Conversation: Pulitzer Prize Winners in Drama, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey of ‘Next to Normal’
Bipolar disorder and the emotional toll mental illness takes on a family are not standard fare for Broadway musicals, let alone Broadway hits. But that is the subject of “Next to Normal” which has managed to draw both commercial and critical success. On Monday it earned another honor: It was named winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making it just the eighth musical in history to receive that award.
“Next to Normal” chronicles the troubled life of Diana Goodman (played by Alice Ripley), as she struggles to balance the necessity of psychological treatment while dealing with the significant side effects of taking medication, trying to come to terms with the impact it has on her identity, and facing the life-threatening risks of refusing treatment. Critics have generally praised the tone of the show for striking a nuanced view, but a few writers thought the creators were ultimately too discouraging about treatment.
Though now turning a profit and set to begin a 36-week national tour this fall, the show took an unusual path to Broadway. It began almost a decade ago as a class project at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop where co-creators Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt wrote a 10-minute musical about electroconvulsive therapy. Eventually, it was developed into a full-scale musical, played off-Broadway, and went through a significant overhaul at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. before returning to New York. It won three Tonys last year, including one for best actress and one for best original score, which largely takes the form of a rock opera mixed with other musical genres.
The decision to award it the Pulitzer led to a small dust-up in the theater world this week. Board members overruled the jury and the jury’s chair, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty, accused the board of “geographical myopia” and of picking winners that are less experimental or innovative than suggestions from the jury. On Wednesday, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley waded into the controversy as well.
This week, as part of our series of conversations with Pulitzer winners, Art Beat caught up with Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. I talked to them by phone:
Watch a clip from “Next to Normal”:
Full transcript after the jump.
MURREY JACOBSON: Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt are the co-creators of the musical Next to Normal, which won the Pulitzer prize for drama on Monday. Brian wrote the books and lyrics, Tom wrote the music. Congratulations to both of you on winning the Pulitzer Prize thanks for joining us. Tell what this has meant for you and for the show?
BRIAN YORKEY: Even though it’s been 24 hours it’s still a little hard to know exactly what to say about it. I mean I think it’s a higher honor than either Tom or I ever expected. Certainly with this show, which has been sort of an unlikely show for its whole life and as far as what it does for the show, I think that it really does say that this show that’s worth seeing and that was worth all the great effort that it took on the part of many, many people to make it happen. It’s a real honor.
TOM KITT: Yeah I agree with everything Brian said. It’s really a dream come true you know just being able to come back to New York after Second Stage and Arena and watch it on Broadway and it’s as meaningful as anything that’s ever happened to me.
MURREY JACOBSON: Brian I’d like to go back to the origins of the show. Where did you get the original idea for this story when it began?
BRIAN YORKEY: Well, I’m always a little embarrassed to admit this, but Tom and I were in the BMI Musical Theater Writer’s Workshop here in New York and needed something to write about for our final project. We were looking for something a little different and I saw a television news report on electro convulsive therapy, which is commonly known as shock therapy of course and at the time I didn’t know that it was still practiced and then I’ve come to learn much more about it but at the time it just sort of surprised me and really got me sort of thinking about the kind of person who would have to have that sort of treatment in their lives. And so I called up Tom and I said what about a musical about a woman who has struggled with depression for her whole life and has to turn to ECT. Tom said, “Let’s give it a try,” and off we went.
MURREY JACOBSON: And David Stone is the producer?
BRIAN YORKEY: Yeah he produced a little show called “Wicked.”
MURREY JACOBSON: Oh yeah, I heard that show made some money.
BRIAN YORKEY: Yeah, I think it’s done ok. And one of the best things that it did it let him pursue other things and maybe some unlikely things and our show being one of them.
MURREY JACOBSON: Tom, maybe you could speak to this about the decision to make this a musical. I mean, there has obviously been a lot of art about the impact of mental illness, I don’t think there has been a lot musicals about it. So did you feel it was a little bit of a risk to tell this story as a musical? I mean, the genre is often viewed as cheesy, so tell us about that.
TOM KITT: I didn’t think about the risk factor just because I was so moved by the subject matter when Brian and I started working on it. It was definitely a challenge, and as a writer that’s the kind of piece you want to be involved with. I think that this is a subject matter that affects most people. We have very heightened emotions about mental illness. Music in theater is meant to convey those heightened emotions. The saying goes that you sing about something in a musical when emotion becomes so great that you have to. So I felt that a story like this, filled with many heightened emotions, was a natural fit to sing and the only thing was to make sure that I wrote appropriate music for each dramatic moment in the show and not try to over think it but just go naturally where I feel like Brian’s writing is taking the music. And he really led the way in that beautifully.
MURREY JACOBSON: Brian, help us understand what you have been helping people take away from the show, particularly on this whole question of treatment. On the one hand, it shows the character Diana suffering when she doesn’t take her medications. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem to really react well and does reject the electroshock treatments. So what kind of balance were you hoping viewers would take away from it? Or the audience?
BRIAN YORKEY: I think that’s a great question. We were hoping — and it took us awhile to find this balance — we were hoping to portray, in as truthful away as we could, the difficulty in treating something like bipolar disorder or depression. We definitely wanted to speak to — because we knew from people who were close to us — the plusses and minuses of medication. There are many medications which are very powerful and very successful in treating many of the symptoms of bipolar and of depression. We really live in a miraculous age in that sense. But medications as many do come with side effects and they come with tradeoffs and Diana is not the first character fictional or otherwise to question whether the side effects that come with medication are worth the benefits. We didn’t want to take a stand one way or the other. There are people who think we have taken a stand one way or the other. Luckily, I think they are about an equal number of people who think we think one thing as who think we think another thing so hopefully that means we’ve done a decent job of being balanced.
MURREY JACOBSON: Tom, anything you want to add to that?
TOM KITT: What I’ve noticed is that when Brian and I started working on this you could feel the difficulty in bringing a subject matter like this to any sort of art form and there is a certain stigma that comes with discussing mental illness. What’s been most gratifying I think is to watch this subject matter be put into a mainstream art form where people can come and have an experience in the theater.
MURREY JACOBSON: As you guys know, there has been a touch of controversy about the award itself, since the Pulitzer board seemed to overrule its own jury of critics and artists. And we’ve seen the quotes from the jury chairman saying he thinks the board suffers from “geographical myopia, a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away.” I was wondering if you guys had any reaction to that?
BRIAN YORKEY: Well, I think with an award that is as important and as prestigious as the Pulitzer there is naturally going to be controversy. And there should be, because I think part of the reason for these awards is to get dialog started about shows and about books and about reports. And I think that the fact that there is a dialog about this is really exciting. I don’t think either Tom or I could presume to speak to the motivations of the committee or the board. We’re just pleased that there was recognition for all of these great works and all very deserving works. The only thing I would say is that our show is up on Broadway. It was developed in Issaquah, Washington. It was developed in Washington, D.C. It’s been around the country. So it may be in New York at the moment, but it certainly didn’t start there.
MURREY JACOBSON: Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, thanks again for joining us and congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize.
TOM KITT: Thank you very much.
BRIAN YORKEY: Thanks for having us.