Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: A Conversation With Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer Tom Kitt

Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: A Conversation With Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer Tom Kitt

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.


Pulitzer Prize-winning Next To Normal composer and arranger Tom Kitt has three New York stage productions on hold during the coronavirus shutdown, a trio of shows at various points in their production lives, spanning the industry’s commercial and non-profit sectors, and representing both Broadway and Off Broadway.

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For Jagged Little Pill, the musical with songs by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard that opened Dec. 5 at the Broadhurst Theater, Kitt served as music supervisor, arranger, and orchestrator. Flying Over Sunset, a Lincoln Center Theater production with book by James Lapine, music by Kitt and lyrics by Michael Korie, was to begin previews on March 12, the day of the shutdown. Audiences that night would have gotten a first look at the new 1950s-set musical about famous LSD trippers Aldous Huxley, Clare Boothe Luce and Cary Grant.


Off Broadway, Kitt was in rehearsals with The Visitor, a world premiere musical at The Public Theater based on the 2007 film. With book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, music by Kitt, lyrics by Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro and direction by Daniel Sullivan, The Visitor tells the tale of a widowed New York college professor (David Hyde Pierce) who befriends two young undocumented immigrants – a drummer (Ari’el Stachel) and a jewelry maker (Alysha Deslorieux) – in his apartment building.


Deadline spoke to Kitt about his shows, his hopes for colleagues and life under the COVID-19 shutdown.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.


DEADLINE: Did you see any of this coming?


TOM KITT: I was sort of waiting for things to escalate. My oldest son, his school has a study tour in Italy. It’s a wonderful milestone rite of passage for his class, and when I saw the cases start spiking in Italy, that’s when I started to get in the mode of, This is gonna start to escalate. I remember being at rehearsal [for The Visitor] and just getting a sense that it was only a matter of time before things that were happening in other countries were gonna start to happen here. 

I watched the run-through of The Visitor and just wept, I was just sort of inconsolably crying. And it was a good crying, you know, just a real gratitude for my collaborators, for the actors, for the institutions, for all the producers that are putting art into the world. You get a sense of how fleeting everything is and how lucky we are to be in that moment when we’re in it.


DEADLINE: What was the mood of the cast at that point?


KITT: I think we were trying to have a sense of normalcy, but normalcy started to mean everybody constantly going in to wash their hands, sanitary wipes being handed out, not being able to hug someone or shake someone’s hand like you do when you’re congratulating someone or just wanting to share in a moment. And so we did our best to just be in the bubble of rehearsal, but you could feel that a real sense of anxiety was starting to creep in. As the father of three children, I was sort of getting it on multiple fronts – what are the schools doing? What’s happening in terms of the theater community? My livelihood? And of course all of the businesses that are being affected by this, the realities of people getting to rehearsals, people getting nervous about taking the subway. The good feelings of that protective space of being in rehearsal just could only last so long.

Lauren Patten, ‘Jagged Little Pill’ Matthew Murphy

DEADLINE: Do you have a sense yet of how the shutdown is going to financially impact a big commercial show like Jagged Little Pill? How feasible is it to stop a big production like that for what could be months?


KITT: That’s certainly a question that my producers could answer, but I can only speculate. What I could observe before all this was happening was that Broadway couldn’t have been more healthy and robust, and I feel like people will still want art. People are gonna want to feel joy again. We’re trying to figure out, all in our own ways, how we can put content out there, how we can reach our audiences and continue to keep alive in the world right now. Because people need it. So what it will mean for each particular production I can’t say, but I’m confident that Broadway theater, Off Broadway, all art is going to be back. People are going to need it.



DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Flying Over Sunset, a musical at the not-for-profit Lincoln Center. Where were you in the process of that production?


KITT: We had done our invited dress rehearsal on Wednesday night [before the Thursday shutdown announcement]. We had our first preview scheduled for Thursday. People had started to whisper that things were going to come to a halt that evening. So I was prepared. I was hoping we would get through a preview because I wanted to experience it with an audience. But I think everyone was making the most prudent and wise decisions. So we are in a pause, but we are in a good place because we’ve been able to tech the show….We were able to run the show with the orchestra. Hopefully when we’re able to come back, we can pick up where we left off.


DEADLINE: Will you literally pick up where you left off? Would you need additional rehearsals to get everybody back in shape?


KITT: I think there will probably be a process where we’ll build a rehearsal process into it, so a couple of weeks of rehearsals just to familiarize with the material and then maybe a small tech process where we can just make sure that everything’s up and running the way we want. And then just get a sense of when we can have audiences.


DEADLINE: I imagine it’s going to be a bit easier for show’s that were already in shape as opposed to shows that hadn’t gotten to that point yet. 


KITT: These shows take years and years and wherever you were in the process, everyone’s going to find their way back into it. My heart goes out to everybody. I can only imagine what it was like for a show like Six that was ready to open on that Thursday night. So we just have to be there for one another, take care of each other. And I do believe that artists are resilient. It’s going to take all of us to rally and pick each other up and figure out a way that we can continue.


DEADLINE: Do you have a sense yet how the shutdown will differently impact the commercial productions and the non-profit productions? 


KITT: It’s a good question, and probably one that’s better answered by someone working in those institutions, but these are robust and passionate and brilliantly run institutions that have been around for a long time. My sense is that everyone has a plan in place, that they’re going to be able to come back from this. And certainly the meetings that we had before this all happened suggested that everyone has been working diligently, preparing for weeks before this happened. So I have great confidence that these institutions will be able to weather this and come back from it.

Ari’el Stachel, ‘The Visitor’ rehearsals Joan Marcus

I think the Public Theater made the wise decision to just cancel everything when it did. We already knew that we were going to be following the other theaters in terms of canceling performances, but that Friday [after the Thursday shutdown] was really the day that The Public made the move to just stop [rehearsals] exactly where we were. The Visitor is a beautiful story, one that I’m really passionate about putting into the world. There is a drum circle in the show, but it’s also something that we do for warm-ups. It’s a great sense of joy and collaboration. Knowing that we were going to take a pause and have the uncertainty about when we would get to be together again, everyone decided to do a drum circle as a way of connecting one more time before we parted, until we can come back and be in the circle again.