Tom Kitt Breaks Down His Original Score for Off-Broadway Musical Superhero

Cast Recordings & Albums   Tom Kitt Breaks Down His Original Score for Off-Broadway Musical Superhero
 
Starring Kate Baldwin, Bryce Pinkham, and Kyle McArthur, the musical—featuring a book by John Logan—premiered at Second Stage in 2019.
Superhero_Second_Stage_Theater_Production_Photos_2019_HR
Kate Baldwin and Kyle McArthur Joan Marcus

I wrote Superhero for my children. I wanted to express to them my fears about the world that they are living in and even more, the world that is being left to them. But I also wanted to give them hope. To show them that their actions can have impact and that the day can always be saved. And most of all, to tell them how much I love them and that I wish I could protect them from everything this world will throw at them. But we know we can’t. They will get hurt.

So, I wrote Superhero to delve into these fears and deep personal feelings and turn them into a story of connection and triumph over adversity. Art has always been the way I come to a greater understanding and appreciation for the human experience, and I knew Superhero would be a very important and cherished endeavor. The story is born out of the belief that the fantastical is always around us if we look for it. That there are protectors and angels living among us who help make the world a less scary and more hopeful place. It seeks to delve into the psyche of those beings, to humanize the toll that protecting us takes on them; and the toll that the failure to protect us exacts as well.

As I sit here typing this exploration back into the world of Superhero, it is a completely new experience with new discoveries, feelings, and emotions. Listening to these songs in the current landscape, I feel a lot of potent things, but mostly, I have a huge sense of gratitude for this piece, and for everyone who helped it to become a reality. These characters speak to me in this moment as friends and family would. For the beauty of art is that it does not live in a vacuum. How art impacts us depends on so many things, not least of which is the context in which we experience it.

Here are some stories and musings about Superhero that I hope will illuminate, entertain, and perhaps, provide some much needed comfort that the angels of the world are looking out for us and protecting us in ways we can never truly know.

“THE ADVENTURES OF THE AMAZING SEA MARINER”
The original opening number was called “World of Crush,” which was a title [bookwriter] John Logan came up with that inspired me immediately. To me, it suggested the bombardment of our children’s senses, both from peers and from screens. The music had a Beatles Revolver vibe to it and the cast loved singing it. But in the end, it was all wrong. One of my initial impulses about the show was that I wanted it to be inspired musically by the soaring, heart-thumping cinematic music of John Williams, especially his score for the original Superman film. I can still remember the first time I heard that music in the theater. It literally blew me out of my seat. The music is triumphant and galvanizing, but is also filled with great beauty and romance. So, when I went back to investigate a new opening, I wanted to lean more heavily into this tonality and make it the voice of the world that Simon creates (Kyra Sims’ gorgeous French horn playing opens the album and evokes this world beautifully throughout). Simon’s “Sea-Mariner” needed to feel like a fully realized superhero in the way that Superman was for me all those years ago. It was fun to come up with this language, especially for his arch-nemesis, named “Crush” (per director Jason Moore’s suggestion, a neat way to keep the initial hook idea in some way). The original ending to this opening sequence had Simon envision that Crush is not defeated, but rather, and unbeknownst to our hero, is slowly getting up for a new attack. Simon is powerless to stop it, which we find out later, is really a metaphor for Simon’s unresolved grief at being unable to prevent the accident that took his father’s life. In performance, we changed this ending to be about the reveal of the Sea-Mariner’s secret identity, which his mom frustratingly interrupts. But after talking it through, John and I decided to restore the original ending, which, to us, has more dramatic weight. This restoration came after the recording, so what you hear on the album is the secret identity version.

“WHAT’S HAPPENING TO MY BOY?”

This song was an important breakthrough, for it allowed me to get to the heart of what I as a parent fear most: that there could come a day when I feel like a stranger in my child’s life. How devastating it would be to have happy memories of the past feel distant and foreign. I look at my children in these difficult days and I know that they will be changed forever by this crisis, in ways that I can’t begin to see right now. But I know I must guide them through this moment so that they can feel safe and keep believing in tomorrow, even if tomorrow is not yet the tomorrow they are looking for. This song celebrates the relentlessness and courage of all the parents who will never give up fighting for that tomorrow, and who believe that we always have the power to make this world better for our children even if we can’t quite see how to do it. And how lucky am I to have Kate Baldwin interpret all these personal feelings of mine with such grace and artistry. Kate and I would have many conversations about parenting which were always so illuminating in thinking about Charlotte and the story. The band really soars on this track (Randy Landau’s bass playing is just fantastic) and I am constantly wowed by the gorgeous vocal design that AnnMarie Milazzo brought to the score, especially on this song.

“THE ADVENTURES OF THE AMAZING SEA MARINER REPRISE/YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I KNOW”
And now back to our superhero. Like all superhero stories, I imagine that things get even more dramatic in part two. Simon begins the sequel with details on how the Sea-Mariner managed to escape the clutches of death, emerging from his hiding spot and continuing his mission to rid the world of the evil Crush. But now he watches as the fantastical and the real-world collide with one another when we are introduced to a Bus Driver named Jim, who was recently let go from his employment. The music immediately shifts from action-packed and heroic to a darker and more somber motif (I love Michael Starobin’s beautiful work here). There is something sad, yet serious about Jim—and though he sings a simple phrase, the repetition of “You don’t know what I know” felt probing and appropriate for Jim in this moment. I think we all have had a phrase like that echo in our heads from time to time. Again, AnnMarie’s beautiful and dissonant harmonies (beautifully rendered by Julia Abueva, Jake Levy, Salena Qureshi, Thom Sesma, and Nathaniel Stampley) bring the real-world pain and anguish front and center and we start to suspect that these voices are a part of who Jim is.

“THE MAN IN 4-B”
It was John’s idea to develop a musical language for the intimate and revealing conversations between Charlotte and Simon. This song and its many reprises were a joy to write because John would create these funny and poignant scenes that I would then go off and create lyrics for. The musical motif that begins this song and comes back throughout is meant to feel familiar and tender, but the repetition suggests a continuous loop that these characters can’t get out of. Every time I hear the beautiful performances from Kate Baldwin and Kyle McArthur on this song, I am moved by the honesty and the personal stakes that they bring to this moment. I laugh at the Lex Luthor exchange (John Logan’s joke), smile when Charlotte gets flustered about her own curiosity in Jim, and I am moved when she imparts to Simon at the end of the song that, perhaps, this perfect girl that he loves has her own fears and vulnerabilities as well. It’s the kind of advice I’d like to give to my kids one day.

“I’LL SAVE THE GIRL”
I was this kid in high school. Not necessarily that I had to rescue anyone from the clutches of a bully, but I fantasized about being noticed by my crushes through acts of courage. I love to write in 6/8, and here it seemed an appropriate way to underscore the tension and determination of Simon. Michael Starobin’s stirring and playful orchestrations (enhanced by the always inspired drumming of Damien Bassman) give this moment an epic nature straight out of a comic book daydream. The twist at the end of this song in which Vee ends up saving herself was John Logan’s idea and in performance, this wonderful monologue always received a great response for the brilliant Salena Qureshi who portrayed Vee. We recorded the speech, but in the end it seemed to flow better on the album with a pause, and then listeners can use their own imagination to determine where the shift in Simon’s mood has come from. As the father of a strong 11-year-old daughter who is a superhero in every way, I love this empowering moment and the way it affects Simon’s resolution. Kyle’s performance of the last line is a beautiful window into his heart, and it breaks mine every time I hear it.

“LAUNDRY FOR TWO”
I wish we could have recorded the terrific laundry scene that precedes this song. It was always a highlight to watch Kate, Bryce, and Kyle verbally dance around each other: comical one moment, understated and sincere the next. This song was one of the big important moments to crack so I decided to examine my own relationship with my kid’s clothes and how when I do the laundry, I always notice all the changes in size and content. It is the most poignant reminder of how quickly life goes by. Each shirt, pair of pants, pair of socks shows the evolution of a life. It’s both comforting and terrifying. In our story, there is one important family member missing from this ritual and so Charlotte’s fear of time passing is colored by the constant longing for her partner to be back in the equation and for life’s normalcy to return, though she knows it can’t. Musically, I wanted something that felt contemporary and had a bounce to it, allowing Charlotte to be whimsical and witty, but also have a pathos as well. The oscillating melodic line in the chorus accompaniment came to me right away and I love the way Michael captured it in the strings. This song especially has a resonance in this present moment that feels more potent to me. The idea that we aren’t asking for the moon to live life happily according to simple expectations is something I think about all the time in the current landscape. And since I am doing the laundry all the time these days, what memories will their current clothes trigger for me in the future?

“HOW DO YOU DO THIS AGAIN?/YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I KNOW”
Bryce and Kate are so arresting and human in this moment: two lost souls who finally give themselves permission to feel something again and make a connection. Their awkwardness and longing really comes through in their performances. And they sing so well together! I love the delicate and sparse feel of the orchestration and how solo instruments make their presence felt in unexpected and delightful ways (beautifully articulated by the string playing of Mary Jo Stilp and Emily Brausa and the reed playing of Steve Lyon and Julie Ferrara). For every cast album I’ve worked on, there is always the big question of how much dialogue should be recorded on an album, and this is a place where John’s beautiful scenes are so rich that it would have been a pleasure to have them in their entirety. At the end of the day, we decided to focus on the score in the recording, so only a bit of dialogue was kept in the middle of this song to help motivate the next lyric. What we are missing is one of John’s most important themes: how life is filled with beauty and sadness and you can’t have one without the other. It comes out when Charlotte tells Jim that her name comes from Charlotte’s Web, which in my opinion is of the most beautiful/sad books ever written. Their exchange is one of my favorite moments in the play, and I hear it in my mind every time I listen to this track. Soon however, the spell is broken as Jim gets called back to action. For the reprise of You Don’t Know What I Know, I got to again write cinematic action-movie music (cue the Taiko drums, thank you Randy Cohen). At this point, I have to give a special shout-out to Derik Lee who co-produced this album and did a phenomenal job. Here, he was really able to dial everything up and give the conclusion a huge orchestral build as we hear Jim transforming into a superhero and flying off the roof. It’s what I had always dreamed the end of this sequence would sound like, and the brilliant work of AnnMarie, Michael, Randy, and Derik made it so!

“IT’S NOT LIKE IN THE MOVIES”
I remember the moment when Bryce first heard the guitar part at the top of the song. He literally did a double take in rehearsal because he had been accustomed to hearing the piano during the entire rehearsal process and only I knew that the piano was mimicking what the guitar would eventually do. I love Ann Klein’s playing on this song; her groove is so warm and satisfying. I loved writing this song and getting to explore the emotional toll of Jim’s struggle to have someone understand his plight. It was fun to subvert all our ideas of what it means to be a superhero and examine it at the human level. And musically, I love the gradual build throughout the song (again, Starobin’s work is inspired). For American Idiot, Billie Joe Armstrong showed me a backwards piano sound that they use in the song "Jesus of Suburbia." As a tribute to Green Day, and because I love the sound so much, I have tried to use that sound in all of my musicals ever since. Here, it swells going into the bridge and a new hard groove takes over. The choral wails (which are actually an affected electric guitar sample) make it sound like Jim is literally flying into the heavens as he sings. I had originally written the high note on “me” to be an F# but Bryce wanted to go higher, so he literally jumps a whole octave to a high A. It’s a thrilling moment and is the kind of thing that makes Bryce a truly singular talent and a brilliant musician. The little turn at the end where Simon uses Jim’s philosophy against him was something Jason Moore had pushed me towards, and I love how it gives this song a nice emotional coda for these two characters. And for a character like Jim who has been laying low and keeping to himself up to this point, it was nice to be able to let him loose and allow him to soar.

“IF I ONLY HAD ONE DAY”
The idea for this song came into my head as I was driving to the O’Neill in the summer of 2017 where we were developing Superhero. I had just read an article where Stephen Hawking was quoted as saying that in 100 years, we will need a new planet to live on because Earth will be uninhabitable and after a bit of thought about it, the hook for this song came into my head. I recorded myself singing that hook into my phone and when I got up to the O’Neill, I finished the first draft of the song that same afternoon. Again, kudos to Ann Klein. She’s a killer mandolin player and working with her, I try to incorporate that instrument when I can. On this song, the mandolin felt like exactly the right quality for this moment. It suggests in Vee a soulfulness; someone who is grounded and has great depth and dreams. At first, Michael and I thought we would incorporate the entire orchestra. But at the suggestion of Jason Moore and [producer] David Stone, we pulled back the orchestral instruments and decided that we would mostly live in the rhythm section. It was a terrific suggestion as it allowed the song to occupy a different tonality in the score. This song is another example where the original ending was changed in previews. We decided to try an ending where Vee was not fatalistic, and she and Simon left the scene playfully jabbering over the final vamp. But I missed the more somber ending as it was more in line with my personal stake in the moment, so we restored it for the album and for the life of the show going forward. Salena gives a beautiful performance and I’m grateful we got to preserve it.

“IN BETWEEN”
This is one of my favorite songs in the show. A song about double lives: A mother who tries to balance a career and her own dreams and aspirations with the challenges of being a single mother, and a superhero who longs for a normal life instead of the chaos and heartache that is his day to day. Originally the song for this moment was called "Never Get Hurt Again," but it felt too easy and not entirely earned. Here, we can really track the shared experience of these two characters and how their pain and longing ultimately brings them back together. Bryan Perri, my brilliant musical director, plays the piano beautifully on this track, and Starobin’s understated writing provides the track with evocative swells, giving sound to a human connection that is growing. I love the way the song amps up for the bridge (thanks Mike Aarons for the cameo). I’m someone who is moved by the smallest gestures in a song and for some reason, the simple drum fill that Damien plays that accompanies “but at the end of the day” is always so satisfying to me, as is Randy Landau’s beautiful bass playing on this song.

“MY DAD, THE SUPERHERO”
This is probably the most personal song I wrote for Superhero. The realization that your parents are mortal, and that the world is a dangerous place represents the true loss of innocence for a child. As a parent, I’ve struggled with how much my children should know about the world, especially in this current pandemic. And while I know that my children’s strength will come from the courage and independence they build up by facing down the world’s dangers, I have to say, for me, this is still a work in progress. This song is a dream that perhaps there is a world where those fears could disappear. If Simon could have an invincible parent… would that solve everything? Or would there always be something else to fear? I wanted Simon to celebrate the simple, beautiful moments in life: a life without constant pain and grief; where his mom feels good and loved again; and life has hope. The piano motif that guides this song came pouring out of me, as did the verse form that anchors it. This is one of those songs that was written in a very short amount of time (during a dinner break for SpongeBob tech rehearsal in Chicago). And to hear Kyle’s beautiful performance over Michael’s gorgeous orchestration makes the song feel even more personal.

“IT HAPPENS TO YOU”
This is a song that evolved quite a bit. Jason, John, and I were on the phone and decided that "My Dad the Superhero" needed a companion piece for Charlotte. The first part of "It Happens To You" was written when I was up at the MacDowell in April of 2017. And the final rant that begins on “you can’t, can you?” was written in Montauk during the summer of 2019. I wanted to create something whimsical that could show Charlotte’s newfound excitement for life and give her character a chance to have fun with the moment. And to ask the questions that perhaps we have asked ourselves about superheroes (my wife Rita did confirm for me that Superman’s romantic skills were something she and her friends wondered about from time time). Kate is brilliant here, channeling all the excitement Charlotte feels and then turning it into devastating anguish. I’ve also been thinking a lot these days about the line, “it’s best not to dwell on what could be, what should be, you’re stuck in what is…”. The question for all of us is what we do with “what is.” How do we move forward? I’m still amazed at how Michael makes a small orchestra sound like it’s doubled, even tripled in size. It’s something I’ve always marveled at.

“WHAT ARE THE WORDS?”
This song is a tough subject. When I wrote it, it immediately felt like an important song for Superhero. But during previews, we all began to wonder whether it truly belonged. As a standalone, it was effective, but in the context of the story, we wondered if coming right after "It Happens To You" softened both moments. Was Charlotte living in the same emotional state for too long? During a preview, I remember a family friend who had recently lost her husband expressing the strong feelings the song evoked. My feeling after hearing how it affected her was “we can’t cut it.” But that didn’t stop the questions from being asked so, eventually, we decided to cut it and it seemed to work. In retrospect, I still don’t have a clear answer. But my admittedly biased opinion is that we should have left it in. Listening to Kate on this album, this song has a catharsis that I feel serves our story well. And the fact that she is able to turn the “help me” motif into a positive cry for a breakthrough is a very important step for her. The decision to restore the song for the album was an easy one, but John and I have also decided to restore it in the script going forward. I will be excited to see future producers’ take on the song and if they wrestle with the same questions or if they unequivocally make it work. Regardless, it’s a song I am extremely proud of and feel lucky to have it so beautifully captured by Kate and our brilliant orchestra.

“IF I ONLY HAD ONE DAY (REPRISE)”
When I came up with the idea for "If I Only Had One Day," I knew that I wanted a reprise of the song for Simon that would bookend this musical idea. This was a tough moment to put myself in because it represents the ultimate tragedy. How can a moment like this be hopeful? How can we continue to celebrate life when we are faced with fear and uncertainty? In the same ways that we are currently doing right now with the simple things: a hug, making art, jokes, making a connection. And being surrounded in whatever way we can by the people we love, even if they can’t physically be there. The image of Simon surrounded on this last day from all those he loved was powerful and hopeful to me. We didn’t want the audience to applaud this moment so we had to create a small vamp that would linger into the next scene. On the album, the ending feels like it’s earned, so I wonder what directors will choose to do going forward. Perhaps we can make both versions available.

“SUPERMAN IS DEAD”
I always love getting the chance to put my U2/Coldplay hat on. Their music is so anthemic and life-affirming to me. Even their rage has beauty in it. That was where I drew the inspiration for this song. The implosion of Simon’s belief in heroes and that good triumphs over evil needed to be more than just a tirade. It needed to come from a place of guttural emotion, where even though it sounds like he’s done with those beliefs, you can feel the purity in his heart and you believe it can be saved. But to do that, Simon needs to get out some very difficult things that he’s probably never given voice to before, and that’s what guided the music I wrote. Derik did an unbelievable job giving the production both weight and depth. I love the delay he added to the guitar on the bridge. And every time we drop into the chorus, the song explodes as I hoped it would. The bridge was the toughest for me to explore because putting the puzzle together of how one little change in the day might have provided a different outcome is a maddening place to go. It speaks to the helplessness and dissolution he feels, and it raises an important question as we head to a resolution: How do you live in the face of unspeakable tragedy and loss? How do you still believe that things will work out when you’ve watched so much be taken away?

“SUPERHERO”
Superhero was actually the first song written for the musical. Marin Mazzie first performed the song in the Lincoln Center Songbook Series, and she is always in my thoughts when I hear it. A superhero through and through, she was a true, singular, and gifted artist that I was very fortunate to know, to learn from, and to create art with—and I miss her dearly. It’s also a song that I created with Brian Yorkey, who has always been a superhero for me in my life and who provided enormous support in helping me believe that I could create this piece. And it was the song that hooked John Logan and helped convince him to write Superhero with me, and I will always be so grateful to John for our collaboration. For these, and for many other reasons, this song has always been a very personal, and important song for me.

When it was originally written, it was slotted much earlier in the story. But we quickly realized that this song needed to be the final statement in Superhero. And again, it’s the bridge that always gets me: Charlotte’s plea for her son to continue believing in superheroes even though this world often makes you doubt that they exist. But it just makes the ending, where Charlotte promises to be a superhero to Simon for as long as she can, a true emotional catharsis for me. It’s what I hope I can always deliver for my children, especially right now. For we do see superheroes around us all the time if we really look for them. My wife, who does everything she can to balance work and family and has exhibited superhuman strength in taking care of us, especially when we were forced from our apartment by a flood in NYC during the peak weeks of the pandemic; my children, who have taught me what it truly means to be brave and resilient; the health care and essential workers who are on the front lines; people who are donating their time and resources to help all of us get through these difficult days; the doctors and scientists who are doing herculean and unprecedentedly fast work developing treatments and vaccines; and the beautiful souls in the world who share their art and their voices to shine a light on injustice and teach us that we have to fight for what’s right, protect one another, and heal this world for our children. We are truly living among superheroes. And now more than ever, they need us to believe in them.

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