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Broadway-Bound Musical 'If/Then' Injects New Energy Into National Theatre

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“If/Then” is making its pre-Broadway world premiere at the National Theatre.
Rebecca Sheir
“If/Then” is making its pre-Broadway world premiere at the National Theatre.

The brand new musical, "If/Then," is having its world premiere at D.C.'s National Theatre, before heading to Broadway next year.

Book and lyrics writer Brian Yorkey says it's "about a woman in her late 30s who leaves a loveless marriage out west and moves back to New York City.

"The show takes off from her first day in New York City," explains Yorkey. "She makes one of those seemingly small choices that end up having enormous ramifications. And we follow two of the different paths her life might have taken from that choice."

Composer Tom Kitt says he had the initial brainstorm for the show.

"I had been really drawn to a musical idea that was based on the sort of choices and chance of your life," he says. "And the question of whether we're destined to find certain things, whether it's our career or our true loves."

Kitt and Yorkey actually seemed kind of "destined to find their career" together, in a way. Kitt was a senior at Columbia University in New York, and Yorkey was a recent graduate, when they came together to write "The Varsity Show," an annual musical send-up of all things Columbia.

The team's first legit post-college collaboration, "Next To Normal," wound up winning them three Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. And, like "If/Then," it, too, was on a D.C., stage before taking Broadway by storm. "Next to Normal" first premiered at Second Stage, an off-Broadway theater in New York.

[Music: "Here I Go" and "If" by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey from If/Then]

"But the show was clearly not ready for human consumption at that point," Yorkey recounts. "And David Stone, who was our producer, met Molly Smith, who runs Arena Stage. And they hatched a plan to bring the show down here to Washington, D.C., and work on it some more."

The rest is history — and pretty fantastic history, at that. But back in the present, composer Tom Kitt says he's thrilled to try out another musical in Washington, especially at a storied place like the National Theatre. For instance, on April 14, 1865, Tad Lincoln was attending a show there when his father, President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated.

But the National has also served as a truly hot spot for pre-Broadway runs of plays and musicals since it was founded in 1835.

"It hasn't had as many shows trying out over the past few years," Kitt says. "And to now be a part of a new tradition of taking shows to this beautiful theater and being here, I just feel very lucky."

"West Side Story" had its pre-Broadway tryout at the National, as did "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

"['Forum'] is a legendary try-out," Yorkey says. " Because it wasn't working. And Jerome Robbins came down to see it and said, 'Change the opening number.' So [Stephen] Sondheim wrote 'Comedy Tonight.'"

But "Forum" wasn't the only "legendary" pre-Broadway tryout at the National. Take "Showboat," which opened here in 1927. John Loomis, the National's Corporate Administrator, knew someone who attended the show's very first performance.

"And it ran over until 1:00 in the morning!" he says. "So they did cut the show significantly from that point!"

Loomis has a printed list of many of the shows that 'pre-Broadwayed' here, and it goes on and on, from "Philadelphia Story" with Katherine Hepburn and Shirley Booth, to "Hotel Paradiso" with Angela Lansbury and Bert Lahr, to "Little Moon of Alban," with Julie Harris and Robert Redford, to "Hello, Dolly!"

As composer Tom Kitt mentioned, the National Theatre's stream of pre-Broadway tryouts hasn't been as strong over the past few years. The 2000s have only seen a handful: one of the shows flopped on Broadway, and another closed before it even got there. John Loomis blames the slowdown on what he calls the ballooning "economics of shows."

"The shows became bigger and bigger and more highly specialized technically, which made it more difficult to travel and move all that equipment," he says. "Think of the helicopter in 'Miss Saigon.' It was easier just to keep it in New York and stay there. And the product also started tapering off as well."

But Loomis and his colleagues hope "If/Then" represents a brand new beginning for the National Theatre — not unlike the show's protagonist, when she moves back to New York to start her life over.

Of course, though, as cast member Anthony Rapp points out, even after you make that fresh start, you never know where you'll wind up.

"If/Then" runs at the National Theatre November 5 through December 8.

Photos: "If/Then"


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