LYRICIST BRIAN YORKEY ON CREATING A MUSICAL ABOUT FATE, DESTINY AND THE LIFE CHOICES WE MAKE.
The first national tour of the Broadway musical “If/Then” runs Aug. 9-14 at the Fox Theatre.
RODGERS AND HART. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lerner and Loewe. Kander and Ebb.
All are top duos in the history of American musical theater.
One of today’s teams: composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, the winners of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Next to Normal, their musical about a woman with bipolar disorder and its impact on her family. The two were more recently enlisted to do Disney Theatrical’s stage adaptation of Freaky Friday (premiering in October at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.). And in 2014, they created If/Then, a star vehicle for powerhouse vocalist Idina Menzel (a Tony Award winner for Wicked and a Tony nominee as Maureen in Rent).
If/Then follows one woman and two different paths her life might take. Elizabeth is in her late 30s and returning to New York after a divorce. As Liz, she chooses love, and her story plays out from there. As Beth, she chooses career.
If/Then took root when Kitt began talking about the path his own life had taken. Says Yorkey, “He got me thinking more about the fact that sometimes we make choices that turn out to have tremendous impact.” Here’s more of what he had to say in a chat about If/Then.
QUESTION: How did you and Tom Kitt hook up as songwriting partners?
YORKEY: In college, at Columbia [University]. I worked on a show called The Varsity, an annual undergrad show that has a rather famous history. It’s the first show that Rodgers and Hammerstein worked on together. Rodgers and Hart were also involved in it. I had written a couple of Varsity shows with another student, Rita. When Rita was a senior she started dating Tom, a much younger man because he was a freshman. It was Rita who thought Tom and I should write together. She introduced us over beers at a campus bar. And Tom ends up marrying Rita.
Q: Why is Kitt the right composer for you?
YORKEY: Some of it is chemistry. By now we’re really like brothers in that we care about each other, we inspire each other. We’ve been able to be honest with each other from the start. We have very different but very complementary ways of looking at the world. I think we make each other better at what we each do.
Q: You had a daunting challenge, didn’t you, to create a star vehicle for Idina Menzel?
YORKEY: Yes, we were writing a show for one of the greatest musical theater performers of our time, but somehow it never felt like a challenge as much as a privilege, a great opportunity and a joy. We just wanted to write material that was worthy of her talent, to give her a chance to show her stuff, which is amazing stuff.
Q: When you write for a specific performer, do you worry about how you’ll replace her at some point?
YORKEY: You write a role very specifically for the person so that it fits them, but ideally in the process, you create a character with all sorts of nuance. And it’s that nuance, those details that another performer can step into and make her own.
Q: What was your first reaction to the idea of a contemporary musical about the what-ifs of a woman’s life?
YORKEY: At first, I didn’t understand how that idea could translate into a musical. But then I realized we’ve seen two versions of one story play out in both film and fiction, so I realized that it just hadn’t been done in musical theater before. I began to see it as an interesting challenge, to figure out how one actress could play two versions of herself in theater. There were many ideas to consider and play with, such as, “I wonder if she falls in love with the same person in both stories?” Or, “Are we destined to meet the love of our lives, no matter what, or is it just pure chance?” When I hit on that question, I knew we had a romantic story, so I knew it could be a musical.
Q: What is the big “what if” in your life?
YORKEY: I chose to go to Columbia, but I was so close to going to Berkeley that I put deposits down on both schools. Berkeley would have been an easier choice in some ways. My family on the West Coast was certainly a lot closer. I had never once been to New York before the first day of my freshman year. Looking back, I think it was courage that got me to New York, though it didn’t feel like courage at the time.
Q: Some time ago you mentioned that you were in the early stages of another musical about the power of love. Where does that stand?
YORKEY: We’re working on an original musical about couples through time finding love and holding onto it despite the forces that are against them. It won’t be a big flashy show. It may end up with just six or eight performers. We argue about politics, international relations, the causes of and answers to terrorism, gun control and so much more. The one thing I can’t understand anyone arguing against is the idea that we need more love in the world.