Tom Kitt: Helping Green Day meet Broadway
The first time I interviewed Tom Kitt was for "High Fidelity," a show that lasted just 10 days in 2006. We then spoke a few times for "Next to Normal" and "13" and "If/Then." He's a local Westchester talent, and fiercely talented. Here's our chat from 2010, when he collaborated with Green Day for "American Idiot."
Tom Kitt wants Green Day to be happy.
The Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer of "Next to Normal" has helped adapt the punk band's landmark 2004 album, "American Idiot," for the Broadway stage. It opens tonight at the St. James Theater.
Much as "Hair" captured a moment in the life of the Vietnam generation, "American Idiot" captures a moment in the post-9/11, Iraq War generation.
"Green Day leads the way," Kitt says. "The album is so visceral and so important, that someone took it upon themselves to write a political opera the way they did."
Director Michael Mayer and his team — with Armonk's Kitt as music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator — had one meeting, in a Broadway rehearsal hall in June 2008, to convince band members Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool that they were in good hands, theatrically and musically.
"I knew Green Day was going to be attending this first presentation and they hadn't necessarily signed off on it yet," Kitt recalls at the Broadway haunt Angus McIndoe after a recent preview performance at the St. James next door. "This was our first, and maybe only chance to get them on board."
Two months earlier, Mayer had approached Kitt to join the project. "Next to Normal" had ended its run off-Broadway and Mayer and Kitt had just worked on "You May Now Worship Me," Sherie Rene Scott's play with music.
Mayer says Kitt impressed him on that project, which is now titled "Everyday Rapture" and opens at Broadway's American Airlines Theater on April 29.
"I was blown away by his range and his innate theatricality," Mayer says. "He is obviously a superb theater composer, but it was his imaginative relationship to the pop elements in the show that convinced me he was the ideal collaborator for 'American Idiot.' He was the first artist to begin this collaboration with me, and the first one to whom I turned for guidance as the work developed."
Kitt recalls Mayer's "American Idiot" marching orders: "We have 12 people, we have these leads, here's the script and how I've divvied it up. Now go."
Kitt began figuring out different keys and harmonies, taking songs written for a punk trio and expanding them for a band of eight and a cast that now numbers 19.
He treaded carefully at first.
"My first thought process was, 'Obviously there are going to have to be some changes because we have 12 people in the cast including women, who are not on the album.'
"I needed to show Green Day that if what they're after is their album, pretty much up as it is with some little changes, that we can do that. I can be as faithful as they need to be, because at the end of the day, this is their baby and they have to be happy."
Kitt didn't want to go too far too fast.
"I wanted to go slow and make sure they were comfortable. They don't know me and my work. I want them to trust me. "
The story of "American Idiot," as written by Mayer and Armstrong, involves three friends: Johnny (Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr.), Tunny (Stark Sands) and Will (Michael Esper). The slackers are about to set off on an adventure when Will's girlfriend (Mary Faber as Heather) tells him she's pregnant.
Johnny and Tunny set off without Will and the action follows the trio: Will getting stoned on his couch and resenting his life; Johnny falling under the influence of the sinister drug pusher St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent); and Tunny enlisting in the Army and going off to fight in Iraq.
Johnny meets a girl (Rebecca Naomi Jones as Whatsername) and Tunny is injured and meets a nurse (Christina Sajous as "Extraordinary Girl").
The musical opening tonight is not "American Idiot" the album and it's not a Green Day concert.
It includes B-sides that were recorded for "American Idiot," but were only released in Europe; there are also songs from "21st Century Breakdown," the band's latest album.
When Kitt sat down to listen to "American Idiot," "I thought it's so great that someone still makes an album like this. Not just an operatic album, but there's not a weak link. Every song on the album is so beautiful in its own way."
The songs are all here, from the 9-minute-long "Jesus of Suburbia" to "Wake Me Up When September Ends" to "Holiday/Boulevard of Broken Dreams."
Kitt says the first major departure he made from the album was on the show's final song, "Whatsername," in which Johnny looks back to wonder whatever happened to his old girlfriend.
"On the album, it begins with a muted guitar, a beautiful song," Kitt says.
In his arrangement, "the whole first half is piano and cello and then it slams into punk rock in the middle and ends with just the cello. Everyone was excited about it and when Green Day came to that first presentation, that was one of the things that they praised."
Kitt told Mayer it was a good sign.
"They wanted us to go forward but they also really loved parts where we deviated a little bit to tell this new story," Kitt says. "I think we proved to them that we could tell the story, that we're going to do right by it, but that if we have an idea, they can trust us for that, too, to see where we might take it."
The song "Holiday" retains its hard-charging wall of sound start and even some of the backup vocals from the album, but Kitt layered on harmonies for more voices above and below and created counterpoint.
"That's the great thing," he says. "You hear this album that inspires you to start thinking: 'I've got all these voices. How do I take what they wrote and adapt it for these new voices? Where does it go that's appropriate and exciting for this new version?'"
The musical took shape at Berkeley Rep, not far from the band's Oakland home base, so when they were back from tour, Kitt says, they'd stop by rehearsal.
"Billie Joe has worked directly with the guitarists. If there's a certain way he wants something to sound, he's actually gotten on stage with them and showed them how to play it," Kitt says.
Green Day fans might be surprised to hear a cello and violins and plenty of acoustic guitar in "American Idiot" the musical.
"I knew I wanted strings because to me orchestral touches in rock music when they include strings are always really powerful. George Martin and Radiohead were leading my thoughts there," Kitt says. "Strings can really help with storytelling. It's my favorite sound."
Still, this is not about Kitt.
"My goal from the start is that anything I write still feels like Green Day, not like me," he says. "If people suddenly felt that they weren't hearing Green Day anymore, then it would have been a failure."
Mayer says Kitt's contribution is "as distinct as it is inspired."
Whether "American Idiot" joins the handful of noteworthy rock operas — "The Who's Tommy," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Pink Floyd's The Wall" and "Hair," among them — is not Kitt's concern.
"There are plenty of people who will weigh in on what this means," Kitt says.
"All you can feel as a creator is your own inspiration and what it feels like to you. To me, 'American Idiot' the musical sounds like a special and new thing, unlike anything I've ever been part of."
Kitt is clearly aware that he's living a dream.
"For me, it's the baseball metaphor, when you see a rookie in the majors. Like when Derek Jeter first came up and was playing with Mattingly. And I thought 'How cool is it to have a poster of this guy on your wall and then you're in the same infield?'
"I've grown up with Green Day. That was college for me, when that first album came out. I'm pinching myself."