Saturday, February 24, 2018
Stage

Stroke of fate brought writer, composer of 'If/Then' together

TAMPA — Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the writer and composer team, obviously were made for each other.

The pair won a Pulitzer for drama in 2010 for Next to Normal, a musical they created about bipolar disorder. They followed up with If/Then, another musical made from scratch that won a Tony nomination for Best Original Score, plus a nomination for star Idina Menzel.

Now If/Then, a story about choices and the consequences of going one way or the other, is coming to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. It stars Jackie Burns, the Broadway standby for Menzel for both If/Then and Wicked. It also stars Anthony Rapp from the original Broadway cast of RENT and Tamyra Gray from American Idol.

For anyone who has ever wondered, "What would have happened if...?," If/Then might be the story for you. It follows Elizabeth, who has recently returned to New York, down both forks of an innocuous decision — whether to remain in a park with a girlfriend, or to leave with a male friend.

The rest of the action follows parallel tracks, either for Elizabeth or "Beth," a name the girlfriend thought sounded friendlier. While it didn't become a blockbuster, it took on a life of its own with its novel story line and a soundtrack that alternates between reflective and jubilant.

Their partnership began with one of those chance circumstances. They met as students at Columbia University. A friend told Yorkey, a writer and lyricist, that she was dating a talented composer with whom he might want to collaborate.

Yorkey had doubts about the meeting. He was already working with a Broadway-bound composer. Besides, he was a senior, and had an attitude about joining forces with a freshman.

"We didn't really like each other at first," Yorkey, 45, said. "We met in a bar. He had his hat on backwards. He was a frat boy. There were all these sorts of things, and I took a dislike to him."

Kitt remembers feeling self-conscious.

"I was both in awe of and intimidated by Brian," said Kitt, 42. "He was hilarious and everyone obviously loves him, so I wanted to impress him."

They pushed past those initial speed bumps and found chemistry. They stayed in touch while Yorkey went on to develop more than 50 musicals. Kitt, among other things, wrote scores for the Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park and won multiple composing awards for Next to Normal. He also worked with Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in Bring It On, a musical adaptation of the movie.

Early in the making of If/Then, a nudge from a producer made a lasting difference.

The original concept centered on a woman in her early twenties coming to New York as she entered adulthood. The excitement of the city and the simultaneous possibilities of good luck or catastrophe seemed a natural fit. Producer David Stone read the first outline and offered a suggestion.

"What if this woman were older, and sort of had more life behind her?" Stone asked him. "There's more at stake with your choices when you're in your late thirties than when you're in your early twenties, because you've made lots of mistakes already, and you're starting to realize that time is not stretching out forever in front of you.'"

Yorkey and Kitt thought Stone's point made a lot of sense.

"Good, now that we've said that, Idina Menzel is looking for a new musical," Stone told them.

Menzel loved the concept, and Yorkey and Kitt began writing songs for her.

"I wanted to write music that she was going to feel inspired by, that she was going to love to sing," said Kitt. "You want to celebrate the dynamic range, especially that singular belt that she has. But also to pace her. Because basically, she's on stage almost the entire time."

Burns, in the touring version, is living up to expectations and is out of Menzel's shadow, Yorkey said.

"The thing about Jackie is, she has also got this spectacular vocal instrument. It's different from Idina, but it's got that same kind of power."

Another happy circumstance: The woman who introduced Yorkey to Kitt is now Kitt's wife. Tom Kitt and Rita Pietropinto-Kitt have three children.

Yorkey doesn't consider Kitt a cocky frat boy anymore.

"I love him like a brother," Yorkey said. "He has meant everything in my life."

"I can also say that he is my brother too," said Kitt, "and I love him dearly... He has made me a better artist and person."

Reflecting on that meeting in a bar, Kitt sounds almost like one of the songs he scored in If/Then.

"I'm glad it all added up in that way, and often wonder how much had to line up for that all to happen," he said.

Like when clouds open up, Or the stars align, It's a sudden smile...

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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