Chance and Choice and Risk, Oh My! If/Then Tony Nominees Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey Explore the Roads Traveled (or Not)
By Michael Gioia
If/Then, the new Broadway musical set at the intersection of chance and choice, may not have come to fruition if Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winners Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey — 2014 Tony nominees for the show's original score — had never met in college.
"When I first thought of this idea," Kitt explained at the recent Tony nominees press junket, "I [began to] look at where I am: writing musicals with Brian, married to a wonderful woman I met in college 20 years ago — and [whom] I have three children with now — and I can really trace both of those things back to being at Columbia [University] at a certain point and a whole set of circumstances that brought me to Rita [Pietropinto] and to Brian, and [I think], 'Would I be here, doing what I'm doing if that hadn't happened?' We all have those moments in our life that maybe didn't seem so significant at the time, but when you start to add them up and look at where you are, I feel like it's something that we can all respond to, and it resonates… When you're talking about matters of the heart, and you put that in — about finding your true love — that feels like a story that sings to me."
Singing the story is fellow 2014 Tony Award nominee Idina Menzel, who plays Elizabeth, a woman who returns to New York City to rebuild her life after a breakup. The soon-to-be 39 year old, an urban planner, begins her journey at an immediate crossroad — she must decide to attend a street action with Lucas (Anthony Rapp) or watch a guitar player with Kate (LaChanze).
In If/Then, Menzel's character chooses both. "Liz" (as Kate refers to her) stays for coffee and guitar music, and "Beth" (as nicknamed by Lucas) travels to Brooklyn for the street action. The choice, small yet significant, leads her character to love and loss, and fate intervenes along the way.
But, was a story about two roads taken too ambitious? What pushed Kitt and Yorkey to set the separate journeys on their feet?
"It's a story that has fascinated people for literally hundreds of years, but we've never seen it played out on a musical stage before, so that was where we started," said Yorkey. "The 'A-ha!' moment for me was [when] I realized there's a question of whether or not we're destined to meet the person who we're meant to love. I think that's an interesting question — one that certainly all of us single people wonder about — and that's what made it a musical to me. That's what made it romantic and what made it a matter of the heart as well as the head."
The love interest in If/Then is played by James Snyder, the musical's Josh, a thirtysomething doctor and army reservist, who meets Elizabeth at the top of the show, but only makes an impact on one of her two roads traveled. Much like life, the Tony-nominated writers explained, small choices (such as accepting a date with an army reserve) can have the biggest effect.
"For instance, an actor just walked by who auditioned for our show and was cast in another show and is now a Tony nominee in that show," said Yorkey, without revealing the actor's name, "so for the two of us and for him, there are all sort of If/Then moments involved in that. What I love about our show is that you encounter these moments every day. Especially in New York City, you see roads — literally — you might have taken, people you might not have met if you hadn't been on a certain subway train, who change your life…who truly change your life… What's really fascinating about [If/Then], for me, are the moments that happen in the present, and we don't know how huge they're going to be until much later."
"I think about the earlier years when Brian and I were writing together, and there were times where we almost stopped — especially with Next to Normal, where it just seemed like it was too hard," said Kitt.
Yorkey interjected: "I quit the business many times in the '90s."
"You're poor," Kitt continued, "and you're trying to figure out how to write. And, I'll never forget the Village Theatre [in Washington] applied to the Jonathan Larson Foundation on our behalf for a workshop of what was [then] called Feeling Electric in Seattle, and they gave us a grant. That saved the show and, in a lot of ways, probably saved our collaboration…so I just think of what if that hadn't happened, and [it's] another one of those, 'Where would we be right now?' questions for me."
Their real-life experience is reflected in If/Then. "You know, deep down, I'm a coward, afraid to let you in," Menzel's character sings in the first-act duet "Here I Go." "But the only thing more fright'ning is to say, 'What might have been.' So here I go."
"Take risks," Yorkey advises up-and-coming songwriters in the industry. "I think there's a lot of pressure — some of it overt, some of it just in the air — to try to do something commercial, and I would encourage any young songwriter to do something that they're passionate about, whether that's an original musical or an adaptation of a piece of work that they're in love with… There will be many, many stretches in success and in failure where you only have your passion to sustain you, so that's the thing you absolutely have to have. The rest of it may come or it may not, but as long as you're working on something you're passionate about, you never, ever wasted time."
"Don't get ahead of yourself and start thinking about the show's livelihood or the show's legacy," added Kitt, "because the thing you control is what you're writing and your passion for what you're writing. Find the stories that you feel you were born to write and to tell. Tell those stories."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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