Once you’ve written a musical that centers around choices and consequences, the subject of paths taken and forsaken is going to circle back. Members of the cast and crew of “If/Then” have their own, unique If/Then stories. So does Brian Yorkey, the show’s book writer and lyricist. In fact he’s got several.
But on the occasion of “If/Then” coming to the Hollywood Pantages Theatre featuring Tony nominated star Idina Menzel and several members of the Broadway company, one particular series of Yorkey choices seems particularly noteworthy.
Yorkey was a student at Columbia University who had already written a few college musicals. Overseeing the university’s Varsity Show for returning alumni, Yorkey was in a bind when the program’s music director went abroad, accidentally taking the music with him and leaving the varsity show producers in need of a pianist to play the show for a summer reunion performance.
A friend and classmate, Rita Pietropinto, had heard rumblings of a hotshot freshman who could tickle the ivories: kid by the name of Tom Kitt.
“So Rita knocked on Tom’s door and he agreed to play the show,” recalls Yorkey. “Tom listened to a cassette tape and played the rehearsal that same night which is ridiculous. She introduced us and at first I was like ‘I don’t want to write with some punk-ass Freshman kid. I’m 23 and he’s 20. What’s that about?’”
Yorkey laughs at the memory. As history would play out, by introducing Kitt to Yorkey, Pietropinto altered several lives. Kitt and Yorkey began writing songs together and that creative partnership led to the team winning the 2009 Tony Award for Best Original Score and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for “Next to Normal.” “If/Then,” their subsequent show ran for 401 performances on Broadway and the duo are currently at work on an adaptation of the film “Magic Mike.”
Kitt’s arrival worked out well for Pietropinto as well; she ended up marrying and having three children with the composer. “In that sort of little random piece of chance, Tom got a wife and a professional colleague for decades,” Yorkey said. “It did not seem significant at the time, for sure.”
Another reverberation from the new Kitt-Yorkey partnership involved the Columbia Varsity Show’s music director who was displaced by Kitt’s arrival. Yorkey and this budding musical theater man had already written a handful of musicals together and had dreamed about writing for Broadway. After the varsity show, Yorkey e-mailed the friend, a Rhodes scholar who was studying at Oxford, and asked his friend’s permission to team up with Kitt on a musical.
“He said, ‘You know it’s fine if you do one or two things with him as long as you don’t abandon me for a new partner,’ and of course I said I would never do that kind of thing, and that’s kind of what I ended up doing,” Yorkey said. “I did not behave well, and I was a little bit embarrassed about that and we didn’t speak for a few years.”
Who was that jilted pianist? Fellow by the name of Eric Garcetti.
The two men have long since reconciled and Yorkey is hopeful that, schedule permitting, the Mayor of Los Angeles will take in a performance of “If/Then” at the Pantages.
“I said to Eric at the time, ‘Look, what I have to do for this world is write. That’s what I can do. You have many other things to offer that are more important than writing Broadway musicals,’” Yorkey said. “That’s already proven to be true. It all worked out the way it should be, but not without a little drama along the way.”
Yorkey came to Los Angeles in the hopes of writing for film and TV, and he made his living pre “Next to Normal” by writing a series of screenplays which were never produced. But he has never had to make an If/Then style choice between chasing Broadway and the silver screen success. Yorkey took both paths.
Theater success came first. Post college, Yorkey ended up back in Issaquah, Washington where he had attended high school. He linked up with the Village Theatre, first as an artist with the theater’s KIDSTAGE program and later as the company’s Associate Artistic Director for six years. Five of Yorkey’s musicals have been staged at the Village including “Funny Pages” (1993), “Making Tracks” (2002), “The Wedding Banquet” (an adaptation of the Ang Lee film) (2003), “Play it by Heart” (2005), and “A Perfect Fall” (2007). “Next to Normal” also received a workshop at the Village Theatre back when it was still titled “Feeling Electric.”
“If/Then” would have no workshop phase out west, not after Idina Menzel came on board. The idea for this project came from Kitt who dreamed up the notion of a young woman coming to New York to restart her life. Producer David Stone suggested that the team consider reworking it to make the woman closer to 40, thereby raising the stakes of her choices.
Kitt and Yorkey agreed, and Stone informed the team that Idina Menzel was interested in coming aboard and possibly making the play her first return to Broadway since “Wicked.” With Menzel on board, except for a pre-Broadway engagement at the National Theatre in Washington D.C., the play would develop in the city of its genesis: New York. Which is fitting, given how much of a role the city plays in the final product. “If/Then” builds around the choices made by city planner Elizabeth, and the two divergent paths that she takes as Liz and Beth based on those decisions.
“If/Then” may have been conceived of as a valentine to the Big Apple – a tale that could only take place in that specific city – but Yorkey has since discovered that regional audiences from other places have taken possession of the musical.
“It surprised me is how profoundly many people have read their own lives into this story,” Yorkey says. “It was very much, we felt, a New Yorker’s show and the characters in it certainly sort of have a certain New York-ness to them, but the people who came to Broadway who loved it most were from other places. I got to sit with audiences in Denver and in Seattle. There is something about the experience of New York that I think New Yorkers, if it’s not their experience of New York, they judge it as inauthentic.”
“I’ve talked to people in Denver and Seattle and they have also able to read their own cities into the story of a woman who was tired of not living in a city and moved back to a city,” Yorkey continued. “That song ‘Map of New York’ is really a story about how cities are wonderful places to make a life happen, and I think that watching audiences from other places and in other places embrace that sort of New York set story has been surprising and really gratifying.”
The Pantages geography certainly suits Yorkey who moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s and is now bicoastal with a home that sits five minutes from the Pantages. His series “13 Reasons Why” will go into production for Netflix in 2016.
Asked about the quintessential Los Angeles musical, Yorkey demures.
“I don’t think it’s been written yet. Maybe if Steve Martin has a good experience with ‘Bright Star,’ he can write the musical of ‘L.A. Story.’” Yorkey said.
There’s another option. Yorkey cops to the fact that before the dissolution of the Garcetti-Yorkey musical team, the duo was at work on a musical set in the City of Angels.
“We may finish that musical some day,” Yorkey said with a laugh. “He’s a little busy right now.”
Until that reunion, musical theater watchers can continue to wonder what if…