Decisions can be insignificant or life changing and that is a concept explored throughout the new musical, If/Then. I had the privilege of being able to watch If/Then at The Richard Rodgers Theatre. It stars Idina Menzel (RENT, Wicked) as Elizabeth, a woman who moves back to NYC to start her life over. She’s forced to make a simple choice with little consequences, or so it seems. Anthony Rapp (RENT, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown) and LaChanze (The Color Purple, Once on this Island) stars along side Menzel. Also in the line-up of stars is James Snyder (Cry-Baby, Bare: A Pop Opera) who steals the hearts of the audience almost immediately when he makes his entrance.
The description of the musical cannot prepare you for the brilliant plot Brian Yorkey has created. You might think the show would be a cookie-cutter, romantic comedy where the girl falls in love her best friend and they live happy ever after. WRONG! What you’re actually about to witness is how such a small decision affects our life. Elizabeth (Menzel) is offered two choices. She either goes with Kate (LaChanze), becomes Liz, and meets Josh (Snyder). Or she goes with Lucas (Rapp), becomes Beth, and gets a job as a city planner. Both give Elizabeth drastically different lives. And she doesn’t pick one. Oh, no, that would be too simple. Throughout the musical, you see her go through both lives.
Let me try to explain that a little bit better, because it is quite complicated. An example of how a scene would go is her birthday party. No matter what, in both lives, she gets a surprise thirty-ninth birthday party. First, she’d go in and interact with characters as Liz. Then, she’d make an exit and the characters automatically start talking about Beth. This is when the parallel lives switch. She then enters wearing a slightly different outfit. She’ll finish the scene as Beth and move onto the next scene. Sometimes they’d flip back and forth multiple times in a scene. It was a little hard to keep up with, especially if you didn’t realize they were flipping back and forth. Be warned, it may take you a few scenes to figure out what the heck is going on!
The music, by Tom Kitt, was beautiful! It felt very strong and heartfelt. Of course, with Menzel and the rest of the cast having such strong vocals, the overall vibe of the music was full and satisfying. The lyrics were absolutely fantastic. The cleverness was spread evenly throughout the show from lyrics to book. (Of course, it helps Brian Yorkey wrote both the lyrics and book.) All together, the writing was sarcastic and sassy, yet deep and real. A difficult combination to master.
What was truly astounding was the dancing! In a show like this, you wouldn’t expect such wonderful choreography- and so much of it, too! But they accomplished it! It wasn’t overpowering, either. It was a touch of dancing here, sly footwork there, and every once and a while, a slow motion lift would go into play. There were definitely deep stories within the ensemble who were doing all of this dancing, but I was always focused so much on the leads that I didn’t pay attention. I knew that if I did pay more attention to the background, I would’ve understood who was in love with who during which life. This added a bit of depth to this story. It felt a bit more real because there wasn’t just one person to focus on and just their story. Everyone around them mattered and everyone had their own lives. It was a unique move to do this, but a great one!
The acting in this production was lovely. I could physically feel it when they threw the rope around my heart and took it for themselves. I could feel it when they tugged on the heartstrings. I could really feel it when they smashed my heart to a pulp. This show captures the audiences quickly. Everyone automatically finds one side of Elizabeth (I personally loved Liz, most.) and roots for her all the way through. Most people seemed to like Liz best, but there are a few who cheered for Beth. The audience seemed to dissolve into tears at different times. And when you started crying, you didn’t really stop until the end. I could tell you at which songs in the second act people started crying. The first group starts at “I Hate You”. Some people start a few songs after, but the second group usually starts at “The Moment Explodes”. From then on, it’s one big, slobbery tear fest.
As I mentioned earlier, I preferred the Liz life, rather than the Beth life. Both are quite spectacular story lines and it’s astounding that the writers got two story lines into one musical! However, the Liz side felt a bit more full to me. Not only was it more of a likely story line, but it was also extremely relatable. I can’t say too much on this matter to avoid dreaded spoilers, but I can say this: Liz clearly gets happiness. She gets it together. I like that for a minute at least, Liz has something normal and real. Beth has an unusual whirlwind of strange disasters. She never really gets a moment to take a breath and smile whereas Liz does. Being the optimist I am, I like it when my characters are a little bit happy. There were several other people who had different opinions than I did, and I’d love to hear more on the Liz versus Beth debate.
This show is truly spectacular, and I’m surprised it wasn’t nominated for more awards! It’s the most unique idea for a musical I’ve ever seen since Next to Normal (Which is funny because the writers of If/Then are the writers of Next to Normal). I’d see it again in a heartbeat! Kudos to the cast and creative team for a job well done!
Picture via nbcwashington.