Tom Kitt remembers seeing punk-pop group Green Day for the first time. He was a student at New York's Columbia University in the '90s and saw them in concert on MTV.
"I just knew they were special," he says over a lunch interview in Manhattan recently. "They were charismatic. They were raw. They were melodic. And they got thousands of people to go crazy. They were writing evocative, powerful songs in whatever style they wanted and suddenly, they were The Beatles."
Kitt, the composer of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Next to Normal," found himself five years ago being asked to adapt and arrange Green Day's seminal rock opera album, "American Idiot," for the stage. The recording sold more than 12 million copies and included the hit and title song "Boulevard of Broken Dreams". In 2005, it won a Grammy for best rock album.
The result was an exciting Tony Award-nominated Broadway production in 2010 — sometimes with Green Day's frontman Billie Joe Armstrong stepping into the show — whose national tour will play the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford for a one-week run starting Tuesday, Feb. 26.
The answer to the invitation from director Michael Mayer, who staged the Tony Award-winning "Spring Awakening," to orchestrate and arrange the music for the stage "was a no-brainer for me. The music spoke to me from the first moment I heard it. Not to say that I knew how it would work but I knew the combination of the music and message — and the fact that it was a throw-back album to the classic conceptual albums that I grew up admiring, like 'Tommy,' 'The Wall' and 'The River' — would make a powerful evening. I didn't even think of Broadway. I just wanted to work on this material and turn it into a piece of theater."
The show's book, shaped by Armstrong and Mayer, tells the coming of age story of three boyhood friends of working class, suburban backgrounds, living but lost in the post 9/11 Bush era.
But then it came time to present his adaptation to the band, which also includes Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool.
"I want to show them that this is going to be an adaptation and that the story may take us in different musical directions because now we have a cast and female singers and things we have to do for story-telling purposes."
"The biggest departure was the song 'Whatsername' which is the last song on the album. We didn't know what to do there for the last song of the show and we needed to make it work, though we weren't trying to write an '11 o'clock number,' [a show biz reference to the climactic song at the end of a musical].
"I was up at Goodspeed Musicals [arranging the music for another musical,'13'] and I was very sick with a fever. Maybe I was delusional but I called Michael from a supermarket and told him about an idea that struck me about turning the song into a piano-string arrangement for the first half and then whoosh, going into a wall of sound because the lead character needed to be alone and the music in the beginning gave him that space.
"I grew up obsessed with the use of strings in pop music by The Beatles, Elton John, Prince and U2. Those songs are very evocative and they feel like a natural part of the rock sound."
And the Green Day reaction in their 2008 presentation to the band ?
" I can't say enough about how supportive and welcoming they were. And now one of the most important musical relationships I have is with them."
Kitt also worked on the band's recording of "21st Century Breakdown" and "Uno, Dos, tre."
New Kitt-Yorkey Show
Kitt at 39 is part of a new generational wave of composers infusing Broadway with rock and pop elements — if not full scores. Kitt's shows included "Next to Normal," "High Fidelity," his arrangements and musical direction for "American Idiot" and this season's "Bring It On" which he composed with Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights").
"The great thing about the American musical right now is that there are so many ideas and so many people producing and working in the art form in so many different ways. 'Book of Mormon' is edgy in its own way but you don't put that on the same musical style as 'American Idiot' or 'Spring Awakening.' And coming up this season you have a range in genres from 'Matilda' to [Cyndi Lauper's] 'Kinky Boots.' "
Kitt says creators are more free now to find stories in "unexpected and even dark places" and know that people will come see it. For me, [2009's] 'Next to Normal' [about a bipolar mother and the effects it is having on her family] gave me some confidence. You have to be ballsy, but also have some fear, too, because something has to spark a challenge in you that will make you do good work and prove that you belong."
He and frequent collaborator Yorkey are working on a new original musical that he is developing with his "Next to Normal" collaborators producer by David Stone and director Michael Greif. "Like 'Next to Normal,' it's a human story that I'm very inspired to tell,' he says, declining to go in any detail of the show that's going through a series of private readings though Internet reports say Idina Menzel is involved.
In 2010, Kitt and Yorkey's musical "In Your Eyes" workshopped at the Village Theatre's Festival of New Musicals in Issaquah, Washington (where "Next to Normal" was first developed). The show centers on a high school lock-down when a plot of gun violence is suspected and students grapple with the situation.
Kitt also did the arrangements to the 2012 film, "Pitch Perfect" about a cappella groups. In development are film musicals, one set in a theater camp and another an adaptation of the "Sweet Valley High" young adult books, with Diablo Cody ("Juno") writing the screenplay.
Kitt and Yorkey also will be honored March 1 as part of the prestigious "American Songbook" series in New York. This spring he has also written underscoring for two Broadway plays: a revival of "Orphans" and "The Madrid" starring Edie Falco.
Billy Joel Encounter
Kitt grew up until he was 13 in Port Washington, Long Island, and then Bedford, N.Y., in wanting to be Billy Joel, Bruce Springstein and Stephen Sondheim. He was an economic major at Columbia — his father is an economist — though he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do after college. That is, until he met classmate Yorkey and they began writing music together.
One memorable moment in college came when Billy Joel was visiting the university for a talk and Kitt joked with his girlfriend — now his wife, Rita Pietropinto — that he was going to ask Joel if he could jam with him.
"And she said, 'You should!'' And suddenly there was all this pressure on me. So when it came time for questions from the audience, I raised my hand and said: 'I have two questions: What advice would you have to aspiring singer-songwriters?' I told him that if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be a musician. And then I said, ' And could I do a song with you?' And he said yes and I got up from my seat and we played 'New York State of Mind,' singing back and forth. It felt like I died and went to heaven because I'm suddenly on the same song with him."
He's also stayed friends with Green Day's Armstrong and his wife, Adrian. "You become a family in creating a show. It's a very protective process and you go to very emotional places, developing strong bonds. We continue to be in each other's lives in important ways. I continue to marvel at [the band's] sound and range and how they continue to reinvent what they want to do.
"I think Billy definitely found a huge love of theater in the process of doing 'American Idiot. I'd be shocked if he didn't return to the theater. He's floated some idea already of what he wants to do. What I think he should do is write something especially for the theater and go through that whole process. I'd like to see him write that 11 o'clock number in the lobby of the theater the day before your first preview "
AMERICAN IDIOT plays Feb. 26 through March 3. at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $75. Information: 860-987-5900 and www.bushnell.org.
GREEN DAY plays Mohegan Sun, 1 Mohegan Blvd., Uncasville, on April 6 at 8 p.m. Information: 888-226-7711 x27163.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times