If a show represents the only new musical on the spring Broadway slate that’s not tied to a well-known movie property, then will the tuner struggle to attract attention in a crowded season?
If the show is “If/Then,” then maybe not. Propelled by the cachet of a pedigreed creative team — including the stage return of Idina Menzel, suddenly hot from her work in Disney’s animated hit “Frozen” — “If/Then” topped $900,000 in its first week of seven previews, outpacing both “Rocky” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” and landing not much behind the per-performance average for “Aladdin,” which plays in a larger venue.
But even if “If/Then” surprised the Rialto with its B.O. strength, the show nonetheless faces the challenges inherent in serving up an entirely original story with no title recognition, as creatives and producers move forward without the help of a ready-made road map.
The musical, which follows two parallel lives that diverge in the wake of one woman’s fateful choice, reunites Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the Pulitzer-winning duo of “Next to Normal,” with that project’s producer, David Stone, and its helmer, Michael Greif. It also reteams Stone with Menzel, who originated the role of Elphaba in the Stone-produced “Wicked.” Greif directed the actress in her breakout role in “Rent.”
Following a fall tryout in Washington, D.C., “If/Then” arrived on Broadway after D.C. critics and audiences agreed there was a lot to like in the ambitious new musical but that the clarity of its dual storytelling needed some work. The introduction of the two-lives device and the transitions between one life and the other were among the issues tackled by Kitt and Yorkey in the seven weeks of down-time between the final D.C. perf and the start of Gotham rehearsals.
“In a new story, if something doesn’t work, you don’t know how much to rip out and redo sometimes,” Kitt says. “There’s no proven version that you can go back to.” Adds Yorkey: “The dramaturgy of a new musical is so complicated that sometimes the thing that really needs to be fixed is way back in a song in act one.”
Early in the piece’s development, the writers considered following more than two branching lives, or delving further into the lives of the other characters affected by the protagonist’s decisions. “Ever since the initial workshops, it’s been an ongoing process of paring down and streamlining,” Greif says.
Since D.C., three songs have been cut, and two new tunes added; one has been notably repositioned, and several others have been tweaked, alongside the work done on the book and on staging elements to clarify the narrative.
For his part, Stone came away from D.C. with a better understanding of how to lure auds in to the narrative and to the show. “At first, we were being a little quiet about the story,” he admits. “But the more we can tell the audience about the central conceit, the easier it is not only to convince them to come — because people love that parallel-lives device — but the easier it is to get them onboard the story from the first minute.”
To that end, the poster image depicts a dark-haired woman standing at the head of a forked road, while TV and radio ads, as well as signage outside the theater, call out, mysteriously: “In one moment, Elizabeth will lead parallel lives. This is the story of both.”
The fact that the show turned out to be the only entirely original musical in a spring that’s heavy on movie tie-ins could prove as much of a prestige-bestowing blessing as a curse. Besides, the musical serendipitously opens on Broadway just as Menzel, already a legit fan-favorite, has achieved newfound stardom from “Frozen” and the Oscar attention for singing its showpiece tune “Let It Go.”
All that looks poised to sustain a new musical that, at $10 million, weighs in as a solidly midsized Broadway offering. “It’s not small like ‘Next to Normal,’ ” Stone says. “But it sure ain’t ‘Wicked.’ ”