Diversity and Emotional Connection with the Musical If/Then

This post is part review, part personal commentary. I turned 32 yesterday, and my gift from my husband’s parents was a ticket to see If/Then at SHN Orpheum in San Francisco. I really enjoyed it, and it brought up a lot of reflection and thoughts for me, so I wanted to share some of them here. Please note that there may be some minor spoilers about the musical.

If/Then wasn’t like any other musical I’ve seen before (other professional musicals I’ve seen include Spamalot! and Avenue Q on Broadway, Wicked in London, and The Book of Mormon at the same theatre in San Francisco). It’s a modern day tale that, if any resemblance is possible, would be most similar to the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, both for their female protagonists, and their “what if?” story structure. They pick one point in the character’s life and how their life could drastically change depending on the choice that was made.

I didn’t know anything about the musical before I went to see it. I wanted to go because the protagonist, Elizabeth, was played by Idina Menzel. I quietly joked to myself on the way up from BART that it should be a musical about computer programmers due to the nature of if then statements when writing a program. An interesting side effect considering I haven’t had to do much computer programming for many years.

Whilst I didn’t know what I was getting into in seeing the musical, and reading the program for it at the start suggested they operated on Broadway at a loss, I really connected with the musical in a number of ways.

First I want to discuss the diversity, because that’s one of the major focuses of my blog. I really appreciated the ways they dealt with sexuality in the musical. One of the characters, Lucas, is bisexual. In one timestream, he sleeps with a woman, clearly in love with her, and in the other, he has a relationship with a man and clearly points out that he could go either way. However, his sexuality is not his defining trait, which is too often what happens with non-straight characters in fiction. It’s just a small part of who he is. The same can be said about the lesbian couple that feature in the musical. I truly felt like they were fully fleshed out characters rather than one-dimensional lesbians. One minor note about the treatment of bisexuality, however, is when ‘Liz’ makes a comment that she “[doesn’t] believe in bisexuals [and] they should just pick a side.” Lucas is her best friend; she should know better than that. Fortunately, I only heard one person in the entire audience cheer that line, so I like to think the rest of the audience know how bogus that is.

The other thing I appreciated about the diversity was the racial make up of the cast. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice within the script, a conscious choice in the casting process, or if they went with non-traditional casting. Either way, though, it was nice to see a racially diverse cast in such strong roles, and for their race to not need to be called out. The African American characters in particular had very important careers, and so I appreciated that they did not have to play into negative stereotypes.

In the musical’s program, I read that the writer wanted his audience to really think about their own “what if?” moments in life, and how things have worked out for them, and that was certainly true for me. I don’t know how differently I’d have watched it had it not been November, when I’ve already been reflecting on a friendship I regret to have lost because November is pretty much the month we truly became friends. In some ways I felt like I could relate to Lucas with the ‘Beth’ timeline. Not simply because of his bisexuality, but in the difficulty he had sharing his vulnerability with her, and her ultimate rejection of him. And, later on, revealing that they had not communicated for years before finally seeing each other again.

It’s hard to be that vulnerable with someone who doesn’t seem as strongly influenced by a friendship that you are. To admit to someone how much they meant to you. How much they still mean to you, despite all efforts to move on.

I haven’t thought much about that person from my past in the last several months because cutting contact with me seemed to be a clear indication that they had no interest in trying to fix our friendship, or forgive me for my regrettable behaviour when I suffered too much from depression and anxiety. I don’t blame those illnesses. I still made the bad choices I did, even when I was influenced by them.

There’s a part of me that wants to try and reach out again. Could my former friend have had enough time to heal over more than a year? On the other hand, I don’t want to risk interrupting what is probably a perfectly good life for them now, without me in it. I have this belief that they’re not the kind of person who would reach out to me if they missed me, but I’m also afraid to take that vulnerable step toward rebuilding a friendship with someone when all signs suggest they don’t want me to. Just because I’ve managed to bridge the gap with one of my other important friendships in the past, where we were able to rebuild trust and regain what we had, doesn’t mean I’d be able to make the same thing happen again.

So as November passes into December, I hope I will be able to move on again, as I did before, and just reflect on those “what ifs?” when I’m confronted by them in the media I consume. Theatre. Movies. Music. It didn’t help that this former friend explicitly mentioned Sliding Doors in one conversation we had about the coincidences and choices within our friendship. But I will move on again.

Anyway, that’s enough reflecting about that. There were also ways I connected with Elizabeth. So many moments that felt so real, and the ultimate question of “Can women really have it all?” It seemed that in one timeline, she was able to have a successful career, but failed in love, but the opposite was true in the second timeline. Was she happier in one or the other? No, she had ups and downs in both. They were simply different. Different positives, different negatives, such that you couldn’t make an objective comparison as to which life was better. Does that mean we should just be happy with what life throws us? Not necessarily. There are still choices. Whilst there was only one moment that split the timelines, there were several other moments open to “what if?” questioning. Other possibilities. I do think that we are ultimately responsible for the choices we make, and too often we put the outcomes in the hands of fate, or blame other people for what we’ve chosen to do, or not chosen to do, as the case may be. I know I’ve done that. There are many choices from my past that could have led me down a completely different path than I’m on now, but it’s also been interesting to wonder how much fate has had a hand in it. Opportunities falling through, only to present themselves again later, in a better way.

I make more active choices in my life now than I ever have before. It’s how I’ve managed to continue with improv as long as I have, and gained the courage to move into acting. But I’m not immune to having my choices affect other people. I might have to make choices for myself that inevitably hurts someone I care about. Perhaps that’s what my former friend had to do with me, when they chose to cut contact. But I hope if I have to do that again in the future, it’s done out of love rather than fear. The problem with being a writer is that I will often consider things from so many different angles that it can then be confusing to understand my motivation behind anything.

All in all, I thought If/Then was a very emotionally engaging musical. There were several moments I found tears streaming down my face. It’s still playing in San Francisco for a few more days, so if you have the chance to go, I recommend it. If you’re not in San Francisco, if it does come to your city, hopefully you can see it too.

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