“If/Then,” the new musical that opened earlier this week at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, might disappoint Idina Menzel fans and anyone who hoped that the creators of “Next to Normal” might replicate that show’s success and quality.
The show features music written by Tom Kitt, CC ’96, accompanied by lyrics and a book written by Brian Yorkey, CC ’93.
The Varsity Show and Columbia Kingsmen alums’ first joint effort since 2009’s “Next To Normal,” which won them a Pulitzer Prize, seems to be a continuation on a theme, combining elements of magic realism and the often sad seriousness of domestic situations that first led them to write about a family tragedy surrounding a housewife and mother with bipolar disorder. In “If/Then,” Kitt and Yorkey turn to the intertwined subjects of loss and regret, and the question of if what we have or haven’t done in one life, we could then reverse in another.
In the musical’s first scene, we meet Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), a recent divorcée and unfulfilled urban planner, who has just moved from Phoenix to New York. While waiting for her in Madison Square Park, Elizabeth’s newest friend, Kate (LaChanze), a boisterous kindergarten teacher, happens to introduce herself to Lucas (Anthony Rapp), Elizabeth’s oldest friend and college boyfriend. Kate thinks it’s fate—a sign!—to which Lucas replies that “I don’t think it was fate so much as it was you.”
As for Elizabeth, her plaintiveness about what might have been pervades the musical. In the park, Elizabeth can make one of two choices—to stay with Kate and meet the love of her life, or to leave with Lucas—but the magic of “If/Then” is that we get to see the lives resulting from both, the former through scenes with “Liz,” who wears glasses, and the latter through scenes with “Beth,” who does not.
The ensuing story unfolds in the streets, apartments, and squares of New York City—and for one musical number, a stalled subway train under the East River—depicted admirably by a spare and angular set design, composed of mobile rectangular frames and a climbable contraption reminiscent of fire escapes. The ensemble cast, all of whom enter and exit scenes like so many New York crowds, move these structures themselves, demonstrating the ways in which New Yorkers participate in their environment and, by doing so, participate in each other’s lives. When Beth sings, “These lives are lived somewhere, by some other me,” unnamed people go about their days silhouetted in the background.
In the end, what the story wants to free New Yorkers from is Elizabeth’s original anxiety about fate and choices and opportunity—because living entails never knowing the answer. This is a feat that “If/Then” pulls off clumsily. It is a story-intensive musical with more songs than most theatergoers may be used to hearing. The orchestration, which is significantly inferior and monotonous compared to that of “Next To Normal,” is rarely memorable, and the lyrics harp, too often and too simply, on the same subject.
It is hard to believe that the man who wrote, “For all those years I prayed that/You’d go away for good/Half the time afraid that you really would” in “Next to Normal,” wrote the many lackluster songs (“A map of New York is written on your heart”) for “If/Then.”
The result is a musical that only achieves the poignancy the subject merits during a few brilliant moments in the second act, when the story becomes overcome with grief. Kitt and Yorkey seem to be particularly skilled at writing about this experience, and Menzel’s acting and her vocal skills especially—always superb—are keyed into grieving like no other emotion in the show.
In one of the musical’s last scenes, Beth is asked if she has “learned how to make herself a life.” She responds in a song entitled “You Learn to Live Without,” which is finished by Liz.
However different the lives they have led, both are alone now. The moment is transient, but “If/Then” articulates its theme here as effortlessly as Idina Menzel sings the song—that meaning isn’t only produced by choosing among various alternatives, but also by living through the moments when there are no choices to be made.