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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As Menzel's BFF in the show, a kindergarten teacher with plenty of kick and bounce, LaChanze is likewise returning to Broadway for the first time since her Tony-winning work as Celie in The Color Purple. "It took a while to decide what it was going to be, but this character, Kate, is the best I've found," she said. "I like the role because it's brand new. My character is happy, full of life. I get to be funny, which I typically don't get to be." (For handy example, the charred earth of Ragtime.)
"This character really trusts herself," she continued. "She steps out there, and she's bold. She's that New Yorker that you've seen on the subway. If you take the subway in New York, you've seen Kate many times. You've come across Kate, maybe at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I love representing that kind of character in a show."
And the lesbian aspect of the role is old hat for her now. "The last time I played a lesbian on stage was in The Color Purple. People don't remember that Celie definitely was in love with a woman, but in this piece what I love about it is that lesbianism isn't an issue. It's not something that's hidden. It's not something that's taboo. It's just about our love and our relationship. I love being able to really focus on that. From the beginning, right away, you know she is in love with a beautiful woman."
Her partner in the play is played by Jenn Colella, who similarly embraces the role. "I love this part," said Colella. "It feels closer to myself than any other part I've played. The last role I played was Hedda Hopper [in Chaplin], and she was a villain, and I'm not really a villain. Here, I'm a spunky, wise-cracking lesbian who lives in New York City. LaChanze is a winning actress. It's very easy to fall in love with her every night." Unbeknownst to writer Yorkey, her character has switched professions. "Brian decided she is a chef and a dancer, but those are two things I don't really excel at, so LaChanze and I have secretly decided I'm a pilates instructor/street photographer."
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Rapp is another who feels surrounded on all sides by past pals. "It's a dream to work with Michael Greif and Idina again. And Tom and Brian I had worked with on early versions of Normal. I keep calling this experience 'a bonus round' because it's all these people that I love and admire. That we get to work and play together is a gift."
The split-level storytelling brings out a bisexual dimension in Rapp's character, the actor is happy to report. "We don't see a lot of bisexuals on the stage, and I'm proud to be a part of telling that particular story. In one time zone, Lucas genuinely has a loving relationship with a man, and in the other time zone, he's in love with a woman. I feel that both of these situations are absolutely true to his core."
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He plays a city exec who keeps offering jobs to Menzel. "He's gone through quite a bit of development. They didn't quite know how the career part of Beth's story should play out on stage. They knew they had to have a human being facilitate that."
Meet Stephen the Hirer. "I think that's what's Stephen's talent is. As far as being a city planner goes, Stephen is good at it, but I think his real talent is finding other people who are even better at it than he is. That's his real talent — team-building, looking at somebody and saying, 'Oh, I don't have that talent. You come work for me,' and I'll look all the better for it. He's complex, he's funny, he's flawed — all those things that actors like to play. I think whenever you can recognize a character that has all those things going for it you have to jump at the chance to play it."
As the male love interest in Lucas' life, Jason Tam seems to have progressed from Marry Me a Little to ordering from Column B — and he likes the switch. "I love getting to sing a duet with Anthony," he admitted. "I would never have dreamed this would happen. If you had told me as a 16-year-old listening to Rent and knowing every single lyric and being able to sing the entire thing by myself that one day I would be doing a duet with Anthony Rapp, I just never would have believed you.
"I love these songs. I think the lyrics that Brian has written reflect the swirling contradictions that exist in all of us. They're not clean, and they're messy and beautiful. And I think the music that Tom has written is so evocative of what it means to be a human being and to feel this gamut of emotions. He knows what it sounds like to have your heart broken or to go through grief or to celebrate a wedding. He knows what that sounds like and what that feels like."
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Snyder, the erstwhile Cry-Baby, goes to war in this production as a medical surgeon and, similarly, enjoys the strengthening benefits of playing that kind of role. "Playing someone solid like that seeps into my own life and, I think, helps me be a more solid, grounded person," he said. "Brian calls my character, Josh, a unicorn because he's from a broken family but he's a healer at heart. He falls in love with Liz for exactly who she is and everything she is — a passionate woman, an angry woman — and he loves her in every situation. He knows how to disarm her and love her and accept her. He's kinda everything I would love to be as a husband and a father."
As for that romantic chance-meeting that changes the lives of both characters — hey, it happens! "The night I met my wife," Snyder remembered, "I was going to see a friend in a play. I was supposed to go on Friday, but I went on Thursday instead, and she was there on a date. I met her and asked her to go out on Saturday. If I had gone on Friday instead of Thursday, I might not have met the woman of my dreams."
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"The next step, I think, was David Stone coming and saying, 'I'd love for Brian and Tom to develop something for Idina,' and I thought, 'Well, that's fantastic because Idina and I have remained close friends since Rent and I've wanted to work with her again for quite some time.' So a project with Idina in mind began percolating."
Composer Kitt served Menzel well with power ballad after power ballad. "I just try to write music that right away feels inspired and feels like something I would want to listen to, but, certainly, having Idina in my head as I wrote was wonderful."
Ironically, his personal favorite number in the score is a Billy Bigalow-like soliloquy delivered by Snyder. "I've always been in love with the song, 'Hey, Kid,' especially as a father. It's just a song I find very emotional. Brian sent me those lyrics first, and I thought he just nailed it — all the joys and fears of being a parent."
Yorkey is quick to credit The Big Idea motivating his book to Kitt. "It was originally Tom's idea," he said. "He was looking at his life. He'd just had his third kid and had a life he really thought was blessed, but he started to think what a fine line it was between this blessed life he had and a life that might have been very different. And he said, 'Can we write a show about that? Can we write a show on the choices we make and the things that happen to us and the way they play out over time?'" There was a reason the idea appealed to Yorkey. "I was born probably because my father who was supposed to go to Vietnam was, at the last minute, reclassified so he was at home and my parents conceived me. If he'd gone, I probably wouldn't be here. When you look back on it, it's terrifying to think how fine a line there is between your existing and not existing, but it's also fascinating to think about."
He jumped from Kitt's idea to a blank piece of paper that kept getting blanker. "It's harder to start with no source material," Yorkey contended. "You start at zero rather than some sort of starting place, and it takes longer. I think it takes longer to get it right. Musical adaptations are a challenging form, but it's great to try to sprinkle in a few originals — a few things that started in musical theatre and went out into the world."
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A subdued Mario Cantone beamed contentedly from the sidelines while husband Dixon drank in the limelight of a Broadway opening again. They've been together 24 years.
Writer-director George C. Wolfe, busy busy busy on numerous unnamed projects, said he's particularly looking forward to Zach Braff's Broadway debut next week in Bullets Over Broadway. "I gave him his first job in some Shakespeare down at The Public, and he, in turn, put me in his first movie." About five minutes into "Garden State," Wolfe has a hilarious bit as a hysterical maitre d' who fires Braff in one long breathless stream of words. Now that it can be told: "There was a big giant rat on the set — they were filming in a real restaurant — so I said, 'That's it, I wanna go home now,' and I did it real fast." The take was too priceless to ever be duplicated.
Rabbit Hole Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire said he's finishing up one play and sending another off to workshop at New York Stage and Film this summer. "It's called Ripcord, about two old women in an assisted living facility."
Actor-producer Kevin Spirtas just did Closer Than Ever and is working on an evening of Peter Allen songs. Scarlet Pimpernel Douglas Sills is playing Captain Hook these days in Diane Paulus' workshop of Finding Neverland. He is also playing the producer part Dustin Hoffman did in the film. Matthew Morrison of "Glee" is James M. Barrie.
First-nighters included Jesse Tyler Ferguson (promising to return to theatre as soon as his hit series permits), Maura Tierney, Susie Essman, Michael C. Hall (one of the upcoming Realistic Joneses), Darren Criss and In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda.