by Loren Noveck · April 5, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #70: Loren Noveck comments on If/Then
“Once every day,” a busker sings in the opening scene of If/Then, the new musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, “your life starts again. No one can say just how or just when.” Elizabeth, though, can always say just when; she’s obsessed with the what ifs of her life. Now, thirty-eight years old (“flirting with forty...and already too late,” she sings) and newly divorced, she returns to New York to seek the life she should have had: meaningful work (according to her college boyfriend, Lucas) and/or true love (per her new best friend and neighbor, Kate). On this day, on an outing with Lucas, a housing activist, and Kate, a kindergarten teacher who makes friends wherever she goes, Elizabeth faces a pivotal moment: in choosing whether to hang out in the park with Kate or go meet Lucas’s activist circle, she sets up the next five years of her life.
The rest of the musical plays out two different lives for Elizabeth (a star turn for Idina Menzel). In one, she is Beth: she goes with Lucas, who prompts her to answer her phone when it rings with an unknown number. The call leads to a graduate school friend hiring her as a high-powered city planner--but her personal life languishes. She has a tepid ongoing affair with Lucas that means more to him than it does to her, and ultimately destroys their friendship.
In the other, she’s Liz: she misses the call that would have led to the job because she’s talking to a man who’s just introduced himself: Josh, a trauma surgeon and returning Army veteran. She’s skeptical--but after a few more encounters, they fall in love. Her career is no longer her focus; she teaches, but the relationship--her marriage to Josh and their kids--becomes the central story of that life. Lucas meets a colleague of Josh’s, David, and falls in love himself. (Kate has the same girlfriend, Anne, in both versions, though the course of their relationship plays out slightly differently.)
Yet despite the focus on choices, all of the lives presented feel so conventional, bland, commercialized visions of fulfilling adulthood, neither admitting messy possibilities or the continual challenges that mark most of our lives. There’s no tonal or stylistic difference between the two timelines; the show would be much more interesting if, for example, Kitt and Yorkey’s songs developed different musical idioms for Liz and Beth. Beth can be a brilliant urban planner who doesn’t need deep human connections in her life (and who will judge her protegee for making family-centered life choices of her own), or Liz can be a wife and mother whose career is far on the back burner and whose life is filled with supportive friends. (The comparative social isolation of the career-minded Beth does feel like a rebuke; where Liz has a fabulous surprise party full of guests for her birthday, Beth has two friends and one staff member to celebrate.) Lucas can settle down with a doctor in Brooklyn or publish a book. Beth can be a fan of the Yankees, because they’re “efficient and well organized”; Liz likes the Mets, “adorable losers” that they are.
Too, even though Elizabeth is coming off a failed marriage and a stalled career, Yorkey’s lyrics (also blander and more homogenous than one wants them to be) about “making a new life” and “always starting over” only imagine future possibilities, as if Liz or Beth’s real life starts now, as if all the choices she’s already made can simply be erased (admittedly an attractive fantasy for the about-to-be-middle-aged, but one that seems to undercut the premise of the show).
With a musical set in a self-consciously pan-ethnic and pan-sexual NYC, directed by Michael Greif and starring Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp (as Lucas), the legacy of Rent is perhaps unavoidable, but the characters and the city depicted here feel entirely different. If Rent depicted the beginning of gentrification’s intrusion into a New York full of artists, If/Then shows a city with no roughness around the edges, a city driven by market research, urban planning, data mining. Liz says to Josh on their first date, “the odds of two single people, in their thirties, in a major American urban center…Look, start with the single population, factor in divorce rates, consider the transitory nature of an urban populace…” And the show does sometimes feel like it’s been calculated by market researchers for ideal demographic appeal: a dash of edginess (a song called “What the Fuck” and a panoply of mixed-race gay couples) overlaying a bedrock of conventionality, with plenty of domesticated married bliss, exciting visions of real-estate development, and middle-class comforts. With each character split between two stories, they remain lists of traits rather than people: Liz/Beth’s main characteristic is her tendency to overanalyze. Josh is a soldier and a surgeon and therefore caring and giving and conscientious. Kate is the spirited, spunky friend who guides Elizabeth’s emotional life in a role that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the “Magical Negro” trope.
Despite my reservations, the show is a crowd-pleaser, expertly pitched as wish fulfillment for the affluent, 42.5-year-old female theatergoer who is the average Broadway ticket-buyer. Menzel has plenty of show-stopping solos and keeps the audience rapt. James Snyder’s Josh is good-looking, smart, successful, and loving. LaChanze (as Kate), Anthony Rapp (as Lucas), and Jenn Colella (as Kate’s girlfriend, Anne) bring warmth, humor, and genuine affection to characters that could feel flat. Mark Wendland’s set, which makes evolving use of a mirror wall/ceiling to keep the idea of doubling constantly in mind set is striking, though the mechanics of it can feel a bit fussy. Michael Greif uses the ensemble smartly, and also knows when to hold back and let Menzel take the spotlight. I may not want to live in the New York, or the model of forty-year-old female life, that the show is pitching, but its broadest message--that it’s never too late to take back your life and make something of it--will no doubt appeal to many.