Thursday night was a balmy 63 degrees and The National Theatre was 90% filled to capacity with a healthy rage of theater goers–young girls who’d grown up on Wicked–40-somethings on the older side of being Rent-Heads–and then the Kennedy Center herd come to see the latest commercial offering–all there to take in Idena–that Wicked Witch All Grown Up and ten years since her Tony— Idina Menzel Above The Title, holding together a wild if unbelieveably complicatedly-plotted musical all by herself in the world premiere of the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey’s If/Then. We were four floors up at The National, on our last week of theater-going, our UM/UC/ND student subscribers and me, experiencing the exact opposite of “intimate theater” (no Apple Family immediacy up in the Nose Bleed section). This was “Showtime.” A brand new musical. Smash and Glee and a 21st Century aforementioned Rent made singable for the Age of Gay Marriage. You’ll hear about the show in a second in the Comments. Most of our group seemed to love it. Some didn’t. One hated it, I know that for sure. Which makes a horse race, right?
As the evening ended and over 1,200 poured onto the streets in another DC-on-the-verge-of-Becoming moment that reminded me of magical nights coming out of the MCI Center (now the Verizon Phonebooth) when Michael Jordan was new in town—before that experiment had soured—when the city was grooving; folks from all stripes and walks hitting the streets en masse after an electric game, all of us, it seemed, on our way to the Chop House and for a moment, feeling like we were in New York spilling out of The Garden—once again DC had it going on this temperate theater night; we were a Happening Spot sporting a major commercial venture Bound For Broadway. (And maybe this time, the magic will linger a lot longer than MJ’s tenure in DC). If/Then Producer David Stone was finding a way for DC audiences to buy into something new, untested, with an amazingly talented company, and building up an impressive war-chest of an advance. Michael Greif was back in town too. You’ll remember Michael directed Rent at New York Theatre Workshop, and Betty Rules! Off-Broadway at The Zipper and later at Theater J, twice… And before all that, he’d directed an early version of my coming-of-age plays Giant Shadows (which would go onto become Andy and The Shadows) and Private Lessons (which would be expanded to become Oh, The Innocents, later directed by Wicked’s Joe Mantello). So Greif was back, big actors too, big producer, big coverage, and tons of audience showing up. Culturally, DC was full of possibility Thursday night. And remains so.
But a juggernaut like If/Then turns out to have not only an inspiring effect on our theatergoing community. It also sucks up a lot of air, demanding a lot of time, press attention, digital ink, and audience money. And so our non-commerical, local producing outfit wonders whether If/Then has indeed been holding the spotlight to the detriment of local offerings. After countless fall previews, features, and blog posts about the show, we have to ask if other straight plays and chamber musicals have lost out in the process, while If/Then–the big Work-in- Progress–profits handsomely. The show, which may or may not prosper on The Great White Way when it opens there in March, has done big business here. While our fall shows, may be performing beautifully, but financially they’re under-selling. On that same balmy Thursday night with so many spilling out of the National or attending the new Malcom Jamal Warner revival at Arena, our Helen Hayes Award winning production of Woody Sez played to our tiniest audience of the season. Of many a season. Was it an aberration? A freaky Thursday where Woody’s anti-corporate message got trounced by Glee-driven commercialism? As Marvin Gaye used to say, “What’s Going On?”
Let’s ask that about If/Then. What Is Going On in this crazy, inventive, confusing plot that Brian Yorkey’s put together? I’d like our intelligent young folks to sort that out. For us. For me. I mean, I liked it, but I didn’t buy it. I wish this musical very well, and hope they make that plot more cleverly crucial before it hits Broadway.
But I won’t be too sad when this juggernaut leaves town. Of course, much more commercial fare is on the way to take its place. The challenges of drawing new audience to the non-commercial will remain ever so challenging. Onward to meet the task!