In If/Then, the new musical arriving March 30 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the road not taken is heavily traveled — and so, too, is the road taken, simultaneously. It makes a busy thoroughfare, watching what might have been and what actually is.
Somebody ought to install a traffic light to prevent a pileup of parallel plots. As it is, lighting designer Kenneth Posner has thrown in some helpful color-coding to keep the storylines straight (red-and-blue states of reality, so you know where you are).
Not only is this a new musical, it is an original, from-the-ground-up-new musical, and there hasn't been one of those since — well, since First Date, which got the 2013-14 season going, and God-knows-what before that. The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of Next to Normal, Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), rate A's for ambition and B's for bravery in going where very few musicals go anymore.
One qualifier: Although based totally on itself and no other source, it does betray a passing glance at "Sliding Doors," a '98 British flick in which Gwyneth Paltrow hops the Underground that takes her into two different realties which play out in tandem. Here, Idina Menzel is Elizabeth, a prodigal New Yorker in her late '30s returning to NYC from the Arizona desert and divorce, looking for a fresh start. She gets two.
Depending on which gay friend she leaves Madison Square Park with (LaChanze's Kate or Anthony Rapp's Lucas), she fractures into career woman Beth, who rises high in the urban planning ranks, or underpaid schoolteacher Liz, who has a family with her military surgeon husband (James Snyder). One wears glasses, the other doesn't. One longs for a real and lasting love, the other yearns for professional fulfillment.
If you put Beth back together again with Liz, you would have Elizabeth, a woman who has it all — the feminist ideal — but at what a cost! "I enjoy playing how each character falls just short of the mark," Menzel admitted. "What one has, the other wants. You set out on these goals, and you never quite get everything you want."
In her first Broadway appearance since her Wicked, Tony-winning Elphaba a decade back, Menzel has as much as the new diva on the block could ask for — a character so complex she splits in two for further delineation and a powerhouse score to belt and blast away with. At first she claimed to have no favorite song in the score — "It tends to change on the day. Things resonate differently with me, depending on what I'm feeling that day in my own life" — then gradually the truth came out: "I love the song I sing at the end of the show, 'Starting Over.' It's such a beautifully written song. It feels like it came directly from my heart. All the chord changes, the melody — it just fit me, and the emotional connection of the dots was just right on."
Interestingly, she signed up for this show before a note had been put to paper. "I was with it from the beginning when it was just an outline on a piece of paper," she beamed proudly. "It was the creative team that brought me aboard." It meant reuniting with her Rent director Michael Greif and her Wicked producer David Stone and testing the waters with Kitt and Yorkey. "I surrounded myself with people I love and believe in and know will teach me and make me a better artist. They could have handed me the phonebook, and I would have done a musical of the yellow pages."
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