Electric run continues for Issaquah’s Brian Yorkey

June 8, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Not long before the Pulitzer Prize board announced the awards in early April, the team behind the musical “Next to Normal” — including Issaquah native Brian Yorkey, the writer and lyricist — heard the show might be under consideration for the drama prize.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger (left) stands alongside Pulitzer Prize for Drama honorees Tom Kitt (center) and Issaquah native Brian Yorkey. By Eileen Barroso

Like he had before the musical picked up three Tony Awards last spring, Yorkey attempted to shut out the chatter.

Until he received a call from “Next to Normal” producer David Stone on April 12, the day the Pulitzer board announced the honorees.

“Is this Pulitzer Prize winner Brian Yorkey?” he asked.

The creative team dashed through a dozen media interviews, and then joined the cast to celebrate during “one more amazing night in a series of amazing nights,” Yorkey said.

The prize marked the latest milestone for a rock musical about a suburban family strained by bipolar disorder. “Next to Normal” originated at Village Theatre in downtown Issaquah eight years ago as “Feeling Electric.”

“It’s an unusual show,” Yorkey said. “It feels dark in some ways, it feels small in some ways. It doesn’t feel like a blockbuster, award-winning musical.”

The production became the eighth musical to be honored since the prizes added a drama category 92 years ago, and the first musical since “Rent” in 1996. Sober plays — such as “Doubt” and “August: Osage County” — dominated the category during the past decade.

“One of the things I’ve learned about ‘Next to Normal’ is that it has a group of fans in the theater world who are very dedicated, but it also touches people who may not like musicals,” Yorkey said.

The prize jury had submitted three finalists — “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” by Kristoffer Diaz, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” by Rajiv Joseph and “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,” by Sarah Ruhl — but the Pulitzer board eschewed the selections and picked the musical instead. (The jury included three theater critics, a playwright and a member of academia.)

The board praised “Next to Normal” as “a powerful rock musical” and a groundbreaking piece. The prize goes to the playwright, although the Pulitzer judges factor the performance into the decision.

Only the public service honoree receives the iconic Pulitzer medal. Everyone else takes home a $10,000 prize, a crystal paperweight and a certificate in a light blue folder — Columbia blue, because Columbia University administers the prizes.

The playwrights — Columbia alumni Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt — picked up their awards at a May 24 ceremony. The honorees lunched on osso bucco and Yorkey had a chance to meet top journalists — sort of a thrill for a childhood fan of the “Lou Grant” newspaper drama.

“I was incredibly nervous, which was odd, because I already knew we had won,” Yorkey recalled. “As the luncheon went on, and the prizes were awarded, I felt incredibly humbled. These were journalists who wrote about famine, corruption, poverty — and we just wrote a play.”

Patrick Catullo, a producer on the show, said the “Next to Normal” score makes the serious subject matter — mental illness, family strife — accessible and assuages doubters.

“It’s not the easiest sell, but when you hear that music you realize, oh, this is something I want to see,” he said.

The national tour lands in Seattle next winter for a run at the 5th Avenue Theatre.

In the meantime, Yorkey and Sting will collaborate on a musical — a first for the legendary rocker. Yorkey said he expects the show to feature some classics from the Sting oeuvre, as well as some songs penned just for the musical.

Yorkey directed a reading of “Stunt Girl” — another Village Theatre original musical — in New York City on June 7. Other writing projects clamor for attention, too.

Doug Simpson, a retired Issaquah High School English teacher, said Yorkey exhibited a talent for crafting topical musicals as a student. Back then, Yorkey also acted. Simpson recalled the spark Yorkey brought to a supporting role of Luther Billis in a student production of “South Pacific.”

“I’ve seen professionals that haven’t done it any better than he did,” Simpson said.

Village Theatre production guns for glory

“Million Dollar Quartet” — another Village Theatre original musical — could follow “Next to Normal” to glory June 13.

The rock ‘n’ roll musical has been nominated for three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical — for the spoken storyline of the production — and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for Levi Kreis, the actor who portrays Jerry Lee Lewis in the show. Kreis originated the role in Issaquah.

Catch the awards ceremony at 8 p.m. on CBS. Find a complete list of nominees at the Tony Awards website.

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

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