A Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway success known for musicals including High Fidelity and Next to Normal, Tom Kitt has over the past several years followed his passion for the world of film and television, making inroads on projects including Pitch Perfect and Penny Dreadful before finding a very personal role as music director of NBC’s drama Rise.
Having scored Broadway musicals and performed a great deal himself—with vivid memories of his own high school musical experiences—Kitt was the perfect fit to help facilitate this series about a working-class high school’s drama department, starring Josh Radnor and Moana‘s Auli’i Cravalho in her first live-action role. Depicting all the drama, excitement and magic that comes with the territory in youth theater, the series watched as a group of students came together to put on a production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening.
For Kitt, the challenge with Rise was to conjure a sense of raw authenticity in his arrangements—in concert with the series’ cast and creatives—portraying the high school musical not as squeaky clean and overproduced, but as it really is.
As someone who has advocated for arts education, Kitt sparked to the notion that Rise, which was not renewed for a second season, might encourage new generations of students to engage with the theatrical experience. “I think arts education is one of the most important things. The statistics are real, in terms of what it does for children in their intelligence, in their development, in their sense of empathy,” Kitt says. “I think it behooves us to encourage kids to get involved in the arts. [They] offers wonderful things.”
What did series creator Jason Katims convey to you, as far as what he wanted with the series’ music?
When we first met, Jason talked to me about the desire to have this feel like it wasn’t fully formed, because the characters need to have an arc, and they need to have an arc musically, as well. There’s some characters who maybe are a little timid at first, and you want to see their voice grow throughout the season. So it was working with the actors to figure out what they were first going to establish, in terms of their characters in the musical and in rehearsal, and then building with them what the storytelling was going to be for their characters as the season went on.
Those first episodes being just piano because they were in rehearsal, [we were] figuring out what the quality and sound of that was going to be. But there was definitely a concept that everyone wanted to see, where this wouldn’t necessarily feel like someone is just getting on stage and suddenly they’re ready for Broadway. You were watching what felt like the real depiction of the high school musical process.
Having spent a lot of time on Broadway, is Spring Awakening a musical that has held special significance for you?
Yes, I’m very passionate about it. I saw it at a time when I was in development with Next to Normal, and the energy of Spring Awakening, the authenticity of it, the sound of it, everything just really spoke to me, and definitely informed the work I was doing on Next to Normal at the time.
Spring Awakening is tremendously popular, to the extent that it’s been adapted the world over. Could you speak to the Rise team’s process in securing the rights to the show?
I think that once Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater got on board and the agreement was reached with them, the rest of it came along with that. I wasn’t really a part of the process of securing all of that. But once I was involved, the music came to us when we needed it, and we also had permission to arrange the music for the show, because obviously we weren’t going to be presenting whole songs. In one instance, we added some instrumentation, and because I know Steven and Duncan personally, I would always talk to them and tell them what we were thinking. Duncan and Steven also wrote a brand new song that we all worked on together, so that was also thrilling.
Could you dig into some of the minutiae of arranging music for the series’ first season?
Basically every week, we would have a music meeting, and we would talk about all of the different beats in the show where there was going to need to be music. Sometimes it would be a pretty straightforward cut of a song; sometimes, I had to go in and figure out an edit. In the case of the pilot, I had to put together a rehearsal montage which had to be guided by the character of Lou, and a voice-over, so that was something I took and ran with from Jason’s script. As I would for a musical, I created a musical sequence where I was weaving in dialogue, and figuring out how the songs would go from one to the other.
Those first episodes were mostly about figuring out each musical cut, rehearsing with the actors, and then having our pre-record process—and then also being on set for the actual performances, where they would sing live on set. Starting with Episode 5, we brought in the band, and from that point on, it became a little more involved—because now, there were actual orchestrations that we had to teach and record and get a sense of. It really became how you would put together a musical in some ways, being in the studio with the cast, teaching all the parts, adjusting, and then maintaining it for a performance, and having the band participate in that as well.
What informed the decision to have the actors sing live on set?
I think in the casting of the show, they’re all wonderful singers, so we felt like we could really take advantage of their skill sets. There’s some beautiful live performances in the show, and there’s just a wonderful authenticity to those moments. I think that we always felt like we could take advantage of our actors and have live performance as part of the show.
What was the thought process for the series’ creators in casting the series?
First and foremost, we wanted actors who felt like they’re original representations. We wanted to cast actors that all felt like they were one, where you could see them all forming a unit together—where they all had great chemistry, but also, they all felt unique and special. Getting to know them over the course of this season, I really feel that’s who they are. Each one of them is this really creative, wonderful artist, and they all have special talents. If you’re going to cast something like this, you want to have people that have the skill set to build a performance, to be able to channel what it is to be in high school.
Because in the high school musical, you have people who may go into this as a profession, you have people who may be doing this for the first time, but they just love it, and it’s the one time in their life that they’re going to be in a musical. We wanted to capture all of those elements, and then feel like you’re building a real ensemble—that by the end of the episode, you see them on stage and you feel like you’re catching this beautiful wave, where they own the material.
It must have been incredible to watch the actors perform live. Was there a most satisfying moment for you in the making of Season 1?
I’ll always remember the night that we did “Song of Purple Summer.” The character Gwen, who has been very resistant, she always plays the lead in the musical. She is given a very good part in Spring Awakening, but Auli’i [Cravalho] gets Wendla. She also has major problems—family issues with her parents—so there’s a lot on her mind. Josh Radnor’s character just talks to her and tells her to let go—to just dig deep, and try to see what the song does for her, if she stops thinking about it and puts some of the angst that she’s feeling into her song.
She ends up having a very emotional catharsis when she does it, and to watch it on set and watch Amy [Forsyth] go there, everyone who was watching at the village was in tears. We all were just so moved by what she was doing. It felt like art and life were coming together, not just on the show, but also in the people making the show. I’ll always remember that.
What in the process of the season was the most challenging?
With the speed sometimes at which you have to adapt, some episodes suddenly had much more music than other ones, so you had to work quickly and figure things out. But we found our groove really early on the show. Sometimes finding edits could be challenging, making everything right sized, but we made bold decisions and really got to hear them, and everyone felt great about them.
What do you enjoy about working in film and television, as opposed to theater?
Certainly, I love the experience of being on set, just seeing the process. For me, to sit back and watch an episode and know how much went into each little moment, which we don’t know when we’re watching television, it just feel seamless. But to really appreciate just how much work goes into every single shot, and how it happens and flows, that’s the thing that I love.
There seems to have been a resurgence of the Hollywood musical of late, with La La Land and The Greatest Showman in particular. What’s your thought on how musicals are manifesting in film today?
I think it’s really exciting. There’s a special magic to the movie musical, the fact that you can think a little bigger in some regards. It’s truly a different genre than a stage musical. With Next to Normal, people have asked me about a film version of that, and I know that if that ever happens, Brian Yorkey and myself would have to really think outside the box and say, “We made this a stage musical. What makes this cinematic?” I think that speaking for myself, and I’m sure all my peers, it’s very exciting to get the opportunity to think in that genre and make something that’s really meant for it. What’s wonderful is it has gained this real excitement and there seems to be a hunger for it, so hopefully there will be more opportunities for all of us to keep working in that field, and bring more musicals to Hollywood.