What comes first: the music or the words? This question is the subject of a one-act opera by Salieri and a full-length opera (Capriccio) by Strauss, and I couldn’t help posing it to a man who himself hopes one day to write an opera: Tom Kitt. “The answer changes with each collaboration,” he told me the other day. Which was it with Flying Over Sunset, for which he has composed the music? “For the bulk of the songs, the lyrics were written first,” Kitt said.

Kitt’s most frequent collaborator is lyricist Brian Yorkey, whom he met during his undergraduate days at Columbia and with whom he created Next to Normal (Tony Award for Best Musical, Pulitzer Prize), If/Then, and The Visitor, which is happening this spring at New York’s Public Theater. “It’s always exciting to begin a new collaboration, and I was very much looking forward to working with James Lapine and Michael Korie. The process has been quite organic and truly inspiring.”

It was Lapine who conceived the story – Cary Grant, Clare Boothe Luce, and Aldous Huxley collide in 1950s Los Angeles. “I was contacted by James,” Kitt said. “He pitched the project to me. He’s been a great influence, so I immediately thought this would be a thrilling endeavor and that I wanted to go along on the ride.”

The ride for the characters involves taking LSD, and some of the songs are performed while they are under the influence. How did this affect the development of the music? “I didn’t want to think too hard about needing to make the music sound drug-induced,” Kitt said. “Whether in an altered state or with feet firmly on the ground, they are experiencing human emotions, and the music needed to express those emotions.”

The songs come in a mixture of modes: waltz, music-hall, Fellini-esque. “I knew that the story would involve a number of styles,” Kitt said, “and I found working in them to be an enjoyable challenge.”

Kitt’s musical background is varied. He started out as a classical pianist and, in high school, moved on to a singer-songwriter track. “I love Billy Joel and Elton John, and I still go back to those brilliant albums for inspiration.” He got a chance to work in this 1970s-inflected vein recently with the musical adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie Almost Famous, which had a successful run this past fall at The Old Globe in San Diego and is headed for Broadway. Kitt wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Crowe. Kitt also did the music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements for the current Broadway hit Jagged Little Pill

In addition to the desire to write an opera, Kitt wants to work on a musical in the horror genre. “There have been shows that have used horror elements quite successfully,” he said, “shows which genuinely frightened me at times.” Kitt added: “With a horror musical the challenge is to make sure that people don’t get taken out of the story once they start singing. But they say musicals occur when emotion becomes so great that you have to sing. Fear is a huge emotion and certainly could be a place to sing from as well.”

To help navigate the terrain of musical storytelling in Flying Over Sunset, Kitt said having an expert like Lapine has been crucial. “In the words of our musical, James is ‘a wonderful guide.’ He has an instinctive sense of what the music needs to do, how it needs to flow, and when the dialogue needs to do the work. I’ve learned a great deal from him.”

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com