'If/Then' composers: Writing for Idina Menzel is like learning to drive a Porsche

Brian Yorkey quote. Photo by Joan Marcus. The direction of ‘If/Then,’ and the lives of composers Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, below left, changed when they learned they would be writing their new musical for Idina Menzel. Photo above by Joan Marcus.

When Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey won the Pulitzer Prize for writing the Broadway musical Next to Normal in 2010, they already were looking ahead to their next project. It was to be the story of a 25-year-old woman finding her way in New York.

And that’s when producer David Stone dangled the most mellifluous bait in musical history before them: Why not make the character a little more seasoned, with some wear and tear?

In other words: Why not write the character for Broadway superstar Idina Menzel?

Hook, line and singer. If/Then was re-born, and the star of Rent, Wicked and the film Frozen would become both its face, and its biggest champion.

Brian Yorkey, left, and Tom Kitt. This week, the first national touring production of If/Then launches in Denver with Menzel again taking center stage alongside principal castmates LaChanzeAnthony Rapp and James Snyder.

“To be able to write for someone like Idina is a privilege,” said Yorkey, the musical’s lyricist. “It’s also a challenge, because you have what will ultimately be considered one of the legendary instruments of the American musical theatre. So you better make it worth her while if you are writing songs for her.”

In an era of larger-than-life Broadway spectacles, If/Then is an ambitious but deeply human story of a modern woman whose carefully designed plans for a new life collide with the whims of fate. The musical shows two parallel paths of how her life might unfold after she makes one seemingly ordinary choice.

It’s The Butterfly Effect – the chaos theory that says the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world can eventually build up to a hurricane on the other. Or, in this case, it’s that one small decision really can change the entire course of your life, and of those around you.

Yorkey believes in it.

“I do. I read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was 17, and James Gleik’s Chaos when I was 25. Those books blew my mind,” he said with a laugh.  

Many of us, he added, would like to believe that there is a path chosen for us, or fated for us. “But I do know very small variations in the paths we take can lead to very great differences in the outcome,” he said.  

“We can’t know all of the implications of the choices great and small that we make today. Because we don’t know which choices are going to end up looming large. I think that’s terrifying and also kind of wonderful.”

Kitt also believes everyday decisions can have huge, unknowable effects on other parts of your life.

“I know that I got into Columbia, and that I am writing musicals, and that I have the family that I have because of a number of circumstances I couldn’t even begin to plan out or fathom,” Kitt said. “But they happened, and here I am. Is that fate, or just the natural order of life? I think we all contemplate where we are at a certain point and wonder how we got there – and If/Then really lives there.”

Here are more excerpts from DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s conversation with writers Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics):

Tom Kitt quote. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

John Moore: I know you two got into this business to write new musicals for the American theatre. And when you were classmates at Columbia, I am sure you were told there is a certain formula that will most likely result in the production of marketable new musicals. I am wondering how you got the courage to not follow those rules?

Tom Kitt: Certainly when you are a young writer and you are just looking to make your way in the world, you have to make your own opportunities and follow your own instincts and inspirations. For both Brian and me, Next to Normal felt like something really gargantuan to tackle. It felt like it was firmly in the world of shows like Hedwig and Rent and Tommy. Those shows were having an enormous influence on us when we started writing Next to Normal. 

Brian Yorkey quote. Brian Yorkey: OK, let’s let the truth be told: For a number of years, Tom and I were trying to write a musical version of Jerry Maguire. But we would get distracted by Feeling Electric – which was the working title of Next to Normal at the time. Part of us was primed to do something we thought would be commercial, but Next to Normal just kept pulling us back. You hear writers say things like this and it smells like (bleep), but Next to Normal really did kind of demand that we write it. But initially, I don’t know if we were courageous … or procrastinating. 

John Moore: Can you promise me that somewhere in a trunk there is a song called “Show Me the Money”?

Brian Yorkey: As a matter of fact, John, there is a song called “Show Me the Money.” And when we see you in Denver, I will have Tom play a little bit of it to you. It totally exists.

John Moore: That completes me.

Tom Kitt: We were just trying to figure out how to pay the bills and find the writing time that we needed back then. Once the spark for Next to Normal happened, we just didn’t look back, and we never questioned. We just felt like this was the thing we were supposed to be working on. 

Brian Yorkey: And we were really lucky to have some very key allies along the way, like (producer) David Stone and Peter Askin. He directed the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

John Moore: How do you wrap your head around the impact that Next to Normal has had, and the lives that it has saved?

Brian Yorkey: Tom and I set out to write a show that was very personal to us, and for many years we didn’t know that it would matter to anybody else. But it told a story that many people hadn’t seen before in the musical theatre. Music has a way of digging in and seeping into your subconscious, which is perfect for a story like ours. We learned over time that the show doesn’t just belong to us. It belongs to all of those people who respond to it and claim it in some way as their own. We always find it very humbling when people tell us the show has touched them, because we didn’t set out to do that. And the opportunity to touch people in that way doesn’t come along very often.

Tom Kitt: Next to Normal was a labor of love, and it never gets tiresome to hear the effect that it has had on people. 


John Moore: When I had my first opportunity to write about Next to Normal in The Denver Post, I said that if we’re lucky, Next to Normal and Spring Awakening were going to redefine normal when it comes to the new American musical. Do you think that’s happened?

Tom Kitt: The wonderful thing about musical theatre as an art form is that it keeps evolving and changing. And we keep getting hit, luckily, with these huge, impactful shows that change the game. They spark young writers who keep challenging the art form. I got to see Spring Awakening while I was working on Next to Normal, and that was hugely impactful for me. And then I got to go work on American Idiot with (director) Michael Mayer, and that show has had a huge effect on people. You can go back further and talk about Sondheim, and Kander and Ebb, and on and on. They are all linked. These shows happen, and they affect people, and what they all say is, ‘Oh, this is possible.’

Brian Yorkey: Look, I would love to believe that the success of Next to Normal gave courage to other writers and producers, just as I hope the success of Fun Home gives courage to other writers and producers. But nothing ever completely changes. Tom and I wrote Next to Normal, but we are also working on adaptations right now that we’re very excited about. So I think adaptations and movies-turned-into-musicals will be part of our landscape forever. But I also hope shows like Fun Home and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson are part of our landscape, too. The fact that Next to Normal actually earned its money back and paid its investors off and then some, that is thrilling.

Tom Kitt: We are seeing that again right now with Hamilton. Everyone is talking about how game-changing that is. I knew that as soon as I saw it.

Brian Yorkey: (Hamilton writer and star) Lin-Manuel Miranda is someone we have always adored and respected. Hamilton is not only inspiring to us, it is also a little bit of a kick in the tush that says, “Hey, don’t sit around and use old forms. See what you can do to take this thing we love and make it into something new. Lin is clearly doing that. Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years) is doing that. It seems like a great time for all of us to be inspiring and galvanizing and challenging each other to so something new and exciting.  

Tom Kitt: Certainly the ambition behind If/Then was this: “What’s possible in the musical theatre?” ‘How do we keep challenging ourselves to tell stories that seem like they could only happen on stage in a musical?”

John Moore: So you essentially wrote If/Then for Idina Menzel. What was it like for you to write for someone of the magnitude?

Brian Yorkey: As a songwriter, it’s like being a race-car driver having the most brilliant Porsche to take out on the track. But you had better well know how to drive it. That’s part of the great challenge of it.

Tom Kitt: First and foremost, to be writing for Idina Menzel is a gift. I wanted to utilize Idina’s enormous, gargantuan instrument, but I also wanted to vary it and really explore a number of different places for her to sing.

John Moore: What was she like to work with?

Brian Yorkey: It sounds like I am doing a con job on people whenever I talk about Idina, but for someone with such gifts and such stardom, she is generous and loving. She will try anything that we write for her, and she will do her damndest to make it work. We would cut songs that we felt just weren’t good enough to have Idina and Anthony (Rapp) and LaChanze sing them – and Idina would argue with us to try to save them. She’s got an amazing heart as well an amazing talent, and that combination is more rare than you would think. More than anybody, she is the one who has put this show on her back from Day 1 and carried it forward. It’s been an absolute joy to work with her, and couldn’t be more in awe.

John Moore: Can you help describe her voice to a layman?

Tom Kitt: Her range is so huge that she can really go anywhere. She sings as high as the highest people can go. And then she has a hugely wonderful richness to her low notes as well. There is just nothing that she can’t do. Really, “Always Starting Over” and “You Learn to Live Without” is a great example of that because the former sits much more in her low tones, and the latter challenges her skyward. So that’s a great way of saying you can write anywhere for this person and she can do it. That’s why she is who she is.

John Moore: How important is it that Idina Menzel is here in Denver to launch the national tour of If/Then?

Tom Kitt: It’s hugely important. The show was written for Idina Menzel. It is thrilling to see what has happened for her career since Frozen. But even with all that, she has remained a fierce champion of If/Then. And the fact that she is now doing this tour when she has a million things pulling her in all different directions – it just means a great deal. And it goes without saying how helpful it is to have Idina Menzel to raise interest in the show.

John Moore: And how did feel about getting all four principal actors back for the tour?

Brian Yorkey: It’s insane, right? It’s kind of brilliant. But that also comes right down to Idina. I mean if she’s in, I’m sure it would be kind of hard for anyone else to say no.

John Moore: So it’s really just peer pressure, pure and simple.

Brian Yorkey: Exactly right.

Brian Yorkey quote. Photo by Joan Marcus. Pictured: Idina Menzel and James Snyder. Photo by Joan Marcus.

John Moore: This is history in the making. No Broadway musical of the modern era has ever managed to re-gather its entire principal cast for a national tour before.

Brian Yorkey: To me, having Idina and LaChanze and Anthony and James – as well as our Musical Director, Carmel Dean – heading out for the first leg of the tour is absolutely essential because they are paving the way for the people who will follow. They are helping to build this thing for tour the way we built it for Broadway. And they are also showing the world once again that they believe in this kind of quirky, not-entirely-traditional new show of ours. To me, that means everything.

John Moore: So what do you say to fans in the cities that come after the first leg?

Brian Yorkey: Nobody is Idina Menzel. She is not replaceable. But they said the same thing about Alice Ripley, and Next to Normal is still playing all around the world, and it has flourished in the regional theatre. My great hope is that If/Then will go beyond this national tour. I hope many great actors will want to play Elizabeth and bring their own artistry to the role. I can tell you that people will see a gargantuan performance at the center of this show wherever the show is playing.


John Moore: If touring audiences only know you two from Next to Normal, how will the If/Then score both satisfy and surprise them?

Brian Yorkey: I think it depends on the person. What I think If/Then has in common with Next to Normal is that Tom writes really emotional music. The music wears its heart on its sleeve. It doesn’t necessarily prioritize complexity and sophistication in the way a lot of modern music does. Tom is really interested in getting to the heart of the matter musically, and I try to do the same lyrically. I try to be conversational, be human, to have lyrics that speak the way people speak and get to the heart of things. If/Then is certainly not as tensely emotional at every moment as Next to Normal, because it’s telling a broader story.

Tom Kitt: If/Then is definitely not trying to be Next to Normal in any way. The nature of the orchestrations, and the size of the orchestras, are very different.

Brian Yorkey: Next to Normal is often referred to as a rock musical. It’s not just rock music, but the basic instrumentation is the same as a rock band. If/Then has a 13-piece orchestra. So I think there are more orchestral colors, both musically and lyrically.

Tom Kitt: The thing that never goes away for Brian and me is that there is always a strong rhythmic quality in our songs. I think the people who come to see If/Then will definitely recognize us in the score.

Brian Yorkey: I think the people who know and love Next to Normal will certainly find things to know and love in If/Then. And I hope they will also find colors that maybe they didn’t hear in Next to Normal.   

John Moore: How would you say the theme of the show is best reflected in your writing?

Brian Yorkey: I don’t want to be a (jerk) and quote my own lyrics, but at the end of the show, Elizabeth says, “You learn how to love the not knowing.” I think a big part of life is learning how to be present in this moment and trust that we make decisions as our best self, and that the life that follows will be one worth living.

John Moore: Denver has developed a reputation as a launching pad for national tours including The Lion King and The Book of Mormon and Pippin. Does it mean anything to you that the If/Then tour is launching here in Denver?

Tom Kitt: Absolutely. Certainly to be in the company of all the shows you mentioned is meaningful. But when I have had other shows visiting Denver – Next to Normal, for example – the support and the reception have been wonderful. This is a city that has welcomed me as a writer into its collective heart. So the news that this is where we would begin the tour was really gratifying to me. 

Brian Yorkey: For those of us on the creative team, you want to start at a place that is going to feel like a home away from home. You don’t want to be in a city that takes great pride in knocking things over. There are a few of those, if you know what I mean. You very much want to start in a city that is both sophisticated and theatre savvy, with people who are going to help you know what tweaks you need to make before you head out into the world. You want someplace that is going to feel welcoming. Denver fits that to a T, and I imagine that has a great deal to do with why it has become such a launching pad. And it is such a beautiful city. There couldn’t be a better place for us to kick the tour off, as far as I am concerned.

John Moore: Do you have any Colorado connections?

Brian Yorkey: I have tons of cousins in the metro area, so I was really thrilled to hear we would be starting in Denver. I’m always very proud to show my relatives that what I do for a living is actually a real thing. One my cousins is studying musical theatre at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, so I am excited to have him and his classmates see the show. I visited him earlier this summer and I got to see him in a production of Godspell that was just fantastic. It knocked my socks off.

Tom Kitt: My father used to work for NERA: National Economic Research Associates. They used to have annual conferences in Aspen, so I spent a lot of time there as a kid.

John Moore: OK, so I am going to end with a really hard-hitting personal question.

Brian Yorkey: Bring it.

John Moore: Where do you keep your Pulitzer Prizes?

Tom Kitt: I am moving, so my Pulitzer is going to be in a box soon.

Brian Yorkey: I have a great story about the Tony Award (for Best Original Score).

John Moore: Bring it.

Brian Yorkey: So I met Warren Leight, who wrote Side Man, the night before the Tony Awards, and he said we were going to win. And I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” But he said, “No, you are going to win the Tony Award, and when you do, whatever you do, don’t (bleeping) put it in your office.” I asked why, and he said, “Because it will sit there staring at you every day saying, ‘You will never write anything this good ever again.’ ” So I took him at his word, and I kept it in a bag on the floor of my office for about six months.”

John Moore: But you also won the Pulitzer Prize.

Brian Yorkey: The funny thing about the Pulitzer is that you go to the ceremony and you meet all these reporters who risked their careers and their lives to report on this company that is poisoning this river. And then people ask you, ‘Well, what did you write?’ and I am like, ‘Um … I wrote a play?’

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Ticket information
Oct. 13-25
At the Buell Theatre
Call 303-893-4100, buy in person at the Denver Center Ticket Office located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby, or BUY ONLINE
ASL interpreted, Audio described & Open captioned performance: 2 p.m. Oct 25,
Groups: Call 303-446-4829
(Please be advised that the DCPA’s web site at denvercenter.org is the ONLY authorized online ticket provider for ‘If/Then’ performances in Denver)

Our previous NewsCenter coverage of If/Then and Idina Menzel:

Look for additional coverage of If/Then throughout the next two weeks at denvercenter.org/news-center

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