CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: If/Then

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

Recording Cover

If you enjoy original cast albums in the Goddard Lieberson mold, which is to say, those that reconfigure the songs to be enjoyed without needing to follow the story from which they’re drawn, then you’re well-primed to appreciate If/Then, the new Idina Menzel vehicle by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. The show follows two different life stories of the same urban planner, Elizabeth, exploring how one inconsequential choice might set off two entirely different life paths. These two parallel lives are portrayed in alternating (and occasionally overlapping) scenes on stage, with different color schemes, nicknames (“Liz” and “Beth”) and the hardest working pair of eyeglasses this side of Clark Kent cueing the audience which timeline they are seeing. 

If you’re a fan of this cast, which includes not only Menzel, but also La Chanze, Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, and Jason Tam, then you’re in luck: they all have moments to shine with songs tailored to their particular talents. While there may not be many karaoke-ready songs for Idina fans to add to their repertoires, she gets a belt-your-face-off eleven o’clock number, “Always Starting Over,” that delivers what her fans have come to expect. Anthony Rapp sounds like he hasn’t aged a day since he opened in Rent nearly twenty years ago, a delightful surprise for those of us for whom Rent occupies a cherished place in our past. Anyone in need of a dose of motivation need only listen to La Chanze sing “No More Wasted Time,” which will also hopefully motivate some producers to find her a star vehicle for her next show. James Snyder proves he knows his way around a ballad, shining on both “You Never Know” and “Hey, Kid.” Jason Tam’s beautifully meditative “What Would You Do?” will surely become a staple of breakup playlists for teenage girls and middle-aged gay men alike. It’s hard to predict whether any of these songs will live on past the show, but the cast recording makes a compelling case that at the very least adventuresome cabaret singers might want to take a closer listen. And while the score has a couple of clunkers, the low points never reach the level of “always skip when playing.”

If you’re hoping to get a sense of how this relatively conventional story, unconventionally told, unfolds in the theater, then you may find the album, produced by Kitt, Steven Epstein, and David Stone, a frustrating experience: not only does the album offer very little by way of dialogue, the synopsis included in the liner notes doesn’t even try to convey how the two intertwining stories fit together, opting instead to over a separate précis for each timeline that extends through the course of the show. There is no discernible aural equivalent to the color schemes and eyeglasses to cue the listener to which timeline each song concerns, and with little-to-no dialogue, we rarely even get the hint of characters addressing Menzel as Liz or Beth.

If you’re nervous about the score because Next to Normal, the team’s previous show, was a little too rock and roll for you, then you should find yourself pleasantly surprised with the far more varied musical palette employed in If/Then. While the score mostly sounds like the vaguely soft-rock music that underscores much of contemporary Broadway, there are lovely folk and jazz influences that add flavor and diversity. Michael Starobin’s string-heavy orchestrations (for twenty-one players) capture the wistfulness inherent in the theme of the show without letting the scoring become sappy or saccharine. Carmel Dean conducts with a light touch that helps restrain the music from underlining the story’s moments of decisions too broadly. AnnMarie Milazzo’s vocal arrangements similarly add dimension to some of the more momentous spots in the story without ever drawing undue attention to themselves.

If you’re a skeptic, then you may be put off by Jesse Green’s essay in the liner notes comparing If/Then to Company. But even if If/Then doesn’t quite achieve the dizzying heights of the Sondheim / Furth / Prince musical, the parallels are hard to ignore: the urban setting, the pop inflected score, surprise birthday parties, the high concept structure, and even specific songs. (For example, “You Don’t Need To Love Me” sounds like what would happen if you assigned a BMI workshop class the task of writing a new song to replace “Marry Me A Little.”) Unlike the puff pieces many cast recordings include in their notes, Green’s essay does what the best kind of criticism does by encouraging the reader to consider the work at hand anew.

If you’ve read this far and still aren’t sure whether this album is for you, then you face your own “if/then moment” – will you live in the version of your life where you buy the If/Then cast recording, or the version where you pass it by? Who knows how that decision may influence the rest of your life? What might you gain or lose in each version of your future? If exploring these kinds of questions appeals to you, and you don’t want to stay up late in your dorm getting stoned with your roommates, then If/Then may be right up your alley.

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