Inside the Music with Tony Award-winning Broadway Composer & Orchestrator Tom Kitt

Interview with Tom Kitt

Tom Kitt is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning composer, conductor, orchestrator, and musician whose credits include Next to Normal, Bring It On, and American Idiot, among other Broadway hits. He is also the orchestrator and arranger of new Broadway sensation Jagged Little Pill, which was nominated for 15 Tony Awards this year, including Best Orchestrations for Mr. Kitt's incredible contributions.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Tom recently to learn about his musical journey, what is was like to adapt Jagged Little Pill for stage, his dream jukebox musical, and more.

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Interview with Tom Kitt

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Can you tell us a little bit about your musical journey? When did you first develop a passion for music? And how did you get into writing for musicals?

Tom Kitt ("T"): I began studying the piano when I was four. My older brother and sister were playing and I was understanding it. My mother took me to their piano teacher and she said, "I don't normally teach children this young." But when I got on the piano and showed her what I learned on my own, she agreed to take me on. Part of the reason that I was able to play at such an early age is because I have perfect pitch. As I became more familiar with music, I was able to put notes together and hear a progression, or a melody line, and just sit down to play it.

   I went from playing Mozart, Copland, and Beethoven to suddenly playing Ray Charles and Sam & Dave."

I was studying classical piano, and at about the age of 12 I went to a wonderful camp called Camp Alton in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Sadly the camp is no longer, but it was run by a renowned rock journalist named Peter Guralnick. The camp had a really wonderful music program and something called 'Music Night,' which was basically a weekly talent show. At first, I played my classical pieces, but over time friends of mine introduced me to Billy Joel. There was also a band modeled upon the Blues Brothers called The Alton Brothers. A lot of the campers and counselors were wonderful musicians, so I got sort of a crash course in pop and soul music. I went from playing Mozart, Copland, and Beethoven to suddenly playing Ray Charles and Sam & Dave.

That really had a huge effect on me—as did Billy Joel who really spoke to me. I did my classical studies and poured myself into learning all of Billy Joel's music, and then anybody who had piano in their pop music. So, all of the brilliant Roy Bittan piano playing in the E Street Band and, of course, Bruce Springsteen (a huge hero of mine). And The Beatles, Elton John, and so on. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I wanted to be a recording artist.

   I had this dream that I would be playing in a club and someone would walk in from a record label and say 'we're gonna sign that guy to a record contract.'"

I went to college at Columbia—because I wanted to go to school there, but also because my brother and father had gone there, and I wanted to be in New York City to have all the opportunities that New York City offers in the arts. I had this dream that I would be playing in a club and someone would walk in from a record label and say "we're gonna sign that guy to a record contract." Of course, it doesn't always work that way—I should say, it rarely works that way—but I was able to really hone songwriting, and that's where I met my wife, Rita Pietropinto, who introduced me to Brian Yorkey. Brian and Rita were working on a student-written show called the Varsity Show. Rodgers & Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Terrence McNally and many others had been involved with varsity shows, so it's got a really rich history.

Brian and I wrote two shows together and that suddenly made me want to become a writer for musical theater. After school, we decided to stay as a writing team and pursue a career together. We got into the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, which is where we started writing a piece called "Feeling Electric" that became Next to Normal.

That's kind of the cliff notes version of how those early piano moments in my home led me to where I am now.

S: That's incredible, thank you for sharing that. Reflecting back, are there any specific projects that you're most proud of from your career?

T: I'm proud of everything that I've done...they've been all over the map. I think sometimes we look at the trajectory of an artist or their career and just highlight the big successes and say "well that must be the thing they're most proud of." It's definitely true that Next to Normal was a huge success for me in many ways. But it was really after having something that was not a success in High Fidelity. People would say, "well, you got to Broadway!" I looked at it kind of how I imagine a baseball player gets to the majors and then goes 0-4, or has a not-so-eye-popping beginning to their career and gets sent down to the minors. That wasn't my goal. My goal was to stay in the majors. My goal was to have big success.

Next to Normal brought much stability to my career beyond the gratification of a piece that we had poured so many years into—and blood, and sweat, and tears, and heart. A piece that Brian and I never thought would get produced was suddenly on Broadway. There's so much about that that was really a dream come true. And, of course, all the things it has come to mean to people who are fans of the show—speaking about an issue that, at that point, really wasn't a part of the public discourse. It felt like it needed a light to be shined on it so that people would feel comfortable talking about their experience.

   I've been very blessed to have a prolific career and to be invited to partake in great projects, working alongside people that I can truly learn from and be inspired by.

Looking at the things that I've done: High Fidelity, Next to Normal, Bring It On, Jagged Little Pill, Head over Heels, SpongeBob, Superhero, Almost Famous, Dave, Everyday Rapture, American Idiot. I look at those credits and I just feel so lucky and they're all trying to do something to me. That's really important and artful and challenging. I've been very blessed to have a prolific career and to be invited to partake in great projects, working alongside people that I can truly learn from and be inspired by. I think that's what you want in a career. You want to be able to look back and say "Wow, how did I get to that stage? How lucky I was to be working among those great artists."

I wrote a song for the Columbia University commencement that was virtual back in May that Ben Platt sang called, "Oh, Columbia." It was at a time when I was really struggling with how to create in this moment. It's a song that meant a lot to so many people when they couldn't celebrate in the way that they needed to. I'm really proud of that. And that was just one song.

I also write songs for the Ronald McDonald House through a program called 'Songs in the Key of Me' with the Broadway Inspirational Voices. I've met two extraordinary young kids and gotten to know them and their families and written songs about them, inspired by them. What a wonderful gift that I'm able to do that and be a part of that. And being a part of this wonderful organization MUSE (Musicians United for Social Equity), a very important organization that's trying to do something really impactful during this time.

And two things that haven't happened yet due to the pandemic. Flying Over Sunset, which is an original musical based on historical characters and actual experiences that these figures had experimenting with LSD in the 1950s. And then The Visitor, which is based on Tom McCarthy's beautiful film from 2007.

   I think there was a reason Jagged Little Pill needed to be in the world today in this theatrical version.

I just keep looking around the world as an artist, saying, "How can I inspire? How can I move the needle? How can I be a part of change that needs to happen in the world?" By nature, as artists, we want to be active—and that will take you right to Jagged Little Pill, which is how Alanis Morissette has been as an artist. She's been someone who has invigorated us. She's challenged us. She sings about the human condition and wants to teach us as she learns about herself. It's really extraordinary what she creates and how we are so lucky to be able to be a part of that world. I think there was a reason Jagged Little Pill needed to be in the world today in this theatrical version, 25 years after it dropped. The album was a force of nature and to be part of a new version of Jagged Little Pill that equally feels like a force of nature, makes me feel that I'm on the right road.

S: It's great to be able to look back and see all sorts of milestones. That it's not one thing or another that defined your career, but the amalgamation of everything. You named a long list of projects you've worked on. Some of those obviously being original material, but you've also had the privilege to adapt some really incredible existing works. What are the different challenges with one approach versus the other?

T: There are a number of different things that you can be doing in musical theater. There's the original musical that's not based on anything; there's the original musical that's based on some kind of history; there's the adaptation of a story, play, movie, or book that you're creating original songs for; and there's the adaptation of what we call a catalog, or a collection of songs, whether that's an album or even maybe a film that had already had songs attached to it.

What I would first say is they all come with their own set of challenges because a musical in itself is challenging. If I'm writing an original musical that's not based on anything, I am going by what the tone of the story and the dramatic moment in the characters are telling me. Before I've even written anything, I think, "What do I want this score to feel like? What do I want the musical experience of a theatergoer to be?"

Flying Over Sunset is set in the world in the 1950s. But, set in this experimental world of the drug, it is going to morph. It's going to have a traditional quality to it, but nothing is traditional about the musical, so I wanted to afford myself the chance to be experimental, to really look back at what sort of instrumentation is going to speak to the world. To feel like it's both part of that world, but also existing on a new plane because of the storytelling. That was a really wonderful road to go down because I was able to go back to some of my classical training and be immersed in those composers and the tonality of things that I was studying years ago. I had gotten away from classical music, but then in my 20s I discovered a wonderful teacher named Joel Rosen who was a brilliant concert pianist and was really on the circuit. I didn't realize how much hard living there was in the world of classical piano. He introduced me to Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Gershwin and Ravel, and that sort of modern classical music was something I hadn't been as involved with. It really spoke to me in terms of the theatricality of it. You could draw lines to composers that I was really being inspired by in the musical theater world. That was a huge experience for me.

If you look at Next to Normal, Brian and I knew we wanted rock music to be a major component, but we weren't going to be limited by that. We were going to look at the dramatic moment and the texture and see what was going to speak to that. We were coming off of experiencing Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tommy, and Rent was in the world. All hugely inspirational pieces for us, so we were being led by those impulses. We wanted to make it into our own hybrid and really serve the story of Next to Normal.

If you look at something like Almost Famous, which is an adaptation of a specific world, there are some pre-existing songs in that score. That was a great gift because, alongside Cameron Crowe, I got to write new songs for that period...the early 1970s where there were so many bands and singer-songwriters. I felt an enormous privilege to get to write in that style and in that period. I hoped you would hear a song and wonder, "is that from the period, or was it newly-written for the show?"

   The challenge becomes, how do you honor the iconic, brilliant nature of what exists, but also allow yourself the freedom to adapt?

Then you look at something like Jagged Little Pill or American Idiot, where you're taking an album and creating a new theatrical adaptation. The challenge becomes, how do you honor the iconic, brilliant nature of what exists, but also allow yourself the freedom to adapt, to come up with new arrangements and orchestrations? You have different characters and voice types singing these songs now. Some may include an ensemble, some are solo moments. There's a lot to discover in the rehearsal room, and how choreography, direction, and design influence your work. That's a wonderful challenge.

When I did American Idiot, I hadn't really met many rock stars, or even been in a room with them. But, to this day, it couldn't happen enough for me! I'm someone who is just such a fan. I remember when Green Day first walked in the door. I was literally freaking out, because I was in the same room with them and they're also about to do my work. I proceeded very carefully, because I wanted them to trust me and know that whatever they were after—whether it's to just put the album up and feel what that is, or if we wanted to look at some things and think how they might change a bit in terms of the arrangement. I didn't want to go too fast. I wanted them to be comfortable with the process. one of the first things I did was the last song in American Idiot, called "Whatsername," which I stripped down to just piano and strings. That was something they really loved because at the end of this big homecoming sequence—which is about 9 minutes long and is just a huge wall of sound—I felt like the story had to come down and then build back up for what is sort of the epilog of the piece. That again was storytelling leading the way. They really appreciated that.

I would use the example of George Martin (because I know Billie Joe Armstrong is also such a huge fan of his) and the arrangements and orchestrations that he brought to The Beatles. There's never any question that those are Beatles songs, but I think what George Martin added to the mix was hugely important, and he really did feel like a collaborator with the band. That's why I wanted to feel like a collaborator who was always going to give way to whatever the band was going to need and feel was justifying their music and honoring it. But at the same time asking questions coming from the theatrical point of view. "21 Guns" is another example of something that was stripped down and began soft and more classical, and then found its way back to what you recognize when you listen to the album.

There was a lot of that kind of discovery with Jagged Little Pill as well. I can't say enough about how collaborative Alanis Morissette has been throughout the process. She was in the room with us asking questions, creating. And also the privilege of getting two new songs for the show so I could really have a blank palette when I was figuring out arrangement and orchestrations. That was really exciting. It's striking the balance of a new piece of theater and being open to what discoveries that will lead to, but also making sure that the band or artist is happy.

S: That's awesome. Tell us more about Jagged Little Pill and how you came to work on that project?

T: My good friend Vivek Tiwary, who is one of our lead producers on Jagged Little Pill, and I have known each other since the mid to late 90s. We had a mutual friend. As I said, I had these singer-songwriter dreams of signing a record deal and Vivek was working at Mercury Records. Of course, anybody who's working at a record label, your friend will say "I've got a buddy working at a record label, you should talk to him." And so we were introduced to one another and we hit it off immediately. He's one of the smartest, most dynamic, driven people I've ever met. And he's got the most beautiful heart. He was hugely helpful to me, giving me advice. I actually joined the advisory board of an organization that he formed called Star Polish, which provided content online for new bands and artists to basically learn about how you can promote yourself and try to get a record label. Or, as things were shifting the music industry, whatever was going on that you may want to aspire to in music.

   When a force of nature enters the world and you feel things shift, you want to be a part of it in whatever way you can.

So, when I was doing American Idiot, I invited Vivek to come to a workshop, and he came on board as a producer. He asked me to dinner and pitched me Jagged Little Pill. He asked if I would be interested in coming on board. I immediately said yes, because I knew that album well and I’m a huge fan, and the album really had an effect on me. I mean, when a force of nature enters the world and you feel things shift, you want to be a part of it in whatever way you can. Whether it is just as an artist who is being influenced by it, or, luckily for me, someone who can become a part of its story.

I immediately went home that night and listened to it. The characters just jumped out of those songs to me in a whole new way. Like any musical, there are challenges, and we had to assemble a team; Vivek and I had to get everyone on the same page to begin working in collaboration. I had worked with Diablo Cody in 2011 on a project she's just so wonderful. We had the best time collaborating. So, when the idea of Diablo writing the book for this came up, I jumped at the chance to email her and see if she might join us—thankfully she did! And of course Diane Paulus, who is a longtime friend I've known since Columbia. That was also a dream come true to finally get to collaborate with Diane on something. You can just go down the list to all of our brilliant collaborators or brilliant choreographers. And, of course, Alanis and Glen Ballard, who I can't say enough about how open they both were. They really championed the piece from the beginning. The first time I met Glen was the opening night at ART. He sat behind me, so I was very nervous! I kept looking back just to make sure, and he was so sweet. Another hero of mine. He wrote me a beautiful note a couple weeks later. Going back again to having those goosebumps being in a room with rock stars, and now suddenly for it to be happening more often. It never gets old, you just feel so lucky!

That was how it began. It really went fast from the moment of our first reading in, I think, the spring of 2017 to being in production at ART a year later. That says so much about what Diablo was able to crack in the book and how people responded to this story. And the leadership, how Diane just kept us on schedule and inspired us and kept pushing us to discover because the piece just felt urgent. It needed to be in the world. I'm so grateful that we moved so quickly, especially now to be in this pandemic and to have opened on Broadway three months before the shutdown. I feel very sad about that, but I also feel lucky that we've established ourselves and that the cast album is out in the world. I feel really great about Jagged Little Pill coming back into the world. And to make this with my friend always look back to a dinner like that and think how it set this all in motion. How lucky that dinner happened for me.

   Jagged Little Pill, it's already historical. It's something that you hope you can push forward, but you don't want to mess with it in any way.

And again, I can't say enough about how easy and inspiring it was working with Alanis and Glen, and I don't take it for granted having their support. When I read something that they've said about my work that's so complementary, it all really goes to my heart, and I'm just grateful to them for sharing those feelings and for trusting me with their brilliant work. Because again, Jagged Little Pill, it's already historical. It's something that you hope you can push forward, but you don't want to mess with it in any way. And so you need the trust to say "OK, this is my baby. I'm now going to give this to you to let you explore and see what this new version will be." I wanted to really reward that trust.

S: Well, we love Jagged Little Pill. And we spoke with Glen recently who was praising the musical in terms of just how much it delighted him. Is there a particular number or moment in the musical that stands out to you?

T: That's a tough question because there are so many. I would say "You Oughta Know" first, just because that's the big, big challenge. That's the song that everyone is saying, "how are you going to pull that one off with what that song has meant in the world?" And we hit a home run with it, the audience goes bonkers. It's such a brilliantly set up dramatic moment. Diablo wrote to it so perfectly. And then Larbi and Diane with the staging of it, the brilliant lighting, just everything. All the designers just really brought their A-game to that moment as they did the whole musical.

S: With an iconic album like that, every song is almost a high point in a sense. Even the new material. On the sheet music side, "Smiling" and "You Oughta Know" are two numbers that people want to learn to play and express themselves.

T: I love that, because both "Smiling" and "Predator" came to me as piano demos and I really wanted to retain that. Especially because in theater, we love to buy the vocal selections. So, how great that these two songs came as pianistic arrangements. Because there was no earlier version, I loved the fact that I had this sort of blank page. And the great thing about "Smiling" is that it's this beautiful song, beautifully performed, beautifully realized. And then what it is in the theater...this whole sequence that's so brilliantly staged in reverse. I always look forward to that moment. That's the thing that theater gives you. The visual. The thing that we experience in time, in person. To think that we're missing so much right now, but I think those are the moments that really jump out at me because of what we love about theaters, how collaborative it is. I can go create an arrangement and bring it in, but it's not going to work if it doesn't serve the story and the staging. So, that part of the process where we go back and forth and I get questions asked about "can you include this person?", or "what if this person's thing is here?", or "can you think about this part of the arrangement doing this instead of what it's doing?" I love all that because we all work together to make it really seamless and perfect and undeniable.

S: That's great. American Idiot and Jagged Little Pill are both musicals adapted from pop albums. If you could do it again with any album of your choice, what would it be?

T: Wow, that's a really great question! Of course, you think first "I love that album, I have to work on that album," but you really have to weigh what that album already is in the world, and can theatrical exploration enhance it? Can it take it to a different place and be alongside that album? The first thing that comes to mind is Born to Run—it’s such a majestic album, and you have these great theatrical songs on it. Just the idea of "Jungleland," a nine-minute, episodic, beautiful composition. That whole album has rich characters, rich story-telling. And the fact that Bruce Springsteen went through so much to make it. You can hear all of the inspiration and the passion to make that album in each moment. I think, because it's so symphonic, there’s a lot you can do theatrically in terms of orchestration and arrangements. To take something like that, to find a story and find the theatricality of it, would be quite a thrill.

   Born to Run—it's such a majestic album, and you have these great theatrical songs on take something like that, to find a story and find the theatricality of it, would be quite a thrill.

S: We'd love to see that one day! Until then, is there anything else on the docket that we have to look forward to?

T: The big things are everything that's on pause: Flying Over Sunset, The Visitor, and Almost Famous. Those are the things that happened leading up to the shutdown, so I'm looking forward to getting back to work on those. But also Dave, which we had done at Arena Stage. But with everything that's happened politically this year, there'll be a lot of work to do on that, I imagine! I also have a song cycle I'm working on which is being written with my fellow artists. They're trusting me with their testimonials and things they're feeling about the current moment. We're writing songs together based on that. That's something I'm very proud of that I'm working on right now.

And then, sort of circling back to the singer-songwriter dreams that I've always had, I was recently signed to a recording contract with Sony Masterworks. So, I'm actually going to get a chance to record a Tom Kitt album. Obviously, I had very luckily gone to Broadway, which was one of those big dreams that you have when you're a kid. And now having an album of my own would be another one.

S: That all sounds very exciting and we wish you the best of luck. Thank you so much for your time today, Tom.

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