Premiering at the National Theatre, If/Then stars Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel, who will return to Broadway for the first time since Wicked. This original musical reunites Tom Kitt (music), Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Michael Greif (director), the creative team behind the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical, Next to Normal. The play reunites Menzel with Anthony Rapp, with whom she appeared in the original cast of Rent. Rapp is best known for originating the role of Mark Cohen in that Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. He plays Lucas, an old college friend of Elizabeth, who reconnects with her when she moves back to New York City. James Snyder, who played the title character in the Broadway musical Cry-Baby, plays Josh, a doctor and army reservist who meets Elizabeth on her first day back in the city.
WJW interviewed director Michael Greif as he was preparing to leave New York for D.C. to preview his new production.
WJW: What’s the play about?
Greif: Here’s what the story is about — a woman (Menzel as Elizabeth), close to 40, has left a rotten marriage and returns to New York City to start life over. She grew up in the city and spent time there studying urban planning. She was a very promising student and social scientist but gave it all up for her marriage. This story is about her reclaiming her life. Then what happens is we see, based on some seemingly casual or not so meaningful events, how her life diverges into two different paths. The audience sees her two alternative lives as it plays out over the next six years.
WJW: How do you stage two versions of one life?
Greif: It’s a wonderful challenge. One of the things certainly in building this is measuring the moments and refining the moments of when we want absolute clarity of which storyline we’re in, and when we want ambiguity and when we want moments where both lives face the same situation.
WJW: This is an unbelievable production. How did you all come together?
Greif: I’m very happy that many of the great talents in the play are people I started my career with. Idina, Anthony and I did Rent together, so it’s a wonderful reunion. LaChanze is someone whose work I’ve admired. (LaChanze won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Celie in The Color Purple and originated the role of Ti Moune in Once on This Island. She plays Kate, an elementary school teacher and new neighbor of Elizabeth.) It all started with Brian Yorkey, Tom Kitt and I. We had an exciting and challenging time on Next to Normal.
WJW: Explain the process of putting a play together.
Greif: It’s a completely original musical — not based on a film or book. It was Tom and Brian’s idea. And it’s developed over three years. Brian and Tom and I really learned how to work well together during Next to Normal. And the same wonderful producer, David Stone, who guided Next to Normal has guided If/Then.
The music is contemporary, theatrical and tells dramatic stories. In many ways, it has been developed with Idina for many years. She has helped shape and inspire some of the musical choices.
WJW: Why D.C.?
Greif: I think part of it has to do with the fact that Next to Normal had shot at second life at Arena Stage. We were also looking for an intelligent and mature audience and this is the kind of audience we’re excited to preview in front and learn from.
WJW: How does a preview work? Do you ask the audience questions at the end of the performance?
Greif: A lot of the feedback is the observation of the audience receiving the information. Not actual messages but an awareness of watching the show. There may be some formal situations, like talkbacks. And I think there will be many people who will seek out opinions from the audience to see what lands and what doesn’t. We’re really excited about bringing it to D.C. We’ve been rehearsing for five weeks and are excited to start work and see the audience reactions.
WJW: Will the play change during the run, based on the feedback? Will what ultimately goes to Broadway be different from what we’ll see at the National?
Greif: In the course of our preview period it will change. We will learn things and will have opportunity to work and respond to what audience tells us.
WJW: Idina Menzel is a Jewish woman. Any chance her character, Elizabeth, is Jewish?
Greif: It’s not a part of the storyline although she’s a New York gal. I do feel comfortable saying I think Jewish girls are going to like it (If/Then) a great deal.
The brand new musical will have its out-of-town tryout at the National Theatre, Nov. 5 through Dec. 8. Following its engagement at the National Theatre, If/Then will play Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre in spring 2014, beginning previews on March 4 and officially opening on March 27.