Tom Kitt
(© Tristan Fuge)
Tom Kitt
(© Tristan Fuge)
A rock musical about mental illness and shock therapy may sound like a hard sell, but composer Tom Kitt and book writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal, currently performing at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage, treats its heavy subject matter with a good deal of empathy. "It's a difficult story, but a human one," says Kitt. "We never want people to think it's a downer; we want them to walk out with a sense of uplift."

The tuner first debuted as Feeling Electric at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and then made its Off-Broadway premiere at New York's Second Stage this past spring. That production's director, Michael Greif, and cast members Alice Ripley, Aaron Tveit, Adam Chanler-Berat, and Jennifer Damiano are all returning for the Arena run, joined by former Jersey Boys star J. Robert Spencer and Louis Hobson. However, this is not simply a remount of the New York staging. Kitt and Yorkey have made substantial changes to the musical, including getting rid of what was once the title song, "Feeling Electric," and penning several new ones. Kitt recently spoke with TheaterMania about the show.

THEATERMANIA: Can you talk about the reasons for the changes you've made to the musical for the Arena Stage production?
TOM KITT: There was a real sense after Second Stage that our work wasn't done, and everybody felt like if this was going to go out into the world and if we have the opportunity to make it better, we should do that. I think the process of looking at the show and seeing what we wanted to change actually started at Second Stage. With a week left in the run, we cut a fairly important number in the first act, and it was incredible to see the way the show played when that song was cut. The core story is still the same, but we looked at the beats we felt were missing, in terms of some of the characters' journeys. We thought we could write some better songs than the ones that were already there and so swapped out a few numbers.

TM: How many new songs are there?
TK: I guess about five or six. Some of them are replacements, some of them are for new moments. A lot of the songs have undergone minor alterations, adding a section, cutting a section. We like the piece when it's singing, when music is telling the story. So we've tried to take some of the dialogue scenes and put them more into music.

J. Robert Spencer and Alice Ripley in Next to Normal
(© Joan Marcus)
J. Robert Spencer and Alice Ripley in Next to Normal
(© Joan Marcus)
TM: Can you talk about how this project originated?
TK: Brian and I met at Columbia College as undergrads, and we wanted to continue to work together. We started this piece at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Brian had been watching the news and heard some of the statistics about shock therapy. He presented me with this idea about a woman who underwent shock therapy and the reasons behind it. We were looking to think a little outside the box, and there were a lot of people right from the beginning that were really supportive and moved by the material, as well as people who thought we were nuts for attempting it.

TM: One of things that struck me about the show was how balanced it seemed in regards to the medical profession.
TK: It was very important to us to get the medicine right in the show. We have a few psychiatrists and doctors who read the script and give us notes. It was never Brian or my intent to take any sort of position. What I love about theater is you go see something, and you draw your own conclusions based on your own experiences. People may find some things anti-medicine or pro-medicine, but those we've talked to in the medical community found it to their liking, which I found very interesting.

TM: Can you talk about your composition process for this musical?
TK: Next to Normal is a piece I've always found easy to write material for. I'm very much inspired by it, and if I'm writing music to Brian's lyrics, they take me to a very specific place and the music kind of pours out. Certainly when you go back and look at it, I am of my influences, as anybody is. But what I'm really trying to do is create the best dramatic music for the moment. For example, in "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," the song has a sort of odd meter. Natalie [the main character's daughter] is kind of shooting from the hip and it's the first time she's been able to voice this frustration and anger.

TM: Any chance of a CD after the Arena run?
TK: That's what I'm hoping. We have incredible producers on the show that have told us their plan is to record a CD. But I think that we want the CD to be the best representation of the finished work, so it wouldn't have made sense to do before this production.