The hot new show on Broadway is also one of the most complex and demanding shows out there. With echoes of Sondheim at his most creative and most inventive, If/Then presents the story of a seemingly small decision that changes a woman’s life, and the way that her life can be exceedingly different depending on her choice. The two stories play out at the same time, mixing between one alternative reality and the other.
Act One begins with Elizabeth reflecting on her choosing between going to a protest and listening to a guitar. To help the audience distinguish which reality they are in, her name is divided up into ‘Liz’ and ‘Beth.’
In Liz’s reality, she stays in the park to listen to a man play guitar and meets Josh, an Army doctor just back from the war. He’s interested in her. Though she turns him down their chance encounters on two other occasions lead to a date. Liz gets a job as a professor and pursues her relationship with Josh.
In Beth’s reality, she goes to a protest with her college friend Lucas, an activist who is just as idealistic and radical as he was when he was in his twenties. The next morning she lands a job with another friend, Stephen, who wants her to help design a new development.
Act Two focuses on the evolution of the relationships Beth develops and loses as her career takes off, while Liz’s life revolves around her family and Josh. Both lives are impacted by tragedy and misfortune; both handle them very differently.
There are small hints which help give away which reality we are in (Liz wears glasses, Beth doesn’t, there are lighting and costume differences), but even so the play demands serious attention from its audience. I was reminded of Sunday in the Park with George, a similarly difficult piece which asked so much of the audience that there were people who would get up and leave during the second act, unable to figure out what was going on.
When I saw If/Then, I didn’t notice anyone get up and leave, which I considered to be astonishing. If you are looking for a musical which asks nothing of you as an audience member but rather exists for the sake of entertainment, go see a Disney show – this is not your cup of tea.
Idina Menzel, high off her performance in Frozen, delivers an absolutely amazing performance that blows away any reservations one might have of her as an actress. To switch between characters so quickly and fluidly without flubbing is a miraculous feat, and the fact that the Tony Award slipped away from Menzel is absolutely sinful.
Anthony Rapp (with whom Menzel formerly starred in Rent) delivers a strong performance as Lucas, and LaChanze, who won the Tony for her performance in The Color Purple, performs an incredible series of songs that almost upstage Menzel.
The score is strong, without the slumps most listeners are used to. (Admit it, there’s always one track we want to skip over on every album we listen to.) ‘It’s a Sign’, ‘A Map of New York’, ‘What the Fuck?’, ‘The Moment Explodes’, and ‘You Learn to Live Without’ are incredible pieces which linger on in the minds of the listener and display the best elements of the cast’s abilities.
The set design is one of the most innovative that I’ve seen, using a giant mirror to reflect the action on the stage, reinforcing the duality of the show. Lights appear from the floor of the stage and reflect in the sky as a grid of the New York City transit system or create the illusion of the cast walking through a starry void. The set rolls around in large boxes which become, by turns, an apartment building, a subway, a kindergarten and an office. Even with this limited setting, there is no doubt where we are and when we are.
The one thing which I found incredible about the play is that there are a lesbian and a gay couple who exist without any comment on their sexuality. Their sexuality isn’t the issue that makes them important to the play; their friendships with Liz and Beth are what make them important. This is a refreshing break from the usual tropes of LGBT+ characters on the stage, which tend to be either tormented by their sexuality or comic foibles for the main characters.
This is a musical which could have gone off the tracks with extreme ease. Everything has to be timed just right, and the absence of a pair of glasses or one missed set change could derail the entire story, leaving the audience in complete confusion. Even so, If/Then still manages to be one of the most successful musicals, a wonderful follow up to Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s previous collaboration, the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal. This musical deserves its status as one of the best shows on Broadway.