Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey had no idea they would win a Tony Award for their work on Next To Normal. They were shocked when they beat out legends Elton John and Dolly Parton for Best Original Score. Being that John's Billy Elliot took home ten Tonys that night, it was no surprise they thought he had it in the bag. They were wrong.
"To even be put in the same category was a victory in itself, never mind people feeling that they wanted to honor us," says Kitt. "It meant everything, and then for Elton John to have said what he said to us blew us both away." John congratulated the pair during his own acceptance speech and said he hoped they stayed together to write musicals for years to come.
Not simply a rock musical sensation, Next to Normal is a groundbreaking show about bipolar disorder and its devastating effects on a family whose matriarch is stricken with the disease. In a star-making turn, Alice Ripley (a new Tony winner herself) plays a grieving mother who is battling some major demons. The freshly minted Tony-winning team of writer Yorkey and composer Kitt has brought her journey to the stage in both somber and uplifting ways.
The diverse musical tunes, everything from frenetic rock songs to singalong musical theatre pieces, help express the friction that threatens to tear this family apart. During the evolution of Next to Normal, Kitt and Yorkey met many people with bipolar disorder who shared their stories with them. "We always took the subject matter very seriously," explains Kitt. "We needed to be true to what people experience, and we wanted to honor the people who struggle with mental illness."
"I think most of us know what it's like to have moods overtake you, so it is a matter of extension [to imagine] what it's like to have no control over that," says Yorkey. "In that sense, writing about the frightening power that the mind has over you and how we don't completely understand how it works is something that everyone can get inside."
Next to Normal began life as a ten-minute final project for the duo's first year at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, inspired by a news piece Yorkey saw on electroshock therapy, which he didn't know still existed. Over the last ten years the show has grown and morphed in different ways, debuting at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005 and catching the eye of Wicked producer David Stone, whom they applaud for his long-term support. "This man opened up a musical about mental illness on Broadway in the middle of a recession," notes Yorkey. "It's pretty remarkable."
Beyond the inspiration the show has given its audiences and creators, Next to Normal represents a dream come true for both men, and a "full circle moment" for the 35-year-old Kitt, who always wanted its star to sing songs he was involved with. "I accompanied Alice Ripley when I was 24 on a Christmas song, and I just remember thinking how lucky I would be to get to work with her someday, so this is a thrill," he beams. "She's incredible."