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If millennials were the only demographic group in Washington that mattered, then Idina Menzel would not be singing her heart out at the National Theatre this month. Surely if the producers of If/Then did their homework before they picked a tryout city for the Broadway-bound show and chose D.C. not for its surfeit of affluent 20-somethings but because the area has the highest ratio of working-age women to men in America.
We are, like Idina Menzel’s character in the musical, Gen-Xers with advanced degrees and closets full of blazers. We are adjunct professors and/or urban planners with a greater likelihood of getting hit on by a married co-worker then getting a date on a Friday night. But this is not a musical about finding that elusive work/life balance over cocktails. For that, there are Anne Marie Slaughter essays and Sarah Jessica Parker movies. No, If/Then is about how one woman’s series of everyday decisions—like whether to linger in a downtown park for a few moments before rushing off to the next advocacy meeting—can lead to monumental life changes down the road.
As an actress, Menzel takes on a life-changing Broadway role about once a decade. She was 24 when she originated the role of Maureen, the bisexual performance artist in Rent, and 32 when she debuted as Elphaba, the green-complected witch in Wicked. Now at 42, she appears to have hit the trifecta, not only with roles that win her fame, but parts that tap into an age-appropriate zeitgeist. If/Then is not just the perfect vehicle for Menzel; it’s the perfect musical for the fans hurtling toward middle age with her, without the aid of a flying broomstick.
When If/Then opens, Menzel’s character Elizabeth has just moved to New York. She’s divorcing her grad-school sweetheart, who we gather had a cushy tenure-track job in Phoenix, and coming back east for a midlife adventure. There’s a full-of-hope opening ensemble number set in Madison Park Square (with spot-on replicas of the green umbrellas that shade Macy’s shoppers), and Elizabeth faces a choice: Does she head off to a protest with her Vassar College beau (played by Menzel’s long-ago Rent co-star Anthony Rapp) or linger with her yenta-lesbian neighbor named Kate (LaChanze), who is trying to set her up on her second day in Manhattan?
They’re a terrific trio, but just as we get introduced, the music stops. Pause. There’s a flash, or the slam of a sliding door—if you remember that Gwyneth Paltrow movie—as the trajectory of If/Then splits in two. In one track, “Liz” dallies in the park, and misses a call from the city planner’s office. She ends up working as an adjunct professor, and dating a military doctor (James Snyder) who has just returned from abroad. In the other, “Beth” takes a high-profile job and rekindles things with Lucas as much as she can, given that he’s still living the activist life with a host of human and rodent housemates.
Act 1 is 90 minutes, and every scene is propelled forward by the tension of being introduced to a new scenario and then learning how each Elizabeth will handle things. The transitions are smart and seamless because this is a new musical that has already undergone serious drafting and come out looking better than any of Elizabeth’s best-laid urban plans. Tom Kitt wrote the music; Brian Yorkey the very clever book and lyrics. This is the team behind 2009 Tony winner Next to Normal, united with Rent director Michael Greif. The theatrical newcomer is Larry Keigwin, a choreographer known for integrating real life urban scenarios into modern dances. He does the reverse process equally well.
There are some moments in Act II where If/Then’s major plot points hover on the precipice of a Lifetime movie. What the musical gets right—and it gets so much right—are life’s little dramas, like 39th birthday parties, a best friend’s breakup, and lamented missed connections.
Menzel never performed as Eponine in Les Miz. She never had to. She was too good for that standard starter brunette role. But the characters are kindred spirits. When Elizabeth sings about grabbing take-out solo in “You Learn to Live Without,” she is the grown-up, 21st century version of the French street urchin who belted “On My Own,” just wiser, more cynical, and lacking a beret. Loneliness remains a theme we go collectively to theaters to see stars sing about. And when Menzel does, she does so as the voice of her generation, this time telling us to keep defying gravity through seasons of life, not just seasons of love.