From the Varsity Show to Broadway
Composer Tom Kitt ’96 brings book, film hit High Fidelity to Broadway
By Yelena Shuster ’09
Tom Kitt ’96 watches as the cast of the Broadway-bound musical High Fidelity rehearses. He cracks
a smile at all the appropriate jokes, but there’s no surprise in his grin. After all, he’s heard the
lyrics and music before. As the show’s composer, he wrote them.
“Rehearsal is going great,” he says, weeks before the scheduled December 7 opening.
“It’s the most fun place to be. I crack up every day . but, it’s taking over my life.”
Later, in a tiny music room at the Imperial Theatre, Kitt tries to perfect his notes on a
keyboard and laptop. His smooth face relaxed, the Long Island native shows few signs of
stress about his Broadway debut as a composer. Why should he be nervous? He has spent
his whole life preparing for this.
Kitt started studying music when he was 4 and started composing music when he was 8,
but only became involved in musical comedy at the ripe age of 19 when he worked on
Columbia’s Varsity Show. Since graduation, he has been gradually working his way up,
from crooning at late-night piano bars to working on Broadway hits and misses such
as Urban Cowboy in 2003 and Bombay Dreams in 2004. But this is his biggest chance yet.
It would seem that High Fidelity has a pedigree for success. Walter Bobbie
(Chicago, Sweet Charity, White Christmas) is its director; Jeffrey Seller,
Robyn Goodman and Kevin McCollum - the team behind the 2004 Tony Award-winning
musical Avenue Q - are the producers.
High Fidelity opened in Boston’s Colonial Theatre in October, but Kitt still
can’t believe that his original idea to turn Nick Hornby’s bestselling book
into a musical is becoming a reality. (He got the idea for a stage musical in
1999, just one year before John Cusack’s film version opened.)
Hornby’s book immediately struck a chord with Kitt. High Fidelity’s centerpiece
is Rob, a record store owner schooled in pop music rather than romance. His
love life is not exactly pitch-perfect, especially since his girlfriend, Laura,
has left him. “Wouldn’t it be cool if Rob was able to express this in the musical
style that he loved?” Kitt asked himself after reading the book.
“It’s an out-of-body experience,” says Kitt’s mother, Judy, while driving to the
Boston premiere. Kitt’s wife, Rita Pietropinto-Kitt ’93, ’96 Arts, is similarly
moved. “When I heard the downbeat of the overture [at the preview], I burst into
tears,” she says. “The accumulation of all the work ... Sitting in a huge theater
with 1,700 seats as everybody heard his music come to life - it was incredible.”
What’s most impressive, perhaps, is that Kitt needs no laptops or keyboards -
not even a scrap of paper - to draft his songs. “I write music wherever I am.
I’ve written songs in my head that I haven’t brought to the piano yet,” he says.
And what is it like to be a composer, with an ear trained to hear any of the
three major notes in the air? “You constantly have music going on in your head,
which is a strange thing,” he says.
Early on, it was clear that Kitt had perfect pitch and a great memory for music.
He remembers listening to his older siblings play the piano and being able to
play back what he heard by ear - at age 3. Kitt’s mother never intended to give
her youngest son piano lessons, but he started playing anyway. He was playing
piano on his own before he could read. “Tom just naturally sat down . and started
putting notes and chords together,” Judy Kitt recalls. “He’d sit at the piano
for a while, more than your average 4-year-old. And I thought, 'There’s something
going on here.’ ”
“Sitting in a huge theater with 1,700 seats as everybody
heard his music come to life - it was incredible.”
Kitt considers himself lucky, since his family always supported his musical interests.
“As long as I worked at it and brought energy and excitement to it, my family supported
whatever I wanted do in music,” he says. His mother made sure he was practicing the piano,
but wanted him to be well-rounded, as well; Kitt grew up playing sports (he was voted MVP
in a youth soccer league) and working hard in school. “We were very supportive and encouraging,”
his mother says, “but we wanted Thomas to have a childhood, not to grow up too fast.”
For the first decade of his life, Kitt stuck to classical music. It wasn’t until he was 11
and attended Camp Alton that he became obsessed with rock ’n’ roll. Camp Alton was a sports
and music camp run by Peter Guralnick, an eminent rock ’n’ roll writer who wrote the
definitive biography of Elvis Presley. It was at this camp in New Hampshire that Kitt’s
15-year-old counselor introduced him to the music of Billy Joel and the Blues Brothers.
Kitt no longer dreamed of composing three-movement sonatas - he wanted to be the next Billy Joel.
During high school, Kitt began playing Joel’s “New York State of Mind” instead of Mozart
on the piano. He spent hours with a “dinky tape recorder” playing and recording songs of his
own along with covers of Joel, Elton John and Paul Simon. “I would make tapes in my basement
performing songs from people I love,” he recalls.
When it was time for college, Kitt really was in a New York state of mind, and not just
because his brother, Jeffrey ’88, was a College alumnus. “For a musician, NYC is the best
place to be,” he says. As an undergraduate, the former MVP stopped playing soccer, though he’d
been recruited to play for Columbia. Now, music was pulling him in. For four years, Kitt sang
with The Kingsmen. He performed solo gigs at The West End once a month, playing covers of bands
such as Pearl Jam and Counting Crows, along with bar standards such as “Sweet Home Alabama”
and “American Pie.” Kitt was a member of Phi Kappa Alpha, and his fraternity brothers came
to his performances to show their support. “My friends from Columbia are the closest thing in
the world to me,” he says.
At Columbia, Kitt even climbed a personal Everest by singing “New York State of Mind”
with Joel, who was touring colleges as a lecturer. At the Q&A during Joel’s appearance,
Kitt asked the first question, which went something like this: “You’re the whole reason
I’m pursuing a career in music. Can I do a song with you?” Joel said sure, come on up. “That
was one of the most unbelievable experiences I ever had,” says Kitt.
It was at Columbia, too, that Kitt met his future wife - and, simultaneously, began his
future career. Pietropinto-Kitt was a player in the 99th Varsity Show. The actors were
preparing for an alumni reunion performance when their musical director won a Fulbright
scholarship and left for England, accidentally taking the music with him. Pietropinto-Kitt,
having heard of Kitt’s musical talents, knocked on his door in John Jay, gave him an audio
cassette of the show and asked if he would be their new musical director. Kitt’s good ear
came in handy; Pietropinto-Kitt swears that an hour later, Kitt played the entire score
back to her, listening to his headphones.
Pietropinto-Kitt thought Kitt was “the most talented thing in the world. I think when
most people meet Tom, they say that.” And when the Varsity Show was looking for a composer
the next year, she convinced Kitt to go for it. “He had never entertained the thought
of composing a show before,” she says, “so I had to twist his arm a little bit.” By then,
they were dating.
Kitt was asked to write the 100th and 102nd Varsity Shows, where he worked with
Brian Yorkey ’93, who remains one of his most important collaborators. Yorkey,
who for the past seven years has been associate artistic director of the Village
Theatre in his hometown of Issaquah, Wash., remembers thinking, “Wow, he’s pretty
good,” after meeting Kitt and writing a few songs together. “We continued writing,
and haven’t stopped since,” says Yorkey.
Kitt has nothing but wonderful memories from his long days (and nights) working
on the Varsity Show. “Getting that first jolt of excitement, writing a score,
working with actors . inspiring people,” he reminisces. Yorkey agrees: “It’s such
a great feeling to put that show in front of all your peers, selling out the Miller
Theatre. I’m really proud of what we did.”
After graduating as an economics major, Kitt turned down a job offer from Morgan Stanley
(“I have the rest of my life to become an unhappy investment banker”). Instead, he and
Yorkey were invited to join the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop,
a workshop in New York City for musical theater composers, lyricists and librettists. Free
to those who qualify, the workshop has spawned such Broadway hits as A Chorus Line, Nine and Avenue Q. Its participants can spend years learning how to craft a musical from the
ground up from seasoned theater professionals. Current faculty members include professionals
such as Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast) and Maury Yeston (Nine).
Yorkey describes the professional training ground as “the experience that sort of charted
our progression from really eager inspired amateurs to professionals.”
“You’re still a struggling musician until you’ve had a
successful show and proven you have staying power.”
While singing and playing at piano bars at night - even finding the time to record a rock
album (the Tom Kitt Band’s single “Road to You” was featured on Dawson’s Creek) - Kitt spent
five years at the BMI workshop learning his craft. It was there that he and Yorkey began to
develop a musical, Feeling Electric. The show began as a 10-minute black comedy about a
woman undergoing shock therapy for depression. The idea came about when Yorkey was watching
Dateline NBC: He was “blown away” that shock therapy was still prescribed. The musical premiered
at the 2005 New York Musical Theater Festival; now, the show’s recordings have an underground
cult following on the blog LiveJournal.
“We’re hoping for a New York production in the next year,” says Yorkey.
At BMI, Kitt also met Amanda Green, daughter of famous Broadway lyricist Adolph
Green, who was forging a songwriting career of her own. Kitt stayed in touch with Green
and became her musical director for a cabaret act she was developing. Together, they
performed her deft, witty songs at different clubs around NYC, including the West Bank
Café and Birdland. With Green’s help, Kitt met more established performers, including
Tony Award winners Lauren Bacall and Harold Prince. In fact, Kitt traces the beginnings of
his wider reputation to that period with Green. “My name started to get around,” he says. And,
after a while, he began to get gigs on Broadway shows such as Urban Cowboy, Bombay Dreams and Laugh Whore. When, after making something of a name for himself, he came up with the idea for a
musical version of High Fidelity, Kitt knew Green would be the perfect person to write the lyrics.
“It is great working with Tom,” she says. “We were both inspired by the book and came
up with a batch of song ideas very quickly. He is incredibly quick, and mel¬odies just
pour out of him. He’s also great fun to be with, and we share a similarly warped sense
of humor. We are great friends and laugh a lot. If we’ve made the other person laugh with
an idea, we know we’ve hit on something.”
As a musical director, Kitt was responsible for working with singers and rehearsing with
the orchestra. Now, with High Fidelity, he’s the composer, handing over his notes to a
musical director. “I feel very lucky and fortunate. I also feel I wouldn’t be here if I
didn’t earn it,” he says, adding, “It never gets old. I don’t take it for granted.”
“I’ve always really believed in Tom, and I’ve never doubted that he was going to
get to this place,” says Pietropinto-Kitt, who married Kitt in 2000. “We’ve always
been each other’s cheerleader.” An actress who teaches at Barnard and Marymount H.S.,
Pietropinto-Kitt also cares for the couple’s 18-month-old son, Michael. Kitt’s family
has helped him stay calm in the days leading up to opening night on Broadway. Just
looking at the face of his son is all he needs to bring him back to reality, he says.
Success in the theater business, he knows, can be chancy, even when you have paid
your dues and all your stars seem aligned. “You’re still a struggling musician until
you’ve had a successful show and proven you have staying power,” Kitt points out. Still,
he is savoring the moment. “It is an amazing thrill to see my name in Playbill.”
Yelena Shuster ’09 has been a Broadway fan since her arrival in New York City last year.