Musical Moment: An Interview With Brian Yorkey

It’s less than a week before the New Musicals Festival I’m producing at Village Theatre. Producing a festival with 6 new musicals, 14 writers, 126 cast members and a few dozen of directors, stage managers, music directors, and technicians is both incredibly wonderful and maddeningly stressful. I decided to get some advice from the man who started it all 10 years ago, Brian Yorkey.

These days, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize later, Brian’s moved on but was kind of enough to give me some excellent tips. While we were chatting, I asked him a few questions about his writing process, current projects, and his advice for new writers. Enjoy!

Brian Yorkey (right) with collaborator, Tom Kitt, celebrating their 2009 Tony win for Next To Normal.

As a bookwriter, you could have chosen to write plays, particularly since many people say the book of a musical is the most difficult thing to write. What drew you to musical theater?

That’s a great question. I actually intended to become a playwright — I had been writing plays since I was in fourth grade (not good plays, mind you, but plays). But two big things happened to my life: the first was that there was a professional theatre on the main street of my home town that primarily did musicals — Village Theatre. Useful coincidence, huh? My best friend in junior high was the daughter of the guy who started the Theatre with Robb Hunt, so I got involved there as a teenager, and one of my high school jobs was as house manager. I got to watch the production of a new musical called Eleanor (about Eleanor Roosevelt) from the ground up, got to know the writers a little bit (tremendous and talented guys), and not only was it the first time I realized musicals were actually written by living people (rather than by marble busts named Rodgers, Hammerstein, Bernstein, etc.) but I got a sense of what the challenges and the process are.

Village had (still has) a summer program that let the teenagers take over the theater to do a musical of their own. My senior year of high school it was my turn to direct, and we wanted to do Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but couldn’t get rights to the movie version. So we wrote to Roald Dahl for permission to write our own version, and he said yes, and so we did.

The second big thing happened after I went to college in New York — still intending to become a playwright. Columbia University has a century-plus-old tradition called the Varsity Show, in which undergraduates write, produce, and perform a new musical every year. It’s where Rodgers and Hart worked together for the first time, and the only collaboration between the two of them and Oscar Hammerstein. On a lark, I applied for the job of Artistic Director, and I got the job, and ended up co-writing four shows. That’s where I met Tom Kitt, and where we started working together. I still would like to write plays, someday, when I have time.

Why did you think it was important to start Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals?

Well, when I joined the staff as Associate Artistic Director, Village had the admirable and rare commitment to produce one new musical a year on the Mainstage, on the way to the current commitment of two new musicals a year. We needed a bigger pipeline than we had. The Festival met a few needs: First, it gave a bunch of new shows a hearing, with an audience — which any writer can tell you is a key part of getting to know your show. Second, it let us hear and see these shows, which is always preferable to reading and listening to demos — anyone who tells you they can fully judge your show on the page is not someone you want judging your show. And third, it was a great chance to get our audience involved at an early stage, get them invested in these new shows, and have a good time doing it.

Yorkey & Kitt with producer, David Stone (far left) and director, Michael Greif (far right).

What advice to you have for writers who participate in musical theater festivals?

Here’s maybe an unexpected piece of advice: Relax.  Let go a bit. The situation’s not going to be perfect — your director, music director, actors are all going to be fantastically committed and very talented, but they might not be exactly right for your show. The lead might not spin the character or say the lines exactly as you had imagined. The director might see the piece a bit differently. Everyone’s there to serve your piece, but they’re also there to be creative and to help you learn about what you’ve written. So share all the information and opinions that fit, but be open to outcomes and relax a little bit. You can learn as much, or more, from an imperfect situation as a perfect one. I’ve seen too many writers over the years in the Festival (and other readings) twist themselves up over the presentation and miss out on all that’s to be gained.

Along those same lines, keep in mind that the parties are just as important as your reading. Your job as a musical theatre writer is not only to create great work, but to meet and get to know those people who can help you advance the work, and also to get to know those audience members who will support the work. The Village Festival parties have both kinds of people. Don’t “work the room” — just have a good time, get to know new people, share your passion for musicals, and have fun. Be a real human being. Again, relax. Trust me, I hate parties as much as the next wallflower writer, but Village Festival parties are special, and a great way for you to exercise that side of your business.

How do you approach the writing process and stay disciplined to get the work done?

Ha! Your question assumes that I actually do stay disciplined, a premise my collaborators might argue. I try to write every day, and if it’s not a good writing day, I try to do something else profitable — reading for research, doing notes on another project, or even just going to a show or a movie. (Tough life, I know.) I try not to waste time. I wish that I had a process, per se. It still seems that every time I start a project I’m figuring it out for the first time.

Deadlines are, of course, tremendous help in focusing effort and attention.

I write mostly at home. I used to write in coffee shops, but I’ve become too self-conscious about being one of the laptop poser legion — especially when I’m home in Seattle. Tom and I just got an office in New York, which should be a great help.

Next to Normal evolved very organically, over many years, although it was ultimately a process of outlining and re-outlining that helped us land the story. For the projects I’m working on now, we’ve tended to start with an outline of some sort, although Tom and I do still start writing songs before the book is written. The books tell you that’s a no-no, but we find the piece the way we find it. As far as lyrics and music, Tom and I work all different ways — generally, whoever has the stronger impulse for a certain musical moment will go first. For the show we’re writing now, Tom’s been writing a ton of great music, so I’ve been doing a lot of writing lyrics to his tunes.

You’re most well known for writing the Tony 

Next to Normal on Broadway

and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal. What was it like to have so much success with your first Broadway endeavor? How involved do you continue to be with Next to Normal?

Next to Normal has been an amazing, incredibly gratifying, humbling, and highly unlikely experience. Tom and I felt very blessed to have people who believed in our strange show, people like David Stone and Michael Greif and Alice Ripley and the many, many other folks who made it all happen. The thing is, it’s important for us to remember that you write the show you write, and what happens to it is largely out of your control. We’ve been very honored by the reception the show has received, but we know that fortune plays as big a role as anything in the success or failure of a show.

That said, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t a little terrified to follow N2N. But the same principle applies: You write the show you believe in, you do the best you can, and the rest is up to the world.

You have worked with Tom Kitt a few times but also with other collaborators including Sting. What makes your collaborations successful?

I learned improv at a young age, and I think it’s something every musical theatre writer should study. The art of “yes, and” is central to making collaborations work. Affirming, rather than negating. Exploring together. Trying things.  Collaboration is never easy, and collaborations have to be nurtured and cared for.  I’ve been blessed to have the most generous, talented collaborators a writer could hope for — so I guess my big piece of advice is always work with people more talented than you are. They’ll challenge you to be your best, and it’ll make it easier when you don’t get your way all the time.

You’ve been doing some work as a Broadway ghost writer. What is that like?

Well, first and foremost, it was supposed to be sort of a secret, but since Norbert outed me on the Tonys, I think I can talk about it now. It was an incredibly intense, challenging, and rewarding experience to help get a show to Broadway. The opportunity to work with giants like Terrence McNally (a most gracious and generous man), Jack O’Brien (gifted and lovely) and Jerry Mitchell (inspired and inspiring) was too much to pass up, but the thing that really made me want the job was the transcendent score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. I had always been a huge admirer of their work, and to be a part of making their show was really a one-of-a-kind experience. I’m proud of the work we did, and that the show’s still running on Broadway, and will have a tour.

From your perspective, where do you see musical theater going in the future?

Wow, I don’t know. Here’s what I hope: I hope there continue to be adventurous and resourceful producers who are willing to take chances on new work and on unproven writers. I hope writers continue to try to push the boundaries of what musicals can be, but also remember they’re writing for an audience and not just for themselves and their fellow writers. And I hope we keep in touch with our heritage, but find ways to revive the classics that make them a part of our life today rather than preserved pieces of the distant past.

What’s next? What other projects do you have in the works?

Tom and I are hard at work on a new show that David Stone will produce and Michael Greif will direct. It’s another original story, but not about mental illness. We promise. We’re also writing a movie for Warner Brothers, with Robert Downey, Jr. attached to star. And there’s the thing with Sting which is really heating up. There’s other stuff in the works, but I’m already freaking out just listing that, so let’s leave it there.

Any additional words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

I wish I had something pithy and brilliant, but I’m still figuring it all out myself. Which I guess would be my advice: Keep learning. Be open to outcomes, to learning, to discovery. Stick by your guns, write what you believe in, but be aware that a successful musical involves many collaborators, and the show must ultimately be as much theirs as yours. And, oh, don’t write what’s already been written. Write something new.

One comment

  1. Can’t believe you found time for that with all you’re doing. Thanks Brisa. Loved it, except for the part where he didn’t have any silver bullets for getting more done and for better discipline, lol. Love the advice he gives for festivals.

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