Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Album Review: IF/THEN (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)
These questions are asked in If/Then, the new original musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the same team that brought us the emotionally devastating Next to Normal. In fact, such questions are the obsession of Elizabeth, a woman who moves to New York after a messy divorce in order to start her life fresh. The 'what ifs' become her driving force in life, with every decision carefully considered.
For the audience, we are shown two parallel universes, where we see for ourselves just how Elizabeth's decisions affect her life. In one reality, she's called Liz... in another, Beth. And everything is significantly different.
While If/Then doesn't quite hit the emotional heights of the brilliant Next to Normal, I don't think that's what Kitt and Yorkey were going for anyway. After all, the honour of winning a Pulitzer Prize isn't easy to top, so the easiest way to keep going is to just make art. And what they've done with If/Then is strong work in its own right. It may not be Next to Normal, but it's excellent on its own.
Tom Kitt has composed some pleasant, appealing, catchy, and occasionally stirring melodies in the pop, folk, and soft rock vein. These are not just throwaway tunes that are sadly so common on Broadway these days... they carry strong resonance. This is in part thanks to the unsurprisingly excellent orchestrations by Michael Starobin, who gives Kitt's melodies a full, energetic, gorgeous life that perfectly compliments the pop flavoured songs.
Even more impressive are Brian Yorkey's lyrics. Yorkey's work here strikes a balance between poetic and grounded. Many of his lyrics are so compellingly on-point that they hit you like an oncoming train. His lyrics for Hey Kid, sung by a soon-to-be-father, are so honest, while You Learn to Live Without has devastating resonance.
The score is less successful, however, when songs focus on the overworked theme of 'What if?'. One song's title is even just that: What If? And other songs, as you can tell from titles like It's a Sign, You Never Know, Some Other Me, and What Would You Do?, simply repeat the same information in a different way. They're still appealing songs that are worth listening to, but they don't take us anywhere new.
When the songs further the narrative in other ways, they are often staggering. The aforementioned Hey Kid and You Learn to Live Without are two moving stand-outs, as well as the big and euphoric Here I Go, the catchy This Day/Walking by a Wedding, the infectious rocker Ain't No Man Manhattan, and the stunning catharsis of Always Starting Over.
Of course, the big draw here is Idina Menzel after a long absence from the Broadway stage. She's back and better than ever. Her robust, unique rock voice is in top form on the recording, and there's a rawness to her work here that can be lump-in-your-throat poignant. It's also wonderful to see Anthony Rapp back in a new musical, and his work here is great enough that you'll hope he's here to stay.
The rest of the cast is just as strong. James Snyder isn't a name that'll likely be familiar to many, but his bright tenor makes him a name we won't forget. LaChanze is, as usual, excellent and winning, and her lover, played by Jenn Colella, has a killer belt that leaves you wanting more. Jason Tam and Jerry Dixon appealingly round out this uniformly great cast.
While If/Then has divided audiences with equal camps of lover and haters, it's undeniable that Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's efforts to create completely original musical theatre shouldn't just be appreciated, but celebrated. And with If/Then, they've crafted something very, very special.