The Courage to Ask, ‘What If?’

If/Then traces a pair of divergent paths for Elizabeth, a city planner who returns to New York after a painful divorce.

Feb 3, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Cincinnati audiences loved Ensemble Theatre’s 2011 production of next to normal, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rock musical about a woman afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia. In fact, ETC revived it in 2012 at the end of the same season. Unlike many current Broadway hits, the show wasn’t a musical version of a movie or a collection of familiar Pop tunes. Kitt and Yorkey’s second Broadway collaboration, the musical If/Then, is another show that’s wholly their own creation. It’s currently onstage at the Aronoff Center.

If/Then traces a pair of divergent paths for Elizabeth, a city planner who returns to New York after a painful divorce. When her future is hijacked by fate — epitomized by two very different friends — her life splits into two parallel outcomes. The show follows these distinct storylines simultaneously as Liz and Beth (two versions of Elizabeth) encounter outcomes stemming from differing decisions.

The show was on Broadway in 2014-2015. At its final curtain, Yorkey, the show’s lyricist and bookwriter, makes a point about the show’s originality. “It’s a lot easier to go with something tried and true,” he says, “and much harder to take a plunge on something that starts with an idea … and with no idea what it might end up being.”

Kitt is the composer, but he and Yorkey often work collaboratively on all aspects of a show. If/Then was Kitt’s suggestion. “I’ve been fascinated with the themes of choice and chance, looking at one’s life and wondering how a few small changes would have made a difference in where you end up,” Kitt says. “Are there alternate versions of your life that would be as fulfilling? How different would they be?”

“I’m going to be frank: It sounded impossible to me to write a musical around that theme,” says Yorkey, the word guy. In fact, it’s precisely the kind of challenge he loves.

Initially they envisioned a character in her 20s, just out of college and beginning her career — and making choices. But producer David Stone proposed a character approaching 40. He recruited Tony Award winner Idina Menzel.

“She made this role her own — witty, lovely, funny and complicated,” Yorkey says. Elizabeth is described as a very smart woman, a bit of a wonk but a little too smart, someone who doesn’t follow her gut as much as she should. (Menzel’s Broadway understudy, Jackie Burns, plays the role on tour.)

Why a city planner? They initially envisioned Elizabeth as an economist, but that line of work felt too technical. They wanted a profession with some romance: An urban planner, whose work affects a city and the lives of people, filled the bill.

As he wrote the script, Yorkey studied several professionals, including Amanda Burden, commissioner of city planning under New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2002 to 2013, whom he calls “a fascinating, brilliant, alluring woman, full of smarts and mystery.” She provided a good model for Elizabeth. He’s proud that several real city planners have told them that they nailed the character.

But how to keep the parallel stories clear for audiences? Kitt did not use distinct musical styles; that would have been too much. “Elizabeth is in her late 30s, so much of her personality is already formed,” he says. “As the split happens, it’s not like we’re watching two different people. We’re watching two versions of the same person.”

He created two themes, rolling musical motifs that play when the story switches back and forth between tracks. “Both have a searching quality. I wanted to signal something was happening without being bombastic.”

Yorkey says writing musicals is hard no matter where you’re coming from. But to create something from scratch and have performers bring the roles to life — “that takes real courage by the creators and the actors,” he says. “People do that with only their own hearts and guts to go on.”

Their show next to normal, a musical about a woman with schizophrenia, and If/Then, exploring the possible ways a life can diverge, might seem to have nothing in common.

“We are interested in people in our lives and in our world today,” Yorkey says. In our conversation he didn’t reveal any new work, but he says, “Whatever we write will be about the world we live in now. That’s what we care about, and those are the stories we want to tell.”

“If” you go to see this show, “then” you’ll get what he means. If/Then continues through Sunday.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]