“If/Then”: A Review of the Broadway-Bound Musical About City Planning

IdinaMenzel_National-TheatreWhat rhymes with “waterfront redevelopment plan”?

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.

26 thoughts on “If/Then”: A Review of the Broadway-Bound Musical About City Planning

  1. This looks amazing, wish I was still in DC to see this and will certainly pass along to my fellow urbanists. Also, hi MZ!!

  2. Warning women that if they pursue careers, they will have to sacrifice love is a tired, outdated cliche. This is 2013, not 1923.

  3. I don’t think she had to choose marriage over a career since at the end when she’s still Beth she finds Josh again. It was simply a different path to love.

  4. As a retired female City Planning Director, I can say my career was never boring! But it is amazing someone could make a musical out of a job that no one understands or really cares about very much.

  5. Are you kidding? I am a devout theater buff and I was present on “opening night” of this show. In short, it was a RENT wanna-be. There was the “homeless, squatter, activist” played by the actor, Anthony Rapp, who originated the prototype character from RENT. There was the bi-racial, lesbian couple with the white, philandering partner and the break-up song.
    I am not a pride and my theater companion and I have used our fair share of curse words, but the show’s humor depends on the “F” word. In fact, the only song I remember from the entire show is: “What the F*ck?” Not amusing!
    The show is called “If/Then” and the finale song that seems to get the blindly devoted Idina Menzel fans screaming like they are watching Elvis or some random boy-band is titled: “What if?” Confused? I was! And I’m not dummy.
    I was tired of guessing if the flickering lights were an effect or my cue to know that I’m watching Beth/Liz in her parallel life.
    And, then there was the plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean at the beginning of Act Two – that Liz or Beth – I forget which – survived without a scratch.
    Finally, the heart-throb blond boyfriend enters twice in the show with U.S. Military costumes on. They were a mix of Navy, Army and perhaps even Air Force. Get it right! Especially, if you are trying out in Washington, D.C. For crying out loud, this is the home of the Pentagon and the costumer decides to mix and match.
    You lost me and I’m not going to go to NYC to find out if they improved the show.

  6. I totally agree with Bored! We debated at intermission if we should stay or leave. Yes, Idina has a fabulous voice as do most of the performers but this one really misses the mark of a Tony award winning show. I grew weary of the F word being used more than necessary.

  7. Absolutely loved it. Took me a few minutes to realize that we were following two separate timelines and another few minutes to realize that the blue background meant we were watching Beth while the orange background meant we were watching Liz, but once I was over that first eight or nine minutes of confusion I was on the ride.

    I would argue with your last point, though – Liz/Beth both find love and succeed professionally by the end of the show, the core difference is in who took the initiative in their personal lives. Liz represents Elizabeth taking a leap of faith, adopting a new nickname and defying the logic that had kept her grounded her entire life (defying proverbial gravity). She ends up experiencing life more fully, its highest highs and its lowest lows. Beth represents Elizabeth moving to New York but ultimately resisting any other significant change, keeping her old nickname and her old friends. Even her choice of which friend to go with at the beginning illustrates this – Kate is the outgoing and fun risk-taker, while Lucas is the aging hippy who can’t let go of the grudges and ideals that he picked up in college. It was a great show, and I can’t wait for it to open in New York.

    And to those of you whose main complaint was the usage of the word fuck – this is 2013, children. Grow up

  8. I love that having an activist, a bi-racial lesbian couple and a break up song makes it a RENT wannabe. For a devout theater buff, you can’t have seen much new material in the last twenty years.

  9. Saw the show last night, and I think they have a lot of work to do before Broadway. Elizabeth is not a likable character, especially in the first half. The whole concept with Lucas being bi-sexual, was just strange. Only two or three song are memorable. The cast as a whole was great, but the story is just bad.

  10. I saw this last night too, and I never realized that the lights were the cue as to who’s story we are currently following. I felt like I needed a timeline for each character just to follow what was happening. I LOVED “Next to Normal” and had such high hopes for this-but the score just really lacks the emotional arc of the score of N2N (beautiful ballads and driving rock type anthems), and I just couldn’t emotionally invest in characters who are different in every scene (sometimes change a few times in a 10 minute span). The cast is brilliant, but they are doing the best with what they have to work with, which isn’t much. The whole premise of “every little decision we make changes our life’s trajectory” just isn’t the basis for a 3 hour show. Just my 2 cents.

  11. It took me half way through the first act to follow the Liz/Beth thing. And I also did not clue in to the use of different colored lights. It was not all that obvious. The first half of the play seems disconnected from the second half. I felt no emotional connection to the characters until the second half of the play. They were flat in the first half, more like caricatures. Only in the second half did I begin to care what happened to the characters. All the “types” are in this play, and again they seem like caricatures or trite stereotypes rather than real people. The end was supposed to leave you thinking that Beth could have it all, that she’d “get the guy.” But a military, Republican guy from Nebraska would not be attracted to a career-centric, driven, woman who helped break up her boss’s marriage; nor would she want him. Just not plausible.

    Idina Menzel, as usual was phenomenal; she is a fabulous singer and actress and she carries the show. I also liked James Snyder. Absent these performers the play could not stand on its own and needs some rewrites, mainly to somehow connect the two halves of the show and bring the characters to life. For this show to work, you have to care about the characters.

  12. Saw this last night with 3 friends. Reminded us of ALW’s “Aspects of Love”, a truly forgettable play I’m am certain he wishes he never put his name on. I think a 6th grader write the lyrics to all of the songs in If/Then. The music was awful. Not forgettable-awful. Screaming dies not constitute singing. I wanted to poke my eardrums out, listening to such worn out songs about, my new baby! How unoriginal.
    If this make it to Broadway, then Broadway is doomed. Can I get my money back?

  13. It’s a curious play — jarring differences between the two acts…one filled with dancing and light fun and the other with more intimate drama. It needs some work, but I dug the urban planning stuff. I had few problems following the two story lines (though I did have to keep reminding myself which characters were at what point in each), but it might work better if they weren’t presented simultaneously and done instead as separate acts.

  14. We, our party of five in orchestra (near rear) seats, walked out at intermission. Of greater allure was spending more time enjoying a delicious birthday dinner at the Occidental. Best thing in Act 1 was the subway guy walking through the car. An expensive reminder to read a review before plunking down all that money for a preview.

  15. You missed the best song of the whole show, not to mention your chance to see a living legend show us all why she won that Tony Award. The penultimate song in the 2nd act was Idina’s moment, and it alone was worth the price of the ticket.

  16. And in 2013, many of us still don’t want or need to hear disgusting, filthy language. If you consider that “grown up”, then I feel sorry for you.

  17. We walked out at intermission.This will not make it on Broadway. Being kept in the dark is not Organic. I have never had a playbill tell you nothing. That should have been the first clue that “nothing” was also what we would see on stage. I do not blame the actors. But one women, no matter how talented she is, can not be the whole show. The background actors. . . do you really need them? Not in this show. Maybe they should try puppets.

  18. We saw this last night and left at intermission. I was very disappointed. Idina’s voice was phenomenal but she just couldn’t carry all that is wrong with the show. I had no idea about the two different colored lights representing the two story lines. This will not make it on Broadway in its current state. It just was confusing and there weren’t any “hold your breath” moments. I kept looking around to see if others were as unimpressed as we were – seems the answer was yes.

  19. Saw it last night. Cast is great, staging well done, plot/characters interesting, but I am /was confused? I would like to see it again having read that the lighting was the clue. Not sure that information would square it away but might help. Loved several of the songs Agreed too much gratuitous F-ck use. Good for a bit but if, you are beyond junior high, too much! Loved the charcters. Actors were great!

    Plot lines too unclear. My wife loved the second act as did most of the audience. I’ve seen a number of pre-broadway Washington shows that didn’t make it. I think this need a lot more clarity to carry the day.

  20. We left at intermission. It was a rude coarse show, hard to follow , and trashy. Music while okay…left a lot to be desired. Staging was interesting. Female lead singer had a bit of a screechy voice. What a waste of money.

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