This show is perhaps the greatest new Concept Musical of the current decade. Its novel central gimmick alienated a lot of people, but so did Merrily We Roll Along, another show with a non-linear storytelling device, and that show is now considered a classic by most serious musical-theater fans. Put simply, it tells two side-by-side stories about the two directions a woman’s life might take depending on one small, seemingly inconsequential choice. It’s an extremely moving, bittersweet show that articulates a lot of profound truths about human existence, with a wonderful score and a luminous star performance by the great Idina Menzel, and deserved far better than the lukewarm reception it received on Broadway.
The score is by the same songwriting team that brought us Next To Normal, and while it follows a more traditional book-musical format than that show’s operatic structure, it features the same combination of incredible emotional intensity and catchy Pop-Rock melodies. Highlights include the funky “It’s a Sign”, the anguished, conflicted “I Hate You”, the quietly heartbreaking “You Learn To Live Without”, the truly beautiful “Love While You Can”, and the thrilling eleven-o’clock number “Always Starting Over”, but virtually all of the music is lovely and does a superb job of dramatizing the story.
Admittedly, the show does have one clear flaw, though that’s only to be expected of a show that takes this many risks. During the first act, while ‘Liz’ and ‘Beth’ are still basically the same person in different circumstances, it can get extremely confusing which story we’re supposed to be watching at the moment. However, in Act Two, the characters have grown into completely different people, so that Menzel can convey the difference instantly simply by her bearing and the look on her face.
Some might take objection to the large number of songs that ruminate directly on the show’s themes (“What If”, “You Never Know”, “Ain’t No Man Manhattan”, “Some Other Me”, “What Would You Do?”)…they’re all fine, intelligently-written work, but this is a show that discusses its thematic concepts very openly, the way a Shaw or Sartre play would, which might strike some as too unsubtle in a modern theater piece (although it’s worth noting that Next To Normal did the exact same thing). Still, the only real dud in the score is the heavy-handed “What the Fuck?” (trying to use profanity for shock value just doesn’t work anymore on post-Book of Mormon Broadway).
But above all else, this show is a marvelous opportunity for Idina Menzel, who gave arguably the best performance of her career in it. Her two big-name co-stars, La Chanze (the original star of Once on This Island) and Anthony Rapp (one of Menzel’s co-stars in the original cast of Rent) both get some splendid opportunities too, but Menzel’s honest, touching, incredibly nuanced turn in this dual role is the heart and soul of the show. The role offers Menzel the chance to show these two women who were once the same person growing in totally different directions, being essentially a vastly subtler version of the possibilities offered by the dual title role in Jekyll and Hyde.
This show seems like the type that is almost sure to be vindicated by history, and its only obstacle will be the difficulty of finding another actress to replace Idina Menzel. In fairness, Menzel has shown an impressive degree of devotion to the show, heading a nationwide tour after the show had essentially flopped on Broadway, but she can’t stay in it forever, and her particular combination of massive Pop-inflected belt voice and incredibly nuanced acting will be hard to find in another performer. Still, there’s probably someone out there who can pull it off, and this show certainly has everything else lined up to be acknowledged as an underrated gem someday.