BWW CD Reviews: Masterworks Broadway's IF/THEN: A NEW MUSICAL (Original Broadway Cast Recording) is Stirring but Falls Short
With many credits on their resumes, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey collaborated together for a second Broadway musical, If/Then. After making a splash with the lauded and loved NEXT TO NORMAL, anticipation for If/Then was high. Once stars like Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and LaChanze were attached, theatergoers saw a hit beginning to blossom. The reviews of its opening night on Broadway were mixed, and listening to the Original Broadway Cast Album illuminates why.
The compositions by Tom Kitt are lovely, undulating, and stirring. Like the score for NEXT TO NORMAL, Tom Kitt's work utilizes that frenetic energy of the human psyche to pull audiences in by giving us tunes we can both relate to and get lost in. He mixes in sweet melodies that captivate listeners as well. However, the largest hurdle that his composition for If/Then faces is that it sounds a little too much like the score for NEXT TO NORMAL. Across the album, we hear hints of NEXT TO NORMAL in the tinkling of chimes, the chord progression as members of the cast sing the word "hey," or even when our brains interject the lyrics to "A Promise" during the opening of "What If?," among others.
Lyrics by Brian Yorkey believably and realistically capture real people. The flourishes of artistic language are given a second place seat, allowing the cast to sing songs that reflect the way normal, everyday people in 2014 talk. This is not to say that subtlety and metaphor aren't present in the writing; instead, they aren't emphasized.
When it comes to owning the album, I like many others, want it for the performances of Idina Menzel. Getting to dig deep into an emotionally rich role, a 38 year-old woman returning to New York City after getting divorced, I expected to hear rawness and urgency across the disc from her performances. I half-expected that we'd hear Idina Menzel circa Still I Can't Be Still re-emerge, especially since Tom Kitt's score for NEXT TO NORMAL had that appealing rock edginess to it as well. Instead, listening to the album I hear Idina Menzel croon with sophistication and tangible training. Vocally, her performances are lovely, but they sound too polished and too glossy. The ragged edges of heartbreak and life's unexpected surprises (i.e. unanticipated pregnancy) simply aren't moving on the recording until about the last third of the album.
Suddenly, on "Some Other Me," Tom Kitt, Brian Yorkey, and Idina Menzel bring the album to thrilling life. Questioning the show's central premise of the different paths our lives can lead us down through song, Idina Menzel, dueting with Anthony Rapp, elucidates all the reasons that so many people adore her as an artist. She adds brilliant emotional gravity to the track, and through the end of the album listeners are moved by both Liz's and Beth's emotional archs. Moreover, the show's evocative eleven o'clock number, "Always Starting Over," as sung by Idina Menzel, is worth the cost of the album and a ticket to the show on Broadway alone. It won't eclipse "Let It Go" because it won't play on the radio, but this song will be remembered and revered as a legendary Broadway showtune for decades to come. Lastly, other key moments for Idina Menzel are on the gripping and heartbreaking "I Hate You" and the plaintive "You Learn to Live Without."