After Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt tackled the unlikely topic of bipolar disorder in their 2008 musical “Next to Normal,” Kitt proposed an even more challenging subject for the duo’s next work: the weight of decisions made as one approaches middle age.
“My first response was, ‘I have no idea how you write a musical about that,’ ” says Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics for the Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal.” “I was instantly kind of attracted because it seemed impossible.”
Yorkey and Kitt cracked the problem in an unusual way, by splitting their lead character’s story into two intertwining alternate timelines. The touring production of the resulting musical, “If/Then,” runs Tuesday to April 10 at the Fisher Theatre. The play’s 38-year-old protagonist, Elizabeth, returns to New York City to start over after an ill-fated decade-plus spent in Phoenix. As Elizabeth makes two very different new friends, the play considers the distinct paths her life might take as the alternate characters of “Liz” and “Beth.”
Yorkey and Kitt were challenged not only by the unusual narrative structure, but also by writing for one of the premier vocalists in their field. Broadway superstar Idina Menzel, best known for her performances in the original productions of “Rent” and “Wicked,” signed on to “If/Then” at a very early stage, and Yorkey and Kitt tailored the musical to fit her.
“If you get the keys to the fastest, best-handling Porsche in existence, that’s a thrill,” Yorkey says. “But you’d better know how to drive it. For us it was really about how we can be pushed to the limits of what we’re capable of doing so we can take advantage of what (Menzel) has to offer, and also challenge her hopefully.”
Menzel followed “If/Then” into its touring production in October after it closed on Broadway in March last year, but she’s since turned the lead role over to Jackie Burns, her standby on Broadway. Although Burns has stepped into some of the biggest shoes on Broadway, Yorkey says she has “an incredible powerhouse voice” of her own. Michael Greif, who has directed the Broadway and touring productions of “If/Then,” agrees.
“She’s always been very excited to investigate and exploit the distinctions between Liz and Beth in ways I always find exciting,” Greif says. “Because the show worked so beautifully with Idina, it’s a great testament to the show’s strength that it so beautifully adapts to another actor and singer in the lead.”
Changes also have been made to the show’s staging since its Broadway run. The Broadway production included a huge suspended mirror, which Greif describes as “very effective and very heavy and untourable.” For the tour it’s been replaced with digital projections that Greif says help to contextualize which of the show’s alternate timelines is being depicted in a given scene.
“These shows are hardly ever finished,” Greif says. “(Touring) is always a great opportunity to go back and build.”
Although “If/Then” is situated in New York, Greif describes it as a “fabled” version of the city that “claims more of an emotional territory, rather than an actual geographic territory.” Yorkey says he’s seen the show with audiences in Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle, and it’s resonated just as well as on Broadway.
“Especially nowadays, in these times of boom and bust and times of economic recovery … just about every city I can think of is looking at itself to figure out what its soul is,” he says. “We’ve written New Yorkers, but I really do believe that people in cities everywhere in America are going to recognize themselves.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
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