I had the extreme luck to see a bunch of awesome shows on Broadway last week (thanks, Mom!), one of which was If/Then. I had no idea what the story was going in; rather, we’d picked it based on its starring talent—namely, Idina Menzel, supported by La Chanze and Anthony Rapp.
If/Then attempts to answer the question many of us consider: if we had made a different decision at some point in our lives, how would our lives have changed? It does this by presenting, basically, two parallel realities surrounding main character Elizabeth’s life. The show begins with Elizabeth heading to a park to meet up with Lucas, an old friend (and old flame) from college. There, she also runs into her new neighbor Kate, who befriended Lucas without realizing they had a mutual acquaintance. When Elizabeth arrives, she is first approached by and rejects a recently-on-leave soldier named Josh who asks her out. She then runs into her friends, and Kate greets her as Liz, while Lucas calls her Beth. Lucas is a serious and passionate housing activist, and urges Beth to come with him to a protest event. Kate is far more spontaneous than Lucas, and suggests that Liz ditch the event and come with her to a concert in Brooklyn instead.
This sets the stage for our adventure through Elizabeth’s life: in the Liz timeline, she goes to the concert in Brooklyn and runs into Josh again on the train. Bowing to fate, they date, and eventually Liz gets pregnant. They marry, and, although Liz ends up teaching urban planning rather than doing it, they’re happy. Josh introduces Lucas (who’s bi) to his colleague David, and they end up together. Kate and her girlfriend get married, but eventually divorce. Josh eventually gets deployed again, and dies in an insurgent attack, leaving Liz with their two sons. She leaves her teaching job, but eventually scores a major position doing urban planing for the city.
In the Beth timeline, Beth goes to the housing protest with Lucas and doesn’t go out with Josh the soldier. She gets a dream job with the New York City Planning Department and falls into bed with Lucas occasionally. She gets pregnant but doesn’t tell him. Instead, she gets an abortion, which causes a rift in their relationship when he finds out. She buries herself in her work, gaining more and more accolades, but during a flight to London for an event, her plane nearly crashes. The near-death experience makes her question what she’s been prioritizing in her life, and she returns home to discover that Kate and her wife are considering divorce. She convinces them to stay together, and eventually reconciles with Lucas as well. While out with Kate and Lucas, she runs into Josh (who she has, in this timeline, only met the once, at the beginning of the show), and they exchange numbers. Aaaand, curtain.
One of the things I did like about the show is that there weren’t any objective negatives or positives about either timeline. It never attempted to say ‘this is the option where she made the right choice’; rather, each decision led to happy moments and sad moments. However, it did come off as polarized between a happy love life and a successful work life. Liz ended up being a professor, a second choice for her, but found the love of her life in Josh; Beth got a fantastic position doing urban planning for New York City and only went up from there, but stumbled through a series of dysfunctional romantic relationships in her personal life. In the end, though, each Elizabeth ended up with the thing she had rejected at the beginning: Liz with her plush job, and Beth with Josh. It’s boring and circular, and cements the idea that she can have a great job or a great boyfriend, but not both at the same time.
Unfortunately, these timelines run concurrently in the show, and often the transitions between them were unclear. In the Act I finale, which showcases Elizabeth’s birthday, it was easy to know which was which, as some clever lighting on a “HAPPY BIRTHDAY ELIZABETH” sign made it clear whether we were currently watching Liz or Beth, but at other times it was less obvious. A change of jacket or just of posture might mean Liz was now Beth. I often found myself having to trace back through the entire show to reassure myself which storyline was watching. It was also very front-heavy; the premise of the split timelines took a while to establish and so the story dragged a lot while they got the audience up to speed.
Although the most celebrated romantic connection of the show is the white and heterosexual pairing of Liz and Josh, the show did make me happy by including not one but two interracial queer relationships. Kate is black and dating a white woman, and Lucas, who’s white, is dating an Asian man (in the Liz timeline, at least). While they are definitely subordinate in the story to Elizabeth’s, they are still all major players in the plot. I also was particularly pleased with Lucas’s portrayal, as he may be the first character I’ve ever seen on a stage who’s explicitly stated to be bisexual. (Even Maureen in RENT, who’s clearly some flavor of polysexual, is often considered a lesbian just because she’s dating a woman). His character has significant romantic and sexual relationships with a man and a woman over the course of the show, and they succeed or fail based on what he and the other person bring to the relationship rather than the gender of his partner.
My only real point of contention about Lucas’s bisexuality is Liz’s relation to it. At the beginning of her story, she defends his bisexuality to Kate when Kate says that Lucas is totally gay. “Back in college, he used to sleep with men and women,” she says. Later on, though, she engages in some jarring bi erasure when talking to Josh. He says that he’s registered as an Independent when she asks in mock-horror if he’s a Republican. “I don’t believe in Independents,” she says. “It’s like bisexuals, pick a side.” It was off-putting in a general sense, considering that the narrative of the show was supportive of its bi character, and in a character sense as well. What kind of person who knows anything about bisexual people—who’s dated and is best friends with a bisexual guy—uses that for an easy punchline? A quick list of more non-offensive things that could have been that punchline: ambidextrousness; platypi, amphibians, yellow traffic lights, ghosts? It just rubbed me the wrong way, especially in a show that was doing so much right representation-wise.
You may have noticed that, a thousand words into this post about a musical starring some mindblowing singing talent, I still haven’t mentioned the music. Well, here’s the thing about that. While every performer on the stage absolutely killed it every time they opened their mouths to sing, there was not a damn memorable song in the show. The numbers were interestingly staged and the set design and lighting effects were pretty cool and I could not sing you a word of anything I heard that night ten minutes after I left the theater.
In the end, If/Then was an interesting way to spend an evening, but I’d honestly listen to Idina, La Chanze, Anthony, and company sing me the numbers in the phone book. I
t wasn’t anything to write home about, and I’m sort of regretting not seeing Les Misérables an eighth time instead.