Pulitzer Prize-winning collaborators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have a new musical that airs tonight on the Disney Channel.
They say their adaptation of Mary Rodgers’ 1972 novel Freaky Friday, the mother-daughter body swapping comedy, isn’t so different from Next to Normal, their acclaimed rock musical that explores mental illness. Both pieces seek to convey emotional truths.
Kitt has a full dance card, as the arranger and orchestrator of Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morissette musical in development; he’s the composer of Dave, based on the Ivan Reitman comedy, at Arena Stage through Aug. 19; and he worked on Head Over Heels and SpongeBob SquarePants, to name just a few of his credits.
Yorkey is the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. He wrote the musical The Last Ship with Sting and collaborated with Kitt on If/Then. They spoke to Broadway Journal at a packed junket in Manhattan.
On working with corporations vs. independent producers:
Yorkey: Disney is a huge company but at the heart of it are theater people. On the other side of things, Jeffrey Seller, David Stone and Kevin McCollum — people like that are impresarios. They’re like one-man companies. Tom Schumacher (at Disney) has a lot more people to deal with than maybe Jeffrey Seller does, although Jeffrey Seller has a ton of investors. In both cases, part of their job is to make sure that we don’t have to deal with that. They deal with the committees and the investors and all the other people who have ideas and opinions and filter that and bring it to us.
On writing for Disney:
Yorkey: We wanted kids eight, nine and 10 years old to see this with their parents. which wasn’t necessarily a goal with Next to Normal or If/Then. But we still got a song in called “Parents Lie” in the movie. Even if the four-letter words I go to too often are not right for this piece, the attitude and state of mind is kind of the same.
Kitt: Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz and Howard Ashman and now Bobby (Lopez) and Kristen (Anderson-Lopez) and Lin-Manuel Miranda: there is this Disney tradition of great songwriters who are so intelligent but also emotional. Brian and I with Freaky Friday wanted to speak to a wide audience and find our true voice in this great tradition.
On opportunities for young musical theater writers today:
Yorkey: Because movies, television and Broadway are such big businesses, there’s a fondness for existing intellectual property. which makes it hard for young writers because they don’t have access to much existing IP, because you have to option it. Because business is booming the stakes are even higher. For younger writers to get noticed it’s tougher. We have a life with Next to Normal because David Stone came to see it at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and told Carole Rothman (who leads Second Stage Theater) ‘you should go see this, we should work on it.’ That’s kind of why I have a career in musical theater. And I think maybe that’s harder to happen nowadays.
On arranging & orchestrating others’ music:
Kitt: Lots of times those famous musicians (like Green Day) are on tour or in the studio and it’s challenging. You want to speak in your own voice but you have to speak in their voice as well. American Idiot (with music by Green Day) was a wonderful first experience for me because I wanted to go slowly and make sure the band was happy. There was a moment when (lead singer and songwriter) Billie Joe Armstrong approached me and said, ‘I’d love to talk about arrangements,’ and then I got a call to work on 21st Century Breakdown (Green Day’s 2009 album).
The effect of rising Broadway budgets:
Kitt: What worries me is getting people who can’t afford the prices into the theater. And that’s why I’m happy that so many shows offer low-priced tickets. And then real estate: With all of the shows playing right now, the only way you get a theater in New York is for another show to vacate. And that’s a horrible feeling.
Yorkey: We’ve all been vacated. If/Then vacated for a little show called Hamilton.