Why If/Then, the “Idina Menzel musical,” won me over

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I finally saw  If/Then—”the Idina Menzel musical”—the other night during my trip to New York. Menzel is becoming that rare Broadway diva who causes all her shows, once she is cast in them and no matter what their catchy titles, to be known as simply “the Idina Menzel musical.”  I have always shrugged off her stardom since first seeing her as Maureen in Rent and then in her Tony-winning role as Elphaba in Wicked. The stratospheric, staccato, Streisand-defying reaches of her voice have always left me if not frozen, then a bit cold. And God knows if I hear one more little girl screeching in mimicry her Oscar-winning hit “Let It Go” I think I might let it go and strangle them. But this latest role and musical have converted me. I’m her newest fan.  I’ve become…ah…un-“Frozen” in my appreciation of her. 

If/Then received mixed reviews when it first opened but I am solidly on the side of its champions. Its narrative is based on the concept that life itself can be conceptual in the way it plays out and is based on the series of choices we make. The story is multi-layered as it follows those “what if” choices in the life of Menzel’s character, a city planner whose own life is more open to fate than she would allow; life cannot be contained in  a set of specific blueprints. The musical beautifully captures something about the randomness of city life that is both urbane and humane and how even in a city dweller’s sophisticated, ironic take on life there is room for some hokum and, most important, some hope.  

Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey—who also wrote the book— won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their previous musical Next to Normal. Director Michael Greiff (Next to Normal, Rent, and Grey Gardens) once again does amazing work bringing to life a new Broadway musical. In many ways it reminded me of Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s and Hal Prince’s Company, a show that opened on Broadway forty-four years ago that also captured in its flintiness and the many strands of its own story how stranded some people can feel in New York City even when they are not only surrounded by their “family of choice,” as we tend to call our friends, but also the choices themselves.  If/Then is a “what if” musical and it did make me wonder what if Company‘s creators had not been so shy about addressing all the different forms of sexuality that spring to life when people move to cities since If/Then is unafraid to encompass the experience of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals as well as the love life of its straight heroine. 

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