Theater: ‘If/Then’ is basically ‘Rent’

Idina Menzel Anthony Rapp If/Then
Idina Menzel is pretty hot right now thanks to a little movie called “Frozen.” But remember when she starred alongside Anthony Rapp in “Rent”? These two kids are back onstage again nearly 20 years later. (Go ahead. Feel old with us.)
Credit: Joan Marcus

New musical “If/Then” opens on Broadway tomorrow night. We checked it out this weekend, and we noticed some striking resemblances to one of our all-time favorites: “Rent.”

Hear us out with these Top 5.

1. Leads

Two core members of “If/Then” starred in the original “Rent” (and the movie, if you’re counting it). Idina Menzel, who owned the role of lesbian performance artiste Maureen in Jonathan Larson’s classic, stars once more alongside Anthony Rapp, who was once our beloved indie filmmaker, Mark. Now Menzel plays Elizabeth, a woman looking back on her life’s choices, and Rapp is her best friend, Lucas.

2.Dopplegangers

Although those are the only actors from “Rent,” that doesn’t consider the similar characters. In “If/Then,” we’ve got a few other familiar-sounding tropes:

  • Lachanze (“The Color Purple”) plays Kate, an outspoken black lesbian a la Joanne. She’s in a relationship with a feisty partner who needs more sex and attention than Joa— er, Kate, and this leads to some friction in their relationship. And THAT leads to a song that is absolutely nowhere near as good as “Take Me Or Leave Me.” At all.
  • We also have James Snyder (“Cry-Baby”) as Josh, the sexy leading man with the classic profile and some killer belting. He’s our primary love interest. We’re just hypothesizing, but he could have played some really chill acoustic guitar back in his college days, before he went off to war. Maybe he really enlisted in the Army because he just couldn’t finish his song?
  • And then there’s our slick urban planning professional Stephen, played by Jerry Dixon (“Once on This Island”). He’s all about developing new condos to crush the little guy and cater to the rich (you know, like a landlord). He’s got a wife who wouldn’t be too happy if she knew he was hanging out with his ex-girlfriend. He drives a Range Rover. (Just kidding. But maybe.)

We wonder what Freddi Walker, Adam Pascal and Taye Diggs were doing during casting — this show could have been quite the reunion. (And, well, a little bit awkward for Menzel and Diggs. But the show must go on!)

3. Setting

Of course “If/Then” takes place in New York City. So do 66 percent of all plays ever written, according to a statistic we just invented. More importantly, it’s also set in “the recent past,” according to our Playbill. That could easily mean it’s set in the 1990s, just like “Rent,” thanks to a deliberately obtuse timeframe and costumes that largely consist of polyester office attire, bootleg pants and tunics with chunky belts — really, guys? Don’t get me started on that crop-top.

The show does reference email a few times, though. We’re pretty sure our friends in “Rent” only got so far as landline-based answering machines — and maybe beepers, with which to expedite their drug deals.

4. Squatting

Rapp’s Lucas is both a housing equality advocate and a writer. But he’s still pretty much Rapp’s Mark, who squats in a loft and does his fair share of advocating about it. (“You can’t just evict an entire tent city then watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ on TV!”) Lucas is also illegally living in a hovel in Bushwick because he only earns $17K per year as a barista and tutor. Hey, at least he doesn’t sell out to Alexi Darling, right?

5. Premise

Remember in “Rent” where Angel is dead and everyone is sing-fighting about how they got to their current state? And then they all start to make important decisions about their futures? Here’s a reminder:

“Halloween”

Why did Mimi knock on Roger’s door
And Collins choose that phone booth
Back where Angel set up his drums?
Why did Maureen’s equipment break down?

“What You Own”

What was it about that night?
Connection in an isolating age
For once the shadows gave way to light
For once I didn’t disengage

These “Rent” lyrics question the serendipity of fate that brought a motley crew of friends together. And it’s basically the entire theme of the latest Broadway offering from director Michael Greif (who also directed the original “Rent”): What if Elizabeth hadn’t been in the park on the day she met her husband? How might her life be different? And what happens now?

Stretch out those questions into three hours and you’ve got “If/Then.” (Oh, and if you want to skip to the barely spoilery point, you should know that the show sums up by saying that Elizabeth’s choices are all the right ones because she was always loved. Because she’s measuring her life in love? Hmmmmmmmmm.)

So there you have it. We can’t promise that if you loved “Rent” you’re going to also enjoy “If/Then.” But we can promise that there’s enough there that it would make a really epic mash-up that we humbly suggest calling “If/Rent.”

Follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy



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