The house lights dim, the orchestra plays a short instrumental prologue, then a blackout. “Hey, it’s me.” Spotlight on Idina Menzel as Elizabeth, above us on a catwalk, talking on her phone. She recounts a recent experience which brought back an earlier memory, and she speculates how things might have turned out if she’d made a different choice. Spotlight fades on her, as the warm light of Central Park swells below her, rich with people, movement, and color.
The Broadway masterpiece If/Then is filled with these moments of tiny intimacy, before shifting to bigger, more ambitious scenes. For a musical that covers so much ground, it never feels forced or unrealistic. Each of these characters, or vignettes, may stand alone, but their part in the aggregate context of greater New York and to each other shines through these moments.
Its ambitious story structure is one based on this initial choice – Elizabeth decides whether to stay in the park to listen to a guitar player, or to go with her friend to a protest. The narrative splits in two, with lighting cues to inform which story we are in (a pink-orange backdrop for much of the former story, blue for the latter). Even beyond lighting cues though, the story is reinforced through repetition; several scenes take place twice, each one resulting with different action and therefore different outcome.
The real brilliance of this show comes from its ability to take individualized events and shaping them into this aggregate. Almost every song of the gorgeous score, of mostly 3-5 minute rock/pop songs, is stretched out onstage to fit within various contexts, often between both stories. This choice not only illustrates the strength of these characters staying true to one idea, in any context, but also speaks to a broader emotional nature of the show. The more introspective, less action-driven songs, like the comical “What the F***?” and “You Learn to Live Without” may not sweep the story across, but seeing Menzel’s character go through the same emotional journey, regardless of the choices she makes, is a greater statement on the human experience and the pain and joy everyone endures.
Choice and destiny are two very prominent, overlapping but not conflicting, themes throughout this work. Elizabeth, of course, kicks off the story with her initial choice in the park, followed by the series of choices resulting from those two realities. A nice companion to this comes from her husband (in one life) Jason, who runs into Liz once, then cancels a trip back home to Nebraska, for the chance he may see her again – making a choice to opt for destiny.
Much of the musical’s profound beauty stems from this concept, of how fate overrides any choices we make. Without giving too much away, the very last scene is immensely satisfying through its implications that certain people are meant to be and will inevitably find their way into our lives.
This inspiring notion, paired with the brilliant flashes of human tragedy and pure joy, make If/Then one of my favorite musicals. The entire piece is bursting with passion and truth, and is truly an experience to be beheld.