For Idina Menzel and prize-winning team, D.C. is a Broadway tryout town reborn


Singer Idina Menzel performs at the Kennedy Center in the kickoff of the "NSO Pops" program. The American actress, singer and songwriter is best known for originating the roles of Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 28, 2013

Idina Menzel, one of the original cast members of “Rent” and a Tony winner for the role of Elphaba in “Wicked,” will star in a new Broadway-bound musical by the creators of “Next to Normal” that will have its world-premiere tryout in the fall at Washington’s National Theatre.

“If/Then” is the name of the show, for which composer Tom Kitt and book writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey wrote a six-page treatment late in 2008, as plans were being made for “Next to Normal” to hit Broadway. That musical would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and three Tonys, including one for Kitt and Yorkey’s score.

Washington has been a locus of good karma for Kitt and Yorkey, as well as for “Next to Normal” director Michael Greif and producer David Stone, who are also on board for “If/Then.” After “Next to Normal” received tepid notices in an off-Broadway run, it was to this city that Stone brought the show for a retooled production at Arena Stage. The enthusiastic reception here for the musical, about the collapse of a mentally ill suburban wife and mother, cleared the path to Broadway and further glory.

The “If/Then” engagement is a huge coup for the 1,676-seat National, the playhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue NW that was once Washington’s most desirable address for out-of-town bookings — a status now ceded to the Kennedy Center. The National’s illustrious history includes the Broadway tryouts of “Show Boat,” “West Side Story,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Hello, Dolly!,” among many others, but the theater has been relegated to afterthought status of late under the management of the New York-based Shubert Organization. SMG, an arts-programming company out of Philadelphia, and Chicago’s JAM Theatricals recently took over booking responsibilities from the Shubert.

“Historically, Washington has been one of the great tryout towns,” said Stone, whose Broadway credits include the blockbuster “Wicked” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” “Most importantly is that our spiritual home feels like it’s in Washington.”

It has been a seeming lifetime since Washington was cast in the marquee part of true tryout town. A blunder called “Hot Feet” started at the National on the way to Broadway several years ago, and revivals of “Ragtime,” “West Side Story,” “Follies” and “Man of La Mancha” have been groomed here over the past decade before heading up Interstate 95. But as a midwife for new Broadway musicals, Washington (and other cities close to New York) long ago lost out to San Diego, Seattle and Chicago.

“If/Then” will be presented from Nov. 5 to Dec. 8; its official opening night is to be Nov. 24, after which reviews will run.

It is described as the story of a woman on the cusp of 40, an urban planner played by Menzel who moves to New York from Denver to start again. The musical’s unusual structure, hinted at in its enigmatic title, is a reflection of its concern with the question of how much of what happens in life is determined by design or fate.

“It’s about how we choose our lives and how our lives choose us,” Stone said. “That’s an idea that’s very rich and very moving.”

Kitt and Yorkey wrote in “Next to Normal’s” troubled Diana a dynamic central role for a musical actress. Alice Ripley won a Tony for the part. The plot, themes and approach of “If/Then” may be completely different, but the songwriters seem to be counting on a similar kind of impact for the musical’s main character, Elizabeth.

An anticipated return to musical theater for Menzel, 41, who is married to her onetime “Rent” cast mate Taye Diggs, is one of those eternally buzzed-about topics by show-tune lovers on Twitter and Facebook. After debuting on Broadway in 1996 as Maureen, the lesbian performance artist of “Rent,” Menzel created the role of the green-skinned outcast Elphaba in 2003’s “Wicked” — which Stone also produced. Since then, she has done concert tours , appeared in an occasional movie (“Enchanted”) and been featured on “Glee” as the birth mother of Lea Michele’s Rachel.

Menzel, who has known Greif since he directed her in “Rent,” has performed in the three workshop productions that have been staged for “If/Then” and will be in a fourth in April. “She’s been involved in it for a long time,” Stone said, adding that the show is a “mid-sized” musical with a cast of 16 to 18. The actors’ names, along with those of other members of the creative team, will be announced later. More information about the D.C. engagement, including ticket sales, will be available shortly on the musical’s Web site, www.ifthenthemusical.com.

The show will take a hiatus after its run at the National and begin performances at one of the Nederlander Organization’s nine Broadway houses, with the opening set for March 27, 2014.

In a statement, Menzel said she was thrilled to be cast in “If/Then,” which she described as “an original musical with a complex, flawed and surprising central character that I cannot wait to bring life to onstage.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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