Elizabeth is a walking irony. An independent, die-hard New Yorker, she nevertheless moves to Phoenix to be with a husband none of her friends likes. An urban planner by training, she thus finds herself in a city so sprawly and unregulated she can’t practice her profession, and so teaches it there instead, “like teaching breathing on the moon.” After 12 years of this, she returns to New York, divorced and jobless and 38, to untangle her ironies and, in the great tradition of such stories, start over. How will she make it on her own?
But if the new musical If/Then has a backstory straight from the Mary Richards playbook, it moves instantly into new territory, with original results. On Elizabeth’s first full day back, she meets up with two friends in Madison Square Park. One is Lucas, an old Vassar classmate; he calls Elizabeth “Beth” as in the old days, and wants her to rejoin him in a life of activism. The other is her new neighbor Kate, a kindergarten teacher; she says “Beth” sounds like someone who “lives alone with cats” and instead calls her “Liz”: the name of someone who “moves to New York City to find her one true love.” The apparently insignificant choice of which of them to follow that sunny Saturday — Lucas to a housing protest or Kate to hear a guitarist in Brooklyn — splits the story like a lightning bolt, leading Elizabeth (and us) down two different paths over the ensuing years. As Beth, she is career-oriented; as Liz, relationship-focused. Either way, her life is intense, complicated, imperfect yet thrilling — as is If/Then itself. In its formal daring, and in the intelligence of its execution, it’s one of the most compelling new musicals in years.
Not that the concept (similar to that of the movie Sliding Doors) is so hard to grasp. We’ve all wondered how our lives might have been different if we’d chosen one mate or college or flight instead of another. And we’ve all tried to extrapolate new choices into the future, getting stumped by our inability to see around corners. But playing out these ideas in narrative time, keeping them clear and making them sing, obviously posed a serious challenge. Happily, the authors’ solutions are, for the most part, successful. They move the story both sideways and forward, cleverly alternating (often in the same setting) between Beth’s and Liz’s lives as time proceeds. When Beth takes a phone call that Liz ignores, it leads to a job in city planning. When Liz makes a date with a man Beth brushes off, it leads to love. And the ramifications keep sub-ramifying in smart and surprising ways. Lucas, bisexual in college, is gay in one story but straight (and in love with Beth) in the other. Kate and her girlfriend Anne either do or don’t get married and divorced. Then each of those bifurcations results in further reweavings of the plots — within themselves and to each other.
It’s true that as the tale fractalizes and the possible variations on similar universes expand, it can be difficult to be sure which version we’re in. That Liz but not Beth wears glasses doesn’t really help, nor apparently did a color-coding device tried out-of-town. (Sliding Doors used a conveniently timed haircut to distinguish the two Gwyneths.) Still, so what? You find ways to compensate; I eventually learned to keep track alphabetically. (Beth is all business; Liz seeks love.) More troublesome in terms of attachment to the story is that the characters, regardless of what life they lead, can be off-putting, partly as a result of the need to keep the concept spinning. (The meaning of their choices is almost all they talk about.) Elizabeth/Liz/Beth is thus no Mary Richards, turning the world on with her smile; in all incarnations she is prickly, overthinky, more adored than adorable. It’s only the immense likeability and commitment of Idina Menzel, who doesn’t shy from the most annoying traits even as she justifies them, that saves her characters from insufferability. Lucas, played by Anthony Rapp, is not saved, though. He’s deliberately written as a pill, one of those radicals who is radical only in dissent and can’t commit to anything positive: an aging version of Rapp’s Rent character. Kate, being his cosmic opposite, is (in LaChanze’s spirited performance) oppositely overbearing, making sass her neutral state and eccentricity a kind of moral crusade. If these are unusual people to ask us to care for in a musical, they are not at all unusual in New York, and they are more compelling to many of us than the characters who endure but never think about the plot machinations shaping them in more traditional works.
A lot of the credit for that must go to Brian Yorkey, who wrote the astonishingly clever and surprisingly funny book. Working with the composer Tom Kitt, he has also conceptualized musical sequences that function entirely differently from the more straight-ahead numbers the team wrote for Next to Normal (of which I was not a big fan). In If/Then the songs — with titles like “What If,” “It’s a Sign,” “You Never Know,” and “What the Fuck?” — mostly consist of phrases and motifs that keep reconfiguring themselves as comment on the action without directly furthering it. The result reminded me of Company, as did the brilliant chutes-and-ladders set (by Mark Wendland), the theme of randomness in urban interactions, and the multiple surprise birthday parties that form an axis for the action. It’s no surprise that both shows also have an 11 o’clock number (well, 10:30) that explodes all the distancing effects of the previous commentary. In If/Then it’s called “Always Starting Over,” and gives Menzel the opportunity the rest of the piece has wisely denied her to unleash her full expressive armamentarium. Pacing like a panther, biting into Liz’s confusion as if it were raw meat, she sings beyond anyone’s idea of reasonable vocal or emotional limits, and basically blows the roof of the theater.
By then, you may be a bit exhausted: every single thing that happens in If/Then is new. And perhaps it would have been better if the authors had found a way to begin untangling the plot instead of convoluting it further as Act Two proceeds. But these are quibbles, ungrateful ones at that. We keep clamoring for smart musicals that don’t just rehash some well-known property or lard it with songs we heard 30 years ago. At the same time we want stories that speak to something we feel now, whose developments we don’t anticipate ten or 120 minutes ahead of their arrival, or indeed before we enter the theater. If/Then surely answers all those needs. You absolutely never know what is going to happen, right up to the last, surprisingly moving beat. You appreciate its addressing the central dilemma of career vs. family in a very direct way and then, quietly but completely, undermining it in the end. That it does all this while also looking as beautiful, and moving as smoothly, as any modern show could, with superior performances from top to bottom from a gorgeously multi-everything cast, are just some of the signs that the director Michael Greif is offering his finest work to date.
Best of all, it does none of this just to show off that it can. If/Then isn’t a trick, any more than New York with all its imperfections is. Rather, it’s a tribute to the complicated and crucial idea of urbanity, in which population equals possibility and irony is destiny.
If/Then is at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.