“If/Then” brings Idina Menzel, Broadway stars to Denver
In the opening number of “If/Then,” the newly liberated heroine ponders “what if?” It is not the only song in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s heady and sincere musical to entertain that quandary. The repercussions and ripples of “what ifs” shape the story of Elizabeth who, on the cusp of 40, finds herself back in New York City after a broken marriage, after 12 years in the desert — a.k.a. Phoenix.
Idina Menzel starred in the Broadway production, which followed two versions of Elizabeth — Liz and Beth — as each headed out of Madison Square Park toward different paths. The Tony winner, Billboard-charting singer (“Frozen”), and TV actress (“Glee”) will do so again when the national tour launches in Denver at the Buell Theatre, Oct. 13-25.
In an unprecedented expression of theatrical camaraderie, Menzel and the three other Broadway principals will perform for 14 weeks of the show’s 41-week tour.
Menzel won the best actress Tony in 2004 for her portrayal of spell-binding outcast Elphaba in “Wicked.” In 2006, LaChanze — who plays friend and kindergarten teacher Kate — won the Tony for her performance of Celie in “The Color Purple.” Anthony Rapp — who portrays oldest friend and housing activist Lucas — made his mark in the original production of “Rent.” As Liz’s soulmate, Josh, actor James Snyder forged a place for himself amid these Broadway vets when the show had its pre-New York run in Washington, D.C.
“If/Then” itself seems born out of a series of coincidences and oh-so-happy accidents of timing that invite a parlor game of suppositions:
What if producer David Stone’s talent agent brother hadn’t invited him to see a fledging musical called “Feeling Electric” by Kitt and Yorkey? It became the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” which Stone produced.
What if playwright Eve Ensler hadn’t reached out to LaChanze. asking her to perform in “The Vagina Monologues”? (Stone produced the Off Broadway hit.) The actress had lost her husband in the attacks of Sept. 11, weeks before giving birth to their second daughter.
What if a kid in Joliet, Ill., named Anthony Rapp hadn’t taken to theater, thanks to the impossibly gentle encouragement of his single mom, a nurse? Or a guy named James Snyder didn’t give East Coast theater one more tenacious try, taking a gig in Connecticut as Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.” That’s where Stone saw him.
And what if Michael Greif hadn’t directed a quasar from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts by way of New York’s Syosset High in her debut, “Rent”? That young woman went on to be one half of a power duo that made musical theater history with “Wicked,” producer Stone’s first go at an original musical.
The list of contingencies goes on, proving not so much that the world of New York theater is small (it is), or that Stone is a force (he is), but also that people collide, rub up against each other in the most potent and unexpected ways. That notion is at the heart of “If/Then.”
In early August, Menzel walked onto the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, one of the stops on her one-woman-show world tour.
As she served up a nicely stirred cocktail of cool banter, Ethel Merman-like brass, and a lovely, even vulnerable, pizzazz all her own, the wind was a little impolite. “Oh, my Marilyn Monroe moment,” Menzel recalls with a laugh on the phone from L.A. “I flashed everybody.” She handled the cheeky billowing of her dress with nimble charm, locating the sweet spot between being insouciant and nonplussed.
Embodying divergent qualities is what director Greif continues to admire in the actress whom he worked with on “Rent.”(He also directed “Next to Normal” on Broadway.)
“When I first met her in ‘Rent,’ she had the most extraordinary spontaneity,” he says. “She was so fresh. She was so alive. Always electric and you knew that when you were on stage with her something new was going to happen. She was completely in it. She had that extraordinary ability to be truly present in the moment. That was the skill set I met, including that spectacular voice and all of that emotional accessibility. Then when we went into the developmental process for this, I met a very canny technician who really understood how to investigate and uncover character.”
“Being involved from the very beginning of the show gives you a pride and an ownership,” says Menzel. “We had that with ‘Rent’ and I had it with ‘Wicked.’ It’s just the most rewarding, fulfilling, creative way to work in this realm.” On top of that, she adds, there are the show’s reverberations with her own life. At the time Menzel and Co. were shaping and refining the story of the freshly divorced Elizabeth, the star and her husband, actor Taye Diggs, were quietly ending their 10-year marriage.
“That’s not a typical thing, where the songs you’re singing speak to you or are so relevant to the lessons you need to learn in your own life,” says Menzel, who lives in L.A. with the young son she had with Diggs. “I was going through a lot of stuff. I was going through my own divorce and understanding that I was going to have to start my life again in a lot of ways and that’s exactly what my character is doing.”
There’s a fine symmetry in the fact that a show about an urban planner is launching in Denver. The city’s skyline is punctuated with construction cranes. It has the look at times of a boomtown calling out for a little vision to shape its hurried course.
“It’s a dreamer profession,” Kitt said. “We wrestled with what she was going to be doing. … We had her as an economist, which was my major in college. What we loved about urban planning was that a planner has the ability to affect the lives of millions of people. I think it gives our show a real way to talk about what her ideas, her policies, do to people.”
You don’t often hear the word “policy” used in relationship to a musical. But then Yorkey and Kitt took on electroconvulsive therapy in their Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal.”
There are, of course, some kudos you just can’t plan for. What if team Yorkey-Kitt hadn’t won the Pulitzer Prize? Or producer Stone hadn’t struck a wildcat gusher with “Wicked”? But they did. And with success has come a sense of artistic responsibility. “What the Pulitzer board said to us was they honored us for showing what’s possible in the American musical theater,” recalls Kitt.
“I don’t need to chase the big one. It already happened,” Stone says. ” ‘Wicked’ has given me almost an obligation to do new work. I would do a revival of a play because that’s a play, but I won’t do a revival of a musical. I won’t do a jukebox musical. I want to do work that moves people and makes the audience go home and think about their lives.”
What if a smart, willfully contemporary Broadway musical blew into town like a house picked up by a twister and relocated on a stage with its stars and creative team intact and ready to make audiences ask life’s familiar yet tough questions? What if, indeed.