I was a little puzzled by the way the hotly anticipated new Broadway musical If/Then was lukewarmly received. I saw the show on the day before its opening night, and I left the theater pretty dazzled by the experience I had. Reliving it on the train ride home, I could find few flaws with the show. Idina Menzel, of course, is pretty brilliant and the rest of the cast is fun and energetic. I liked many of the songs, which, though a bit redundant in their message, are nonetheless engaging and often moving. On the whole everything felt smartly written, realistically acted, and hopeful for the future of original Broadway musicals (which was frankly, starting to look a little bleak).
All this fails to mention the specific appeal of If/Then as a ‘mature’ musical. It does after all target theatergoers much like the character of Elizabeth herself– professional women in their thirties and forties who grew up on Rent and Wicked and desire a musical that has grown up with them. (Could it be more than just coincidence that theater audiences are largely white, professional women with an average age of 42.5?) Writers Kitt and Yorkey have already proved they can tackle more adult content in Next to Normal, and they purportedly do so again here in their depiction of a woman struggling to reconcile all the possible paths her life might have taken.
Yet, as I think more and more about If/Then since seeing it, I find more and more evidence of it being too simplified, too traditional, too whitewashed to be mature. My evolving feelings have to do with how the musical depicts Elizabeth’s journey through the uncertainties of her life. First of all, although she continuously wonders about other possible roads she might have taken in her songs, Elizabeth’s actions never reflect uncertainty or anxiety. Let’s take a step back and think about the real world for a second. Everyone wonders once in a while, what would have happened if I had gone to private school instead of public? If I were an only child? If I had chosen another career, or another partner? It’s something that gives us a moment of entertainment or a moment of regret, but then it subsides and we get on with our non-hypothetical lives. However, when wondering and doubt and hypotheticals become a defining thought process in our lives, we lose our capability to appreciate our lives as they are. We also dread making decisions and hesitate to take a step in any direction because we are scared to face the world that results from our actions. It makes big decisions like committing to a relationship, starting a new career path, having children, etc. extremely difficult and anxiety-ridden. It paralyzes you. It’s a big deal. People go to therapy for this.
Now, I don’t want to diagnose Elizabeth with some kind of anxiety disorder because I don’t necessarily think that is the intention of the writers. But she hardly ever exhibits real doubt about either of the paths she (Liz in one world, Beth in the other) take. Sure, there’s some fear when she learns she’s pregnant or when she accepts a job offer, but neither is linked to her ruminating ideas about her possible lives. When a character’s defining trait and, in fact, the central topic of the show is obsessing over life’s endless possibilities, I would expect the show to complicate the characters’ lives because of it. Instead, it just feels like an adult-sounding pretext to launch a far more conventional, simplified plot in which one woman is a successful city planner and the other has a fulfilling but also kind of tragic family life. Which brings me to another point made by some of the show’s reviewers: Why do these lives have to be so disparate? If it weren’t for Menzel’s intuitive, edgy acting, I’d feel they were almost tropes: city mouse and country mouse. Loren Noveck from NYTheater Now puts it best: “despite the focus on choices, all of the lives presented feel so conventional, bland, commercialized visions of fulfilling adulthood, neither admitting messy possibilities or the continual challenges that mark most of our lives…they remain lists of traits rather than people.” Once you get all the pretext of deviating possible lives out of the way, what’s underneath is really the kind of story Broadway puts on all the time. Smart ingenue rises to the top of her field. Wife and mother finds love and heartbreak.
But the thing that bothered me MOST about the musical is its ending. And here’s where you can stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled. Beth becomes an international superstar city planner (…in just five years of working for the city…) but doesn’t have a husband/family. Liz leads a professionally unsatisfying life as a professor, but marries army doctor Josh and has two children by the time Josh dies in combat (Josh feels a bit like collateral in this very Elizabeth-centric play sometimes). As radically different as these two lives are, it would have been wonderful as a theatergoer/human being to witness Liz/Beth accept her life for what they became. To acknowledge that it’s pretty useless to try to control every detail of our lives. To realize that we CAN’T have everything, and that’s okay. ‘We’re always starting over,’ Liz sings, and we can only make the best possible choices in our exact moment, in the very real life we are actually living, not in the hypothetical alternatives we conjure that fill us with regret or doubt. Part of becoming a mature adult is learning to live with our choices and reconciling the present with what ‘might’ or ‘should’ have been. It’s certainly not an easy thing to do. I would have liked to see Liz and/or Beth come to terms with her successes and her failures, the things she has accomplished and the things she hasn’t. Because not only is it okay to prioritize career over marriage (or vice versa), it’s also a very real fact of life. We take that risk knowing that we can’t get everything we want.
Elizabeth, however, does get everything she wants. In the end, Liz stumbles upon Josh in the park and Beth gets a job offer as a city planner. You see! You can get everything! It’s fate! Because, gosh, we wouldn’t want to see Liz/Beth have to actually confront what a missed opportunity might have looked like… Okay, sarcasm aside now. If/Then is basically founded on presenting realistic adults facing realistic decisions, and yet this ending feels like the show puts a fairytale band-aid on some of life’s harshest wounds. And while I do want to give credit where credit’s due, namely that If/Then is certainly a bold step for original Broadway musicals in both its production and theme, it’s not the mature musical we hoped it would be.