By Peter Filichia
So many of us who are crying out for original musicals are doubly grateful for If/Then – because it gives us two of them.
Bookwriter-lyricist Brian Yorkey doesn’t limit himself to a single story when dealing with Elizabeth (Idina Menzel). Just as A Little Night Music has often been called “The ‘Send in the Clowns’ musical,” If/Then could be called “The ‘Road You Didn’t Take’ musical.”
Yes, a song by that title comes from Sondheim’s Follies and not from If/Then. But the path one pursues and the one not chosen is the theme of this new musical and original cast album now available on CD and digital download.
Some of the song titles reveal the dichotomy: “What If?” is Elizabeth’s first song to show her uncertainty. “You Never Know” examines whether or not a certain man is the man of her dreams. “Some Other Me” has Beth consider “the moments where the ‘what-might-bes’ turn into ‘might-have-beens.’” “Always Starting Over” is Liz’s plaintive realization that she’s got to choose yet another road.
(Careful readers may have noticed that Elizabeth has morphed not only into Beth, but also into Liz. More on that later.)
Actually, the Sondheim musical that If/Then most resembles is Company. Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s musical can genuinely be described as that landmark show’s grandchild.
Bobby in Company was turning thirty-five, but here’s Elizabeth “flirting with forty.” (“Flirting”? That’s a euphemism if we’ve ever heard one.)
Elizabeth has lived long enough to “read the wrinkles on your face” and note that “most of my choices turn out to be wrong.” She may have been the one who wanted to split from her husband, but like all divorced people, she’s feeling especially vulnerable.
Now that she’s left Phoenix, where she and her husband had been residing, she’s returned to New York. While one can almost find a musical set in New York for every letter of the alphabet (Annie, Bells Are Ringing, Chorus Line – well, you get the point) If/Then is especially immersed in the city. For those who wonder “What’s in a name?” Yorkey lives up to his surname’s first syllable. What an affinity he has for the place! In the show, he cites many a street (10th, 23rd, Reade, Bond, Greenwich and Moore), island (not only Manhattan and Staten, but Roosevelt, too) and neighborhood (from Lower Broadway to Red Hook).
Company claims that this is “a city of strangers,” but If/Then implies that it’s more a town of acquaintances and friends. Yorkey believes that Manhattanites are “all in this together” and “connect” more than one might initially think. “A Map of New York” shows the excitement career-centered people get from being involved in the fields they love. And what place more than New York City offers as many compelling professional possibilities? If/Then suggests that living in New York City is its own reward, too.
But if you’re the type of person who agrees with that famous expression “New York’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” If/Then offers an out-of-towner that precise option; visit courtesy of this seventy-six minute disc.
Yorkey doesn’t shy away from detailing the quirks of the city’s inhabitants. (“We never walk a straight line. We never check a street sign.”) He’ll make staunch out-of-towners happy they’ve decided to live outside the 212 and 646 area codes. Case in point: Lucas tells his boyfriend David “It’s not that I don’t love you, ‘cause I don’t not love you, and I’d lie to say I’m never sometimes always thinking of you.” (That, my friends, is a real New York commitment.)
Another big step forward from Company is that two couples – Lucas and David; Kate and Anne – are gay. Musical theater enthusiasts have debated endlessly over the last four-and-a-half decades on whether or not Bobby is, too. Furth maintained through all of his life that Bobby wasn’t, a platform on which Sondheim has always stood solidly. A new scene Furth wrote for a later edition strongly reiterates that Bobby isn’t.
Hell, Company, with its endless questioning of straight marriage, had enough problems finding an audience back in 1970 – so just imagine what a homosexual hero would have done for business. But now in 2014, If/Then thinks nothing of having two gay couples and puts the prospect of a once-inconceivable issue of marriage on the table for each.
However, Lucas is gay only in the Liz section; with Beth, he’s quite straight and wants her to love him – to no avail. If/Then tells of the perils of being in love with someone who just doesn’t have the feelings to reciprocate. It reminds us that try as you might, you can’t make someone love you. In desperation, Lucas attempts a familiar ploy by telling Beth in song “You Don’t Need to Love Me,” in hopes that she’ll take pity on him. She probably does — but that’s a football-field’s distance from love.
Love vs. career is a famous theme in musicals. Going to the alphabet one more time: Annie Get Your Gun, Barnum, Carousel – again, you get the point. If/Then deals with both by having Liz opt for love, marriage and children while Beth centers on her career. Yorkey made it easier for us to follow all this by using mnemonic devices: Beth is the Businesswoman; Liz the Lover.
Even the choice of occupation Yorkey gives Beth – urban planner – isn’t a usual one. Still, it does subtly tell us the occupations that have opened up to women in the last half-century; in Company, only April is shown to have any particular career, and that’s flight attendant.
Many a New York man is judged guilty by many a New York woman long before he can prove himself to be something other than “some two-faced lying freak who will whisper pretty things then leave you flat and steal your cat.” That’s what Josh wryly says to Liz when they meet. Liz feels that they don’t have much of a future, and she will turn out to be correct, but in a way that she’s never anticipated. Meanwhile, if you think that Company’s “Getting Married Today” is an unsentimental wedding song, wait till you hear “Walking by a Wedding,” in which the guests have such lyrics as “I’m amazed she gave in.”
If/Then also reminds us that since Company’s debut people’s tolerance for profanity has certainly increased. Women then shied away from a certain four-letter word; now it’s part of the title of one of the songs that Liz starts and Beth finishes. You’ll find lyrics sprinkled with other words that don’t show up in churches or synagogues.
Of course, three days before If/Then’s first preview — when Menzel was about to sing on the 86th annual Academy Awards – we heard a name we’ve never heard any entertainer have. John Travolta called her – well, you know; let’s let it go. Needless to say, we who follow Broadway had already known her name in the last years of the last century, thanks to Rent, seven years before her early 21st century hit: Wicked. Menzel received a Tony nomination for the former and the award itself for the latter. Don’t bet against her winning again on Sunday for If/Then.
She’s not the only star in the cast. Playing both Liz and Beth’s friends Lucas and Kate are Anthony Rapp (Mark – and Menzel’s castmate – in Rent) and LaChanze (the Tony-winner from The Color Purple). Jason Tam (David), Jenn Collella (Anne) and Jerry Dixon (Beth’s employer Stephen) have some nice credits that helped in getting them this show.
As for that ol’ question always asked of songwriting teams – “Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” – I’ll infer that Yorkey went first. One line about a bride – “She will never look so beautiful” – obviously inspired Kitt to turn his melody particularly beautiful. In “I Hate You,” Liz starts out not really meaning it but finds that this is what she really feels; Kitt builds his melody in a perfect calibration with Yorkey’s rising action, even including a bit of valse macabre. Kitt also gives Kate an appropriately spiritual melody for “It’s a Sign.”
Kitt and Yorkey are one of only three songwriting teams to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Best Score Tony for the same show (next to normal). When Yorkey had Beth visit “the street where I swore I’d afford a place someday” the irony must have hit him that now he and Kitt can afford to live wherever they care to.
Given that you have more than one musical here, you can be innovative in the way you approach listening. At least once you should try programming the songs so you can get first get Liz’s story (tracks 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 16, 18 and 22) and then Beth’s (tracks 10, 14, 19, 20 and 23) – or vice versa, of course. If you want to hear them both in the same song, you can do that through tracks 4, 7, 11, 12 and 18. As yet another Sondheim show stated, “So many possibilities!”