The website for the touring company of If/Then boasted that it was the first Broadway show to begin its tour with the principle cast intact. That claim is a thin sugar coating over the bitter reality that the only draw to this misguided musical is its principle cast—specifically Idina Menzel.
To her credit, Menzel has given 100% dedication to this star vehicle with songs written specifically for her voice by the creative team behind Next to Normal. Her distinctive vocal range, known to Broadway fans for “Defying Gravity” and to the world for “Let it Go,” singlehandedly held this show aloft on Broadway despite lackluster reviews and nonexistent word-of-mouth. Menzel’s participation in the touring company gives If/Then a second life, even if it will likely play to half-empty houses once she exits on January 24.
The plot is problematic from the opening scene partly because Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) push self-importance past the boiling point by dedicating so much time to informing the audience that If/Then is insightful theater. The opening number “What If?” asks, “How much can one small decision change our entire lives?” Having just returned to Manhattan after 12 years in Phoenix dominated by a failed marriage, Elizabeth (Menzel) meets two friends in Central Park and quickly establishes herself as a self-centered, introspective bore by over-analyzing the importance of one tiny decision. Does she go with her new friend Kate (LaChanze), who wants to watch a street musician playing guitar—or does she go with her college boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp), who wants her to meet some of his “housing activist” friends?
The movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow successfully utilizes this device of following two plot lines that diverge at a single critical moment. However, unlike If/Then, Sliding Doors begins with a much higher-stakes game changer. In plot line one, Platrow’s character barely makes an Underground train, gets home early, and catches her boyfriend in bed with another woman. In plot line two, she misses the train, gets home late, and remains in a relationship with the philanderer. That was an interesting set-up.
The dueling paths in If/Then begin with a mundane decision (to repeat: watching a guitar player in the park? Really?) and shift into two storylines that confuse the audience to the point of frustration. Here’s how it works: Elizabeth wants to change her name following her divorce. When she goes with Kate, she changes her name to Liz. When she goes with Lucas, she changes her name to Beth. For the next two hours and 45 minutes, she switches back and forth between Liz and Beth. So Menzel might be Liz at one moment, and then Lucas walks on stage and says, “Hi, Beth. Good job on that urban planning project,” and the audience must rewind and think Now she’s Beth. That’s the one that took a phone call and focused on her career after going with Lucas. Then Liz’s husband Josh (James Snyder) will walk on stage and say, “Hi, Liz. Are the kids asleep?” and the audience is forced to rewind and think Now she’s Liz, the one that met a bland Army Reserves soldier and had a family. Sound confusing? By the end, the only consistency is the unintentional subtext that a modern woman cannot find fulfillment is she balances a career and a family.
If/Then does contain a solid showstopper in “Always Starting Over,” a number destined to find a home in Menzel’s future concerts. I recommend watching Menzel’s performance at the 2014 Tony telecast, but while watching consider that this song is performed following two hours and 40 minutes of forgettable music and wafer-thin characters. Note to Kitt and Yorkey: a number like “Always Starting Over” needs to go at the end of the first act. Give your audience something exciting to talk about during intermission—don’t force your high-powered lead to expend all of her energy attempting to win back an audience that has long since stopped caring.*
Believe it or not, Menzel—who could receive a standing ovation by walking down the street in Manhattan—did not receive the expected standing ovation (at least not in San Diego). Menzel clearly believed in this show enough to save it from the cutting room floors of workshopping, but even Menzel’s voice was not enough to save the goodwill of a bewildered audience.
*On my way out of the theater, a friend and I had a spirited discussion regarding which of the minor characters most needed to be cut. I voted for David (Marc Delacruz)—Lucas’s boyfriend in Liz’s plotline. My friend voted for Anne (Janine DiVita)—Kate’s girlfriend in both plotlines. We agreed to agree that both characters could easily have been cut.