On “Next to Normal’s” official opening night at Arena Stage in late 2008, the show’s creators, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, handed the musical’s producer, David Stone, something he will always cherish: the idea for their next show.
“It was the best opening night gift I’ve ever gotten,” Stone said of the outline he received, for a musical telling the story of a young woman and two divergent paths her life might take. Over the next few years, Kitt and Yorkey —awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Next to Normal” — would themselves sometimes go separate ways. But they’d faithfully return to the musical they pitched to Stone, workshopping and revising it under the direction of their other “Normal” collaborator, Michael Greif.
The results of that gift will be shared with Washington theatergoers this fall, as the new Kitt and Yorkey musical “If/Then” — with “Rent” and “Wicked” star Idina Menzel at its center — has its world premiere at a spruced-up National Theatre. Also featuring Menzel’s fellow “Rent” alumnus Anthony Rapp, as well as LaChanze, a Tony winner for “The Color Purple,” and James Snyder (“Cry-Baby”), the musical begins five weeks of performances in the District on Nov. 5. Stone has set March 27 as its Broadway opening night.
In a crowded fall season in Washington for enticing theatrical events, “If/Then” stands apart. For one thing, the show christens a new and, one hopes, exponentially more active era for the National, once one of the country’s premier playhouses but of late a forlorn dramatic afterthought, booking a touring show now and then that the Kennedy Center shrugs off. The new musical launches a new Broadway series at the National, under the auspices of a newly hired group that will also bring in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”
The sheer ambition of the $10 million “If/Then” makes it a rarity. This is (if audiences can still conceive of such a thing) a new musical intended for Broadway that is not based on a brand-name movie. A scourge of modern musical theater — picking a famous film and appending a few mediocre songs and dance numbers —is killing ingenuity on the musical stage. (Other musicals set for Broadway this season: “Rocky,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Bullets Over Broadway.”)
By contrast, “If/Then” is adapted from Kitt and Yorkey’s own imaginative circuitry, which was also the case with “Next to Normal,” the story of a mentally ill woman, and how her family copes with her condition. “If/Then” chronicles the turning points in the life of Menzel’s Elizabeth, a 40-ish urban planner who returns to New York City after living in Denver. As its title suggests, “If/Then” divides into alternative versions of what happens to Elizabeth, based on her choices about career and family.
The success of “Next to Normal” after its Arena run left the creative team with an affection for Washington. The musical premiered off-Broadway and received mixed reviews; it was at Arena that Greif and the musical writers introduced a retooled version that would return to New York and run on Broadway for nearly two years.
“The history of that theater has meaning to me,” Stone said of the National, out-of-town birthplace of such landmark shows as “West Side Story,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” “And great things happened for us in this city. So we thought, ‘Let’s be here again!’ ” The early returns are proving it was a good move: By late August, “If/Then” was topping $1 million in ticket sales merely through offers on social media, Stone said.
To leave time for refinement to the show and its marketing campaign, Stone created a substantial cushion between the Dec.8 closing in Washington and the March 4 start of preview performances at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre (the official opening comes three weeks later). Although “If/Then” has the advantage of an actress who originated the roles of “Maureen” in “Rent” and Elphaba in “Wicked” — the latter winning her a Tony — and a highly regarded pair of songwriters, the gamble here is immense. To a degree that far too few producers are willing to go, Stone is taking audiences out with him onto the most exhilarating of theatrical limbs.
The autumn is so packed with other intriguing entries that it is impossible to whittle them down to a handful. So here is a sizable sampling of tantalizing things to come:
“Detroit,” Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Sept. 9 to Oct. 6. Just how well do you know those likeable people next door? Lisa D’Amour’s drama embracing deception and decline in an inner-ring suburb combines rich portraiture and searing stage effects to tell a story of America in the age of the subprime mortgage. John Vreeke directs a cast that includes Emily Townley, Danny Gavigan, Michael Willis, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Tim Getman.
“Red Speedo,” Studio Theatre, Sept. 25 to Oct. 13. The topical issue of performance-enhancing drugs fuels the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s play, about what an Olympic swimmer might do to get a pool’s length up on his rivals. Lila Neugebauer, who last year directed Studio’s outstanding production of Annie Baker’s “The Aliens,” returns to direct a cast featuring Frank Boyd and Laura C. Harris.
“Rancho Mirage,” Olney Theatre, Sept. 26 to Oct. 30. Serious playgoers, adjust your theater-scopes, because you’ll want to include Olney in your field of vision now that Jason Loewith has taken over as artistic director. Loewith, former head of a nonprofit group fostering development of new plays, is directing his first Olney premiere, a comedy about a confessional dinner party by the prolific Steven Dietz. Michael Russotto, Tonya Beckman, James Konicek and Susan Lynskey are among the featured actors.
“This,” Round House Theatre, Oct. 9 to Nov. 3. Like Olney, Round House is under promising new management, and its producing artistic director Ryan Rilette is directing Melissa James Gibson’s comedy-drama with music about a poet trying to regain her bearings after the death of her husband. Gibson, whose “Current Nobody” premiered to acclaim at Woolly Mammoth six years ago, comes back to D.C. with high hopes for a powerhouse follow-up.
“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill,” Signature Theatre, Oct. 15 to Dec. 8. The surprise hit of winter 2012 was Signature’s world premiere of “Really Really,” a scaldingly funny indictment of guile and hubris among entitled collegians. The play went on to a successful, extended run off-Broadway and put playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo on the map. Now, with this latest world premiere, directed by Michael Kahn and starring Christine Lahti, Colaizzo trains his gimlet eye on another high-value target: upscale American suburbs.
“Appropriate,” Woolly Mammoth, Nov. 4 to Dec. 1. Resentments come to a boil — and continue to bubble up in geysers of antagonism —all through this anger-filled new play that will introduce dramatist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to Woolly audiences. Compared by some reviewers to feud-fueled “August: Osage County,” “Appropriate” sounds as though it packs enough histrionics to keep the drowsiest playgoer stimulated. Time will tell whether director Liesl Tommy’s staging generates the required voltage.
“Mies Julie,” Shakespeare Theatre Company, Nov. 9 to 24. From director Yael Farber comes this smoldering adaptation of “Miss Julie,” conveyed from Strindberg’s Sweden to post-apartheid South Africa. With offerings as satisfying as the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch” and Gate Theatre of Dublin’s “Krapp Last Tape” with John Hurt, Shakespeare has become the region’s top importer of drama from abroad. This season it adds a fine, feverish production from South Africa to the list.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Arena Stage, Nov. 29- to Jan. 5. Todd Kreidler, dramaturg to the great August Wilson, has turned the screenplay of the groundbreaking 1967 film about liberal pieties and race relations into a stage drama. With Kenny Leon directing a cast including “Cosby Show” regular Malcolm Jamal Warner, Arena seems to be assembling the kind of production that will spark conversations about how far the country’s attitudes have changed in 46 years.
“Tribes,” Studio Theatre, Jan. 8 to Feb. 23. Nina Raines’s sensitively wrought drama measures the emotional fallout after the deaf son of hearing parents falls for the daughter of deaf parents who is herself losing her hearing. The play, first produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010, became a substantial hit off-Broadway, where it ran for almost a year. Its beautifully etched contemporary characters would seem a natural fit for Studio and director David Muse.
“Violet,” Ford’s Theatre, Jan. 24 to Feb. 23. A shrewd bit of programming has inserted this tender musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Cawley into Ford’s season. Based on Doris Betts’s short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” the 1997 off-Broadway show tracks the journey of a physically scarred young woman across the South in search of an evangelist to heal her. Jeff Calhoun, who staged a surefire “Big River” here in 2005, and did well by “Shenandoah” a year later, again applies his eye and ear to a tuneful tale set in rural America.
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for “If/Then” to close in DC. Its run will end Dec. 8.