"We all walked through the fire together. Sometimes, in crisis, people can really fall apart or it could really splinter people off... But it was like the opposite thing happened for all of us. It brought us even stronger together, so that foundation is always there," said Anthony Rapp. "No one went absent during one of the most trying times of any of our lives. We all showed up, and that... You can't make that up and you can't buy that, and that's forever."
Rapp refers to a time around Jan. 25, 1996, the day that Jonathan Larson, who crafted the Tony and Pulitzer Prize–winning musical Rent — arguably changing the face of contemporary musical theatre — died suddenly from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm and would not see the musical's Off-Broadway premiere, triumphant Broadway life and ongoing success. Eighteen years and two days later, original cast member Rapp and his Rent comrades, Idina Menzel and director Michael Greif, began New York City rehearsals for If/Then, a new musical by fellow Pulitzer winners (and 2004 Larson Grant recipients) Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which begins March 5 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
"This is particularly heavenly because we're not just seeing each other for a glass of wine," Menzel said over lunch (on break from If/Then rehearsal) with her collaborators. "We're working together and creating something new. There's a nostalgia within the piece because our characters [are] old friends."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
In If/Then, helmed by Greif — a three-time Tony Award nominee for his direction of Rent, Grey Gardens and Kitt and Yorkey's previous project, Next to Normal — Menzel and Rapp respectively play Elizabeth and Lucas, longtime friends inspired by their real-life selves. "We just always wanted to work together again," said Menzel, last seen on Broadway in her 2004 Tony-winning turn in Wicked, as she sipped from her green vegetable juice. "We wanted to find the right project, and Michael and Anthony, actually, had really nurtured the relationship with Tom and Brian [during Next to Normal], and [Wicked, Next to Normal and If/Then producer] David Stone and I became family... We kept putting it out there to the universe, and eventually, we found the right project."
"You know," Greif added, "we had an extraordinary experience on Next to Normal — Anthony, actually, was my assistant at [Off-Broadway's] Second Stage... Having gone through an experience like that, especially with a successful outcome... you really want to find another experience like that, so those writers and I certainly talked about looking forward to another project, and David Stone was very much involved with them as well. He was very excited about giving Tom and Brian and me another opportunity, and then Idina came into everyone's mind as someone wonderful to inspire this piece."
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
If/Then reunites Menzel's Elizabeth with New York City and follows her down two separate roads as she aims to start over and rebuild her life. The trio explained that each path Menzel's character takes is played out in reality, and audiences see that, sometimes, the smallest choice can make the biggest difference.
"Art is literally imitating life for me," confessed Menzel. "Without going into my personal life too much, I'm definitely going through some major personal things and have to rethink all of the choices I've made and think about starting over..." [Menzel and Taye Diggs, also of Rent fame, publicly separated last December after ten years of marriage.]
"Sometimes, it's probably too close to home," she admitted. "I [have to] just focus on the make-believe and the fiction, so I can serve the piece better, but it's just funny how the universe brings things into your life, so that you can either learn from it or have some way of expressing what you're going through — a place to express that [and] people to support you. I find it pretty uncanny."
Rapp, Menzel and Greif were involved from the musical's first reading, about two-and-a-half years back. "For us to say, 'I really want to work together,' and then a couple years later, you're actually sitting down in front of the music stand, and it's happening with the people you love most in the industry and in your life, that's when I've had those [special] moments. Way before we got on stage, they [were] sitting right here and learning the music together," said Menzel.
"[Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have] shared with me, on a personal level, how much Rent meant to them, as writers, and what a source of inspiration it was," said Rapp. "Jonathan was using this medium to talk about life — human life — in a way that most other writers hadn't been for a while and using contemporary musical style to do that, [which is what] Tom does... I don't know if they ever said to Michael, personally — they expressed it to me — how meaningful it was that [he] was the director who did Next to Normal because of their connection with Jonathan... They feel very much a part of [his] legacy." On creating a new show with Menzel and Greif again — 18 years later — Rapp added, "It doesn't feel like [a] flashback; it feels like the present, but it just feels so imbued with history, if that makes any sense." How does he describe the beginning of this new journey? "Heaven," he said. "It was just heaven."
Menzel quickly chimed in: "I used that word already!"
(This feature appears in the March 2014 issue of Playbill. Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work also appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
PHOTO ARCHIVE: Looking Back at Rent on Broadway