Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.
As we step out of July and into August this week, my single most anticipated show of the year is set to arrive: I can’t wait for the UK premiere, at long last, of NEXT TO NORMAL, in my opinion the first great musical of the century so far, which was premiered off-Broadway in 2008, transferred to Broadway in 2009, and now a decade and a half later, will finally land in London in a brand-new production at the Donmar Warehouse., beginning performances on August 14 prior to official opening on August 22.
Havig championed this musical from the very beginning — I saw it ten times during its original Broadway run — I’ve been thwarted in wanting to be at both its first preview and its first night here: I booked for the first preview that was originally scheduled for August 12 the day it went on sale, but that performance was then cancelled and moved to August 14, the day I travel up to Edinburgh for a short stint; and I’ll be in Provincetown on the show’s first night on August 22. (Still, I’ve moved my preview ticket to another date and have also long had tickets for the last night of the run, too)
Composer Thomas Kitt is coming to London to coincide the opening, and will be making his London cabaret debut at Crazy Coqs on August 6 and 7, and at least I will be able to be there! Last week I caught up with him from Manhattan via FaceTime and spoke to him about his multi-disciplinary life as composer, arranger, orchestrator and performer.
“Before getting the chance to write for musical theatre, I had a dream of following in the footsteps of my heroes Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Billy Joel,” he says of the singer-songwriters who have most influenced him. “I love to perform, and songs can take on a more intimate life in a concert setting.”
Rock and pop music are a clear inspiration to him: NEXT TO NORMAL’s original working title was FEELING ELECTRIC, and reflects this — as well as punning on the electro-convulsive therapy that its lead character undergoes in the show to treat her extreme clinical depression. “Rock music plays a significant role in the score, but there are plenty of moments that aren’t.”
As a musical supervisor and arranger, he has lent his skills and talents to other rock and pop based shows, including AMERICAN IDIOT (based on the songs of Green Day in 2010), SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS (seen on Broadway in 2016 for which he was Tony nominated for his orchestrations, and which receives its London premiere this week in a new production at the Queen Elizabeth Hall), HEAD OVER HEELS (based on songs from The Go-Go’s, premiered on Broadway in 2018 and seen in the UK at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre), and JAGGED LITTLE PILL (based on songs by Alanis Morriseette that was seen on Broadway in 2018).
“It’s wonderful to get outside of my own music, and be inspired and learn from working with other composers,” Tom says. “It also feeds my own writing. Working on AMERICAN IDIOT sparked ‘Wish I Was Here’ in the second act of NEXT TO NORMAL.”
NEXT TO NORMAL was several years in the making. It began when he joined the famous BMI Workshop in Manhattan for aspiring musical theatre writers — the same programme which Ahrens and Flaherty met on, and earlier this year marked their 40th anniversary of writing shows together in a gala in New York that I wrote about here). “I was two years out of school,” he says, having graduated from Columbia University in 1996 with a degree in economics. “Brian [Yorkey] and I were teamed together. We met at Barnes and Noble after we’d been assigned a ten minute assignment, and we picked a story about shock therapy. We thought that would be it, but people were genuinely moved by it and it felt like something deeply personal.” So they kept working on it — but unusually, he adds, “We wrote a lot of songs before we outlined the story we were going to tell.”
When Yorkey first showed him how the second act built and was resolved — and then they did a reading of it — “I was a mess! I felt a communal connection with everyone.” That’s still the experience for audiences seeing ittoday. It’s a show that catches audiences by surprise: “To watch people in real time hear a story they don’t know and go to such an emotional place is something I feel very honoured to be a part of.”
The show is now getting an entirely new life in a completely new production in London, directed by Donmar artistic director Michael Longhurst. “It was always my dream that I would have a work that would be done and re-done, with new artists bringing their artistry to it. It’s exciting to see new people coming to it and bringing new things to it that I didn’t see before.”
He’s been on hand to answer questions from Longhurst and the London musical supervisor Nigel Lilley. “I’m happy to be a reference and support; I’m looking forward to being a fly on the wall.”
Since NEXT TO NORMAL, he’s also collaborated with Yorkey on IF/THEN (2014) and seen two other shows reach Broadway, FLYING OVER SUNSET (2021, with lyricist Michale Korie and librettist/director James Lapine) and ALMOST FAMOUS (seen on Broadway in 2022, written with Cameron Crowe, with whom he is now working on a new version of the show following its failure in New York).
Let’s hope we get to see a lot more of Kitt’s original work over here; but meanwhile we are starting with a true masterpiece. I hope the British critics agree.
SHOWS AHEAD IN LONDON, SELECTED REGIONAL THEATRES AND ON BROADWAY
My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: https://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-july-31-2023/
Who says critics don’t leave London? This week I’m in Chichester, Newbury and London to see ROCK FOLLIES (tonight), THE LORD OF THE RINGS (tomorrow) and SPONGEBOB THE MUSICAL (Thursday, pictured above) respectively, then Dublin on Saturday to catch the last day of the tour of TITANIC THE MUSICAL and a new production of FUN HOME at the Gate.
See you here on Friday
I will be here on Friday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/, as well as Threads and Instagram with the same handle (@ShentonStage).