Brian Yorkey: From Issaquah to a Tony Award

Next to Normal, the Pulitzer-winning musical visiting Seattle this month as part of its national tour, features a mentally troubled housewife created by Brian Yorkey, a man who’s been quite sanely focused on Broadway triumph since his days as a Northwest teen. Lyricist Yorkey also shared a Tony with composer Tom Kitt for Normal‘s score, and was nominated for writing its book. (The show ran for 733 performances on Broadway, closing last month.)

In Normal, an American family unravels under the wrenching effects of the mother’s bipolar disorder. (Tony winner Alice Ripley also tours in the lead role.) Not many successful musicals deal with such risky material, but then not many musicals nab a Pulitzer, an honor that puts Yorkey and Kitt on a list with vaunted names like Gershwin, Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Sondheim; the latter, during a 2009 conversation with The New York Times‘ Frank Rich onstage at Benaroya Hall, cited Normal as one of the few musicals of any adult merit.

“Oh, believe me,” says Yorkey, audibly beaming over the phone from New York, “I had three different friends who were in the audience that night, and they all texted me. He’s the guy.”

Yorkey, as a matter of fact, could be the next guy.

Born in Omaha, Neb., he moved to Issaquah at age 10. He honed his skills in theater programs at Issaquah Junior High (now Middle School) and High School until he graduated in 1989 to attend Columbia University. “I was mostly just interested in attention, and I was a terrible athlete. So that kind of left drama,” he says. “We had a really great drama program in Issaquah. We actually had one year when the six performances of Oklahoma! made more money at the gate than the six home football games. Granted, they were a pretty bad team.” Echoes of Glee: The captain of the football team was on the stage crew, though Yorkey suspects he simply had a crush on Heidi Darchuk, Yorkey’s best friend at the time. Her father, Carl, founded the Village Theatre with Robb Hunt in 1979. Yorkey quickly made an impression on Hunt. “He’s probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever known—even as a high-school kid,” says Hunt, still the theater’s executive producer. “It was clear he would do great things in the world, and it was fortunate for us that he wanted to do musical theater.”

In fact, Yorkey wanted to know everything about it. He worked a lot of administrative jobs at the Village during high school—house manager, selling tickets in the subscriptions department, etc. By 17, he’d co-created a musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the theater’s KidStage program.

At Columbia, he met Kitt. After graduation, one of their assignments for the BMI Musical Theater Workshop was a 10-minute musical. Yorkey had seen a Dateline feature on electroconvulsive (or shock) therapy, and suggested it as a potential subject. Next to Normal, then called Feeling Electric, came sputtering to life.

Then in 2000, a decade after leaving Issaquah, Yorkey accepted a position back in his hometown as the Village’s associate artistic director. “A big part of my job was helping people try to make their musicals better,” he explains. “My seven years in that job were incredibly productive in learning a respect for which rules you break at your own peril and what it takes to get a musical up and running. There aren’t a lot of places in this country where people can work on a musical. The Seattle area is second in my mind only to New York.”

During his professional tenure at the Village, among many other original projects, Yorkey experimented further on Electric with Kitt, giving it a cast reading in 2002 and a workshop in 2005.

“We weren’t sure it would ever make it to our mainstage, but it was brilliantly written and very moving and funny and we saw the huge potential,” says Hunt. “We had absolute belief in what Brian was doing, and wanted to help move that show forward.”

The show evolved into a sometimes glib but genuinely thoughtful look not only at depression and modern medical practice but, more resonantly, at the lie behind the strained illusion of any “normal” American family, all set to a thumping Rent-rific rock score. And, yes, it’s odd to hear someone singing about her psychopharmacologist.

“It doesn’t work for everybody,” Yorkey readily admits. “But the show is mostly music. It doesn’t let you out of the world of music for long. When characters reach a certain peak of emotion, it’s time to sing—well, these [family members] spend most of their lives at a very high level of emotion. Music has layers of feeling that words alone can’t convey. When we were first doing this show, some people said, ‘You should really just do a play.’ But, honestly, you’d just want to shut them up.”

Some audience members, he further confesses, still want to shut them up. “I always seem to be sitting behind the people who hate the show,” Yorkey laughs. “I once heard someone at intermission turn to his friend and say, ‘Why do I want to watch an unhappy suburban family? I moved to New York to get away from all that.’ And, you know, I hear you, man—but maybe that’s why you should be watching.”