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Rock of All Ages

Date: Mar 03, 2008


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Depending how you trace its origins, rock 'n' roll is fast approaching retirement age. And if you count Hair as the first rock musical, then stages both on and Off-Broadway have been rocking for four decades now.

So should it be any surprise that not only the teenage kids but the fortysomething parents in the dysfunctional-family musical Next to Normal express themselves to the accompaniment of electric guitars?

"It used to seem that rock 'n' roll had to be a younger form of communication," says Tom Kitt, the composer of Next to Normal, whose lyricist and book writer is Brian Yorkey. "But here, with characters in their 30s or 40s, rock is a part of their musical landscape the way anything else would be."

Tempo and volume aside, Kitt intended the score to reflect the characters and their situation--a family in which the mother, played by Alice Ripley, struggles valiantly on the verge of madness and medication--rather than impose a style on them.

"I tried to be careful about it, and to write a score I felt was truthful and appropriate to the characters and what they're going through," says Kitt. "On some of the angsty songs, where someone is highly emotional and on the edge, I use rock music like Tommy or Hair.

"But I think it has to be used judiciously," continues Kitt, whose score also references vaudeville, country and traditional showtunes. "There's a verse-chorus form that goes with rock and pop, and if that form is used too much, you can stop the storytelling a little bit and get lulled. You always have to know what rock is doing."

It's a particularly rocking season on New York stages, with rock and/or pop sounds enlivening shows as diverse as Passing Strange, In the Heights, The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island and the upcoming Cry-Baby. And though Rent is closing in June after an historic 12-year run, Spring Awakening continues to pump up the volume on the Main Stem.

One rock musical that didn't get very far past the chorus was 2006's short-lived High Fidelity, an adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel that featured Kitt's score and lyrics by Amanda Green. In retrospect, Kitt says he understands why it faced such an uphill battle for audience goodwill.

"I didn't realize it at the time, but I was trying to do two things at once with that," says Kitt of the show, a romantic comedy about an obsessive rock record collector. "I was trying to write a new score with a new voice, but also pay tribute to classic rock songs. That was difficult to put over; some people got it and some people didn't."

He notes that the show has picked up its share of admirers, and will soon be mounted in a small regional production in St. Louis. But the review he cherishes most came from the original author himself.

"Nick Hornby came to see it and he loved it," Kitt says. "He had tears in his eyes at the end of the show. It was a nice comfort to know that."

Even more comforting, though, is to have a well-received original show that's not adapted from a beloved property.

"I'm hoping Next to Normal is judged on its own merits," Kitt says. "I'm so proud of High Fidelity, but this was the perfect thing to do next--a show where I didn't have to walk into those expectations."

Click here for more information about Next to Normal.