Tony Award winner adjusts to new normal

January 19, 2010

By Warren Kagarise


Tony Award winner Brian Yorkey (left) directs Suzy Hunt as she portrays Grandma Kurnitz, a main character in ‘Lost in Yonkers’ at Village Theatre. Village Theatre photo

Brian Yorkey returns to direct ‘Lost in Yonkers’

Everybody knew the odds — the cast, the producers, the director, the composer and, especially, the writer and lyricist.

Bookies and bloggers predicted a sweep. The feel-good “Billy Eliot” seemed poised for glory, not “Next to Normal” — a musical built around electro-shock therapy, raw emotions and even rawer nerves.

Everybody knew the odds at the Tony Awards last June — but nobody envisioned the upset to come, especially not the writer and lyricist, Issaquah native Brian Yorkey.

Nobody expected the odds to be so miscalculated, yet Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt toppled “Billy Eliot” to win the Tony for Best Original Score. The other nominees included songwriting titans Sir Elton John and Dolly Parton.

Yorkey, a Village Theatre alumnus stunned about the unexpected win, accepted the award from the presenter, comedian Will Ferrell, and mentioned the Issaquah playhouse during the national broadcast.

“We kind of went into it sort of expecting that ‘Billy Eliot’ would sweep, and that’s a great show, they deserve it, and just to be here is amazing,” Yorkey recalled in early January. “Then, to add on the win was kind of unbelievable. It was a little bit out of body. It didn’t sink in for a few days, I don’t think — if it has at all.”

Next came the dizzying sequence of congratulations, interviews and countless thank-yous from the humble Yorkey, who recalled, “all the clichés apply.” “Next to Normal” won another pair of Tony statuettes, for best orchestrations and best actress in a musical.

“This is what people always say, but Tom and I felt so lucky just to be there,” Yorkey said. “We felt so lucky to have our show on Broadway to be nominated for these Tony Awards.”

The circuitous route from the Tony Awards, from the mike onstage at Radio City Music Hall, led Yorkey back to Issaquah. Less than a year later, the Issaquah High School graduate has returned to direct the Neil Simon classic, “Lost in Yonkers.” The play opens Jan. 20 at Village Theatre.

Yorkey traveled light, and the Tony remained in the Big Apple. The brass-and-bronze medallion mounted on a black pedestal is stowed in a box, inside a bag, on the floor of Yorkey’s office.

“Coming back with a Tony really isn’t all that much different than coming back before, except that in a way, and I think in a way that makes a lot of sense, I think everyone here sort of shared that win,” Yorkey said Jan. 8, before a “Lost in Yonkers” rehearsal. “I started here, the show started here, so everyone felt a part of it, as they should, and I think that was exciting for me and for everybody.”

‘A very demanding piece’

“Next to Normal” germinated more than a decade ago, as a 10-minute musical at a New York City theater workshop. The precursor — then titled “Feeling Electric” — originated at Village Theatre in 2002, about seven years before theater brass nominated the show for 11 Tony Awards. The musical gestated on off-Broadway stages and a theater outside Washington, D.C. Finally, last March, “Next to Normal” began previews on Broadway.

The musical Yorkey and Kitt wrote focuses on the Goodmans, a suburban family navigating the emotional minefield lain by Diana, the bipolar disorder-afflicted matriarch. “Next to Normal” examines the fractured family as a therapist suggests radical treatment for Diana: electro-convulsive therapy.

“The challenges were always rooted in how we tell this very difficult and emotional story in the best way,” Kitt recalled. “How do we do justice to the struggle that people who suffer from this disease deal with every day, and do it in a musical form? How do we get the medicine right but allow the piece to breathe and have an emotional content?

“Finding the balance and tone was probably the hardest thing to do and I don’t think we truly did it until we opened on Broadway last year.”

Yorkey said he hopes he and Kitt next take something funnier, something lighter to Broadway, where big-budget, screen-to-stage adaptations — like “Shrek” and the inescapable “Billy Eliot” — dominate.

“‘Next to Normal’ was a really amazing experience for us,” Yorkey said. “It’s a very demanding piece, both for the people who create it and the people who see it. We didn’t want to do anything easier necessarily, we still want to challenge ourselves, but we want something with some romance and some laughs.”

First, Yorkey and Kitt must determine what will engage finicky Broadway audiences. Yorkey encouraged potential backers to gamble on original works because, as he said, “what we learn is that there aren’t any sure things.”

On Broadway, seemingly sure things often met inglorious ends. Exhibit A: A much-hyped “Ragtime” revival went dark Jan. 3 after a mere seven weeks.

“‘Next to Normal’ is not a monster hit, but it’s going to make its money back. It’s going to make its investors a little bit of money, which shows rarely do,” Yorkey said. “I hope that that being the case, that says to other producers, if you have a tough-but-compelling original show, it’s worth taking a chance on, because it could survive on Broadway.”

The musical thrived as well. After the opening night performance, a producer pulled Yorkey and Kitt aside to read aloud a review by Ben Brantley, the feared theater critic for The New York Times.

Brantley raved. He praised “Next to Normal” as “brave” and “breathtaking.” The musical “never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives,” Brantley wrote.

Yorkey almost burst into tears.

‘Hustle and hustle and hustle’

As rehearsals for “Lost in Yonkers” wore on, Yorkey enforced what he called the “two ‘Frasier’ rule” — or ending rehearsal in time for the director to get home to watch dual episodes of the Seattle-centric sitcom.

The return to Issaquah means other small, welcome comforts. Yorkey estimated he made a half-dozen trips to Target during the first three weeks he spent in the city. He likes to write at Starbucks, and in Issaquah, he enjoys being able to find a table. The trips to Starbucks hinge on whether Yorkey needs coffee — and he often does — and if he grows tired of writing at home.

Yorkey splits time between Los Angeles and Morningside Heights in Manhattan. When he returns to Issaquah, Yorkey lives at Terrace Apartments, just down Front Street from Village Theatre. Fins Bistro — “which we sort of treat like the employee cafeteria,” Yorkey said — is wedged between the buildings.

Yorkey, 39, is acquainted with the showbiz lifestyle. He joined KIDSTAGE in the years before Village Theatre matured into a regional powerhouse. As a teenager, he acted some, but soon realized he might be better suited to offstage tasks.

“After spending most of ‘Godspell’ sitting on a Dumpster in the back of the set, watching everyone else do things, I realized that maybe I should see what other roles there were in theater for me,” Yorkey said. “So, I started stage managing and that turned into directing, which turned into writing.”

Despite the fairytale Tony Award nomination and win, the months before Yorkey donned a tuxedo and accepted the most prestigious award in theater on national TV were less than glamorous.

“A year ago at this time, Tom and I were unemployed and both of us pretty broke actually, and a lot of things changed in a year,” Yorkey said. “I think that we’re both still sort of coming to terms with that.”

Besides a “Next to Normal” follow-up with Kitt and the “Lost in Yonkers” run, Yorkey works on screenwriting projects. The combined efforts sometimes require a relentless pace, and criticism is never too distant. Yorkey learned the hard way not to read blog posts about works he has written.

“You hustle in this business — in every business — but definitely in this business, you hustle and hustle and hustle, and you have to be going 24/7 for a long time,” Yorkey said. “Once things sort of take a turn, I think it takes some time to figure out how to step back and relax.”

Not long after Yorkey won, fellow Tony Award winner Warren Leight offered advice to the new honoree about the new hardware.

“I ran into him on Tony weekend and he said to me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t put it in your office,’” Yorkey recalled. “And I said, ‘Why not?’ and he said, ‘Because it will be sitting there staring at you, saying you’ll never write anything that good again.’”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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