another road, we would go down that road.”
They are slightly coy about the emerging score — and the story — for “If/Then,” which is getting its first look during this stand at the National. (The National has been woefully underused for the past 30 years, but Stone calls it one of the country’s three best out-of-town tryout theaters, along with Boston’s Colonial and San Francisco’s Curran.) Like “Next to Normal,” the new show is their own brainchild, not the kind of cash grab Hollywood knockoff Broadway frequently conceives – though their upcoming projects do include adaptations of the movies “Magic Mike,” “Freaky Friday,” and “The Visitor.”
A pop-rock vein seems to be the baseline again, even if Kitt suggests that the “If/Then” sound will be more broad, more romantic, bigger than “Next to Normal’s” — more orchestral, with strings and horns, and with undertones of the Simon and Garfunkel urban sensibility.
“Brian and I love to write rhythmic songs, songs that have grooves,” Kitt says. “And hopefully we’re writing what feels like a contemporary story. ”
The extraordinarily long gestation of “Next to Normal” makes them both graduates of the school of hard knocks. (“People used to ask me if I have an MFA,” Yorkey says. “I’m like, Yeah – it’s in the Booth Theater.”) At Columbia, Yorkey double-majored in English and religion, and Kitt studied economics. Afterward, Yorkey worked for several years as an associate artistic director at the Village Theatre in his home town outside Seattle, while Kitt stayed in New York as a music director and as the composer of the extremely brief 2006 Broadway musical “High Fidelity.”
Lessons learned on “Next to Normal” include letting go when something’s not working. Two dozen songs have come and gone in “If/Then,” with more changes possible once they see how the show plays in front of audiences. But the duo says writing comes easily, so they’re not afraid to go back to the drawing board.
A case in point is an “If/Then” musical sequence called “A Map of New York.” Two weeks ago, they were on their sixth version of the number.
“We just kept missing it,” Yorkey says. Eventually he asked Kitt to write five tunes he could play with; the first one in the MP3 file Kitt emailed did the trick.
So does music usually come first? Or is it lyrics?
“It’s whoever has the way in,” Kitt says.
Back to that idea of musicals being cool: things are different for a new generation raised on Disney musicals in DVD players, and with “Smash” and “Glee” on TV.
Yorkey says, “Growing up, there were lots of people I was friends with who would come see my musicals, and they’d be like, ‘It was good, man, until everyone started singing. What was that about?’ Now I think there’s a larger audience that will go with that. You can burst into song. People love to talk about how musicals are dying or dead. I think it’s a golden age.”
“And then,” Kitt says, “the Idina Menzels and Anthony Rapps of the world, who I idolized . . . , are suddenly singing songs I wrote? The fact that that’s able to happen makes me feel like I’m in a very good period for musicals.”
music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Tuesday through Dec. 8 at the National Theatre. Call 800-514-3849 or visit www.thenationaldc.com.