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Tom Kitt talks 'If/Then' and why economics is a good major for a composer

The popular musical is being performed at the Kimmel Center this week.

Brian Yorkey, left, and Tom Kitt, right, working together.

Matthew Murphy

What if you could see where your choices took you? That is the idea behind the hit musical “If/Then”, currently being performed at the Kimmel Center. The musical follows Elizabeth as she returns to New York City and is faced with choices that ultimately affect her life. We chat with Tony winning composer, Tom Kitt about what makes this show so special as well as some of his musical influences.

What makes “If/Then” different from the other shows you have written in the past?
First and foremost would be the basic conception of this — of the story telling. I have never written a show where we basically told two stories at once. With a character’s life split into two so theatrically, we had to figure out a language for that magical realism.

The concept of the show is so different than anything on Broadway. How difficult was it for you to write two stories musically?
It definitely was a challenge because there are lots of different ways you can go. For instance, you can say that musically in this world she is this kind of music —like she sings in a jazz style—or in this life she sings in a rock style. But I didn’t want to be that black and white about it because it is still the same person. Really what the music wanted to do was support the things that are happening in her life at that time.

The core of this show is about choices. Do you believe our choices define who we are?
I think that is a great part of who we are — what motivates us to make those choices and how we prioritize things in our life. But I definitely think that everyday we’re faced with a number of choices of what we could do. For me this morning, I had a great desire to go to work but I had my family here so I choose to have breakfast with them and that felt so gratifying and wonderful for me. I could always be working but I haven’t seen them in a while and that is choice that will impact the rest of my day in terms of how I am feeling. I think what the show wants to encourage is wherever you are in your life, embrace those choices and make bold choices. Don’t think about it too much but go with your heart. That is how you truly live.

It is also about turning points, can you talk about the turning points in your life? I read that you went to school for economics. How did you end up in musical theatre?
There is a joke I make that if anyone asks me how they pursue a life in the arts, I just say major in economics. My father was an economist and had a very successful career working in antitrust. It was his suggestion and it was a really wonderful one. I really loved that major. I am glad I did it cause I think that seeds of “If/Then” definitely started in college with that experience. But in my heart I always wanted to pursue music. That is what I was dreaming of at a very early age.

What influences your music?
Like most composers, I have gone in and out of so many places. I started composing classical music when I was really young and then around the time I was twelve or thirteen. Then around the same time someone introduced me to Billy Joel and that changed my whole world. So then I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Then in high school I was cast in “Into the Woods” and suddenly my life was changed again because I was introduced to the world of Stephen Sondheim – which led me down into a wider path of musical theater.

|<image-caption><p>Tom Kitt</p></image-caption>|Provided

What do you think makes you and Brian Yorkey such a good team?
Well, I think it’s a marriage. We can say anything to each other. We celebrate each other, but we also get into little arguments with one another. We know that at the end of the day there is great love and affection. There is nothing we can’t say. I really trust him with everything. He keeps me real and true to who I am and what I am writing. Every time I get a lyric from him, it inspires music in me right there and then.

What do you want Philly theatre-goers to gain from watching “If/Then?”
I hope audiences will feel empowered and will walk out of the theatre wanting to talk about the show. Feeling like, “Here I am now in this moment. Here are these choices in front of me and I feel excited about that.” Wanting to truly live and make bold and passionate choices and to really be grateful for that.

“If/Then” is being performed at the Kimmel Center from June 21 to 26.

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