If you’ve seen a musical — or, well, anything involving music onstage or onscreen — in the past decade or so, chances are high that Tom Kitt had something to do with it.
The composer, lyricist, musical director, music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator has inhabited one or more of those roles for projects as diverse as Grease: Live!, the Pitch Perfect films (yes, you have him to thank for the “riff-off”), the musical adaptations of Bring It On, SpongeBob SquarePants, Jagged Little Pill and American Idiot. In 2009, he won a Tony Award for his score for the musical Next to Normal, which in 2010 also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and though he’s comfortable writing in any number of idioms, he’s become especially well known since then for his keen understanding of how to organically integrate pop and rock sounds into a theater setting.
Right now, Kitt is, as usual, juggling multiple high-profile projects. Most notably, he wrote the score and, with Cameron Crowe, co-wrote the lyrics for the new musical adaptation of Crowe’s beloved film Almost Famous, which just opened on Broadway. He’s brought his vocal arranging expertise to the buzzy new dance musical Only Gold (playing off-Broadway at MCC Theater through Nov. 27) featuring the music of singer-songwriter Kate Nash. And in between, he managed to write a showstopper for a true icon — Elmo — in the new off-Broadway Sesame Street the Musical.
Kitt describes juggling his myriad projects with trademark calm. “Theater is the ultimate collaborative art form,” he says. “You’re always serving many other visions — it’s just a question of what you’re bringing to the project. As long as you’re in an exciting creative world, these [different] things can feed one another, and I don’t feel overwhelmed in any way.” Having worked on shows that have run the gamut of Broadway success, he has a healthy sense of the business’ realities, and has learned how to keep his creative priorities straight. “What’s most important is I’m expressing myself in ways that feel profound and exciting to me,” Kitt says. “I came into this art form so inspired by all the people currently writing, the legends who wrote for the theater. I wanted to be part of that history and hopefully have people say that Tom Kitt musicals have been a part of their life in important ways.”
Though Kitt studied economics in college he dreamed of becoming a singer-songwriter and was heavily influenced by classic 1970s albums like Born to Run, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Piano Man —touchstones that came in handy for the moment in which Almost Famous takes place. “I get to now live in that sensibility as a composer and arranger,” Kitt says. The Almost Famous score is mostly Kitt’s original music but does incorporate iconic songs from the movie like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and Kitt’s job, in part, was “to make it feel like one voice, one score.”
While it may be Crowe’s first time as a Broadway lyricist, Kitt describes him as a natural. “Cameron already is a poet, a lyricist, just in terms of what he’s put into the world,” Kitt says, adding that the lines from Crowe’s movies are themselves “earworms.” As a writing team, “we found our groove right away,” Kitt continues. Crowe would send Kitt the starting thoughts for a song in various forms, and Kitt would start composing from there, with the two “batting it back and forth ‘til we both felt like we were saying what we wanted to say.”
Starting with Next to Normal, and in the years since, Kitt says, he’s learned that while pop music often adheres to a defined form, in theater a pop song needs to serve the plot above all, providing the audience with new information. “It’s about really keeping yourself honest and not just saying, ‘I’m gonna write a pop song and It’s gonna adhere to this form,’ so we feel like we’re building something and don’t stay in the same place, or get there too early.”
Choreographer and director Andy Blankenbuehler is a longtime friend of Kitt’s; the two collaborated on Bring it On: The Musical (a now cult-favorite that opened on Broadway in 2012). This past summer, Blankenbuehler asked Kitt’s recommendation on a vocal arranger for Only Gold, and he volunteered his own services. “Kate Nash is a brilliant writer,” Kitt says. “Her songs are filled with visceral energy and beauty, and you can see how they’re going to be theatrical.” His duties for the show mostly happened before he got into rehearsal with Almost Famous. Blankenbuehler broke down the show by song, filling Kitt in on who would be available to sing each and what kind of tonality he wanted from the vocal arrangements. “I had great guidance going in, and then you hear it in the room and discover new things,” Kitt says.
Sesame Street the Musical
In recent years, Kitt has composed for Sesame Street: he wrote a song for Cookie Monster called “If Me Had a Magic Wand,” and a spoof of a famous song from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park With George called “Look I Made a Splat.” The call for Sesame Street the Musical came through his agent, and it was fairly simple. “They said, ‘We want to craft a big 11 o’clock-style number for Elmo,” Kitt recalls, “and I knew it was a song about imagination.” He thought about the sensibility of classic Sesame Street songs like “Sing,” and asked himself, “What’s something expressive in that world for me to write?” The end product channels the sweetly melodic, anthemic feel of the classics Kitt wanted to channel, but he didn’t hear Elmo sing it until opening night of the show, “and it was everything I hoped it would be. I mean, who doesn’t want to write a song for Elmo? I jumped at the chance.”