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The co-creator of Next to Normal debuts Superhero Off-Broadway
Superhero at Second Stage Theatre is a homecoming for Tom Kitt. The composer's breakthrough musical with lyricist Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal, about a family struggling with mental illness, premiered at the venue 11 years ago before transferring to Broadway and picking up a handful of Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. Now Kitt's back in the same theatre working on another show about a family in need of salvation, and he's writing the music and lyrics this time.
With a book by Tony-winning Red playwright John Logan and direction by Jason Moore, Superhero is about Charlotte (Kate Baldwin) and Simon (Kyle McArthur), a mother and son grieving the sudden death of their family's patriarch. The lonely teenager channels his anguish into drawing comic books; Charlotte attempts to care for him while working and writing a book. But their tenuous lives take a surreal turn when they become entangled with their mysterious neighbor, Jim (Bryce Pinkham).
Superhero is influenced by Kitt's lifelong love of comic books and fantasy films. He says seeing the 1978 movie Superman at age four left him "mesmerized and blown away." However, he insists this musical is more akin to E.T. because, underneath its fanciful trappings, there's a family in pain.
"Whatever fantastical elements exist in the story, we want them to be ingrained in an earthbound tale," Kitt says. "You never get taken out of it -- they just heighten the story that's being told. It speaks to you on an emotional level."
Being a parent isn't that different from being a superhero. That's what Charlotte and Jim discover as they sing a moving duet about their desire to safeguard their loved ones. It's a sentiment that Kitt, a dad of three, shares.
"I'm writing this from the standpoint of being a father," he says. "How do we protect people we love? How do we deal with the difficult things that happen? How do we believe there's good in the world no matter what things are happening that seem to tell us otherwise? Parents who raise children -- especially parents dealing with tragedy -- they are true superheroes."
The strong, resilient Charlotte joins the roster of complex female roles Kitt has helped create for the stage, including Next to Normal's bipolar wife and mother Diana, and If/Then's Elizabeth, whose life is pulled in two totally different directions. Kitt says he drew inspiration for these characters from the bold women in his life, especially his wife, Rita Pietropinto, a former performer who's currently the chair of drama at the Marymount School of New York.
"She's a superstar," he says. "A lot of what I wrote in Superhero came from what I see around me. That idea of striking a balance -- watching my wife have these very important and demanding jobs mixed with trying to be there for our children and the unpredictability of my life as an artist. I really wanted to speak to that."
Of course no one can save the day all the time -- not even a superhero or parent. That's one of the bittersweet lessons in the musical. But wanting to help others is a noble aspiration. As Kitt puts it, "How we rise to greatness in our everyday lives is something I really wanted to write about."
To read about a student's experience at Superhero, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, The Village Voice, Politico, and other publications, and blogs at CareyPurcell.com.
Top image: Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham in Superhero. Photos by Joan Marcus.
Superhero is frequently at the TKTS Booths.
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