I wondered that after recently reading that the storyline of an upcoming musical whose plot revolves around a 40-ish city planner moving to New York. Clearly a musical needs a larger audience than 40-something women with city planning degrees, but as the bulls-eye of their target demographic, I felt a certain obligation to go see it.
I settled in my seat for If/Then, which opened November 5 at Washington’s National Theater, with both anticipation and trepidation. By intermission, though, I couldn’t stop babbling about how much I loved it.
The heroine, played by Idina Menzel, got a PhD in city planning, married a grad school classmate, and moved to Phoenix. In her late 30s, unfulfilled in her career, in a loveless marriage, childless, she leaves that life behind to return to New York.
Yes, you read that right: The main character of a Broadway-bound musical has a PhD in city planning. She’s a wicked smart woman who loves data (stuck in a subway car, she rattles off statistics about transit use), doesn’t believe in accidents (like any street safety advocate, she notes they’re correctly called “collisions”), and whose dream is to help shape New York City.
The show’s title reflects the vagaries of chance, and the plotlines follow her through two possible lives — “Liz” takes a less ambitious job (disappointingly for this transportation planner, working for the MTA is considered second-class) but finds love, while “Beth” accepts a position overseeing a high-profile waterfront redevelopment project and goes on to great success, but remains single. Both lives bring joys and sorrows; neither is entirely satisfactory.
City planning, on the other hand, was presented as unequivocally inspiring. Liz/Beth duets with her former classmate, a politically savvy striver who is now the planning director, about their desire to shape the city, lay out the grid, and build a place for people to live to their fullest. The supporting cast emerges, dressed as everything from executives to delivery men, singing about how the memorable moments of their lives took place at this park, this intersection, this building.
Maybe I was the only one in the theater getting a little choked up, but that scene captured the reason why planners choose this field — shaping the places where people live. In a later scene, Liz/Beth asks her assistant how she got interested in planning. She replies that she was blown away by Buenos Aires’ Plaza del Mayo on a high school field trip and wanted to learn how to build such a beautiful place.
Sure, planners get bogged down in environmental impact studies and traffic data, just like Liz/Beth. But when I served on the admissions committee for UC-Berkeley’s city planning program, I read many essays just like that from idealistic young people wanting to learn how to build wonderful places.
There were some awkward moments when I burst out laughing only to realize everyone around me was silent. Doesn’t everyone think the line, “Teaching city planning in Phoenix is like teaching breathing on the moon,” is hysterical? What about, “They should never loan $150,000 to an urban studies major”? Or an exchange where one character suggests, “You’ll be happier in Albany,” and another responds, “Nobody’s happier in Albany.”
The entire show is a valentine to New York. One main character is a radical activist, scraping by as a barista while he fights for affordable housing, then bonds with a romantic partner over backyard chickens. The large hollow cubes that comprise the set serve as tiny apartments, rooftop decks, and subway cars, while the mirror above the stage reflects both transit lines and trees. Characters bicycle across stage, and the chance meeting between Liz/Beth and her love interest happens in a park.
While I disliked the show’s suggestion that a woman can have a successful career or marriage and family — but not both — Liz/Beth’s struggles as an ambitious professional woman ring true. And I savored the story of a woman whose dream is not to be a movie star or a mother, but to bring a waterfront back to life, complete with affordable housing.
Liisa Ecola has a master of city planning degree from UC-Berkeley; she works in transportation research. If/Then is playing at the National Theater in Washington, DC through December 8.