This past Sunday, my lovely roommate and I went to see the pre-Broadway preview of the new musical If/Then here in DC, where the show is making a test run before it heads to NYC in March. The show stars Idina Menzel of Wicked and RENT fame, in her first stage performance since Wicked itself, plus Anthony Rapp, also of RENT fame, and LaChanze, who won a Tony award for her role in the Color Purple. I’d only recently heard of LaChanze (which is a shame, her voice is incredible) but I’ve loved Idina and Anthony since the first time I saw the RENT film in my freshman year of college, so seeing them live, along with seeing a show before it even went to Broadway was a rare chance Katy and I seized, being the musical theater buffs we are.
The show was wonderful, and every bit as impressive, thought provoking, and emotional as I hoped, given that its creative team won the Pulitizer Prize for drama in 2009 for the musical Next to Normal, which has fast become one of my favorites, and the director also directed both Next to Normal and RENT, which won the very same prize in 1995. The story starts with 39 year-old Elizabeth, who moves back to New York City after leaving a loveless marriage and what was clearly a boring, flat life in Phoenix. She goes to the park to meet friends and from there the show diverges into two different story lines: the “pink” life (noted by the pinkish purple lights always present in that verse) in which “Liz” goes with one friend and ends up meeting her future husband, and then the “blue” life in which “Beth” goes with her other friend and ends up meeting an old classmate who offers her the career of her dreams. The show isn’t about balancing family and career though (I don’t want to give details spoilers away about which each life entails) but about how the smallest choices we make can influence where our lives go.
There is heartbreak and happiness in both of these lives, but in each one Elizabeth learns the same lesson: that making active choices, living her life aggressively rather than passively, that taking chances without trying to calculate their outcome, is the only way to truly live. That if we turn back around and constantly examine past choices as if we can change them, we will only torture ourselves into never moving forward again, never changing or adapting to new circumstances, whether they’re tragic or whether they’re wonderful. She also learns that her choices affect not only her, but the people close to her, even people she’s never met. She learns, finally, that in order to live, you must accept all the things that come with that, accept the hurt but also the beautiful potential and all the possibilities. It’s about all the times we start over again in our lives (as Idina’s showstopping closing hour number showcases), the second chances we receive and need to have the courage to take.
The show is incredibly smart, it’s modern, and it’s unashamed to tackle big issues. RENT fearlessly tackled the the aids epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s, as well as poverty and the persecution faced by the LGBTQ community. Next to Normal gave an intimate, honest look at mental illness, grief, death, and family dynamics. If/Then gives us a look at current problems like income inequality and the unchecked power of the wealthy as the other socioeconomic classes struggle, put most aptly in Rapp’s solo “Ain’t No Man Manhattan” telling us that we are all connected. It reminds us that around every corner there is a chance for something new, but you must be willing to take risks. It reminds us that we hold the power in our own lives, that sitting around waiting for life to happen to you will get you absolutely nowhere, that comparing ourselves to others will get you nowhere because we are each our own person on our own path, intertwined with others but never the same. Certainly, some things in life simply happen to us: people we love die, the economy tanks, we get laid off or don’t get into the school we want. All of those things happen, and they cause us a lot of pain and heartache, so much so that sometimes we feel utterly crushed and it’s hard to get back up. We can’t control that: looking back and thinking that we can is futile and torturous, though that’s a tough lesson to finally understand. But the magnificent thing about those types of situations is that we can choose how we react, what we do in the face of those things. We can’t always choose what life hands us, or control our chance occurrences, or what we’re born into, but we do have a say over what we do with those things. No path is perfect because life isn’t like that, nor should it be. There is good and bad, and without either of those things, life wouldn’t be real, wouldn’t be as complex and layered as it is. We must learn from the past and take that with us as we go because it leads us where we’re going and makes up the pieces of us, but living in the past is not how to move forward, otherwise we are ignoring the present moment and the future in front of us. Life is an ever odd mix of past, present, and future, all at once.
One of the major problems in our society that If/Then does a great job of addressing is the issue of people believing that they can never change personally, that they can’t change the lives of the people around them, that they can’t change the world. This is simply untrue. It’s not apathy exactly, it’s a matter of people not realizing the power they hold within themselves, their own agency, their voices. That, and sometimes we are afraid to recognize and take hold of that power. So often I hear others lamenting how “lucky” others are, while doing nothing to invigorate their own lives, as if other people were simply handed a life, as if perhaps other people didn’t do some semblance of work to get where they are. Life is certainly unfair sometimes, particularly when you look at the fact that things like racism, classism, and sexism are still, lamentably, big problems in our society, no matter the fact that some say they no longer exist. We should continue the fight against those every day, without question, because the playing field is horribly uneven. People who have privilege should recognize it as such and do whatever they can to help those who don’t have the same opportunities. As a society we should all work for that. But to sit still and lament that life isn’t fair and do nothing is no kind of life strategy. We must make choices, we must make decisions, and seize opportunities, and we must push aside our fear and the what ifs.
When I was 15, my parents died within three months of each other. It’s a complicated story, and it’s something I’ll struggle with forever. It took a long while for me to figure out what I wanted, to figure out who I was, and really, that’s a life long journey. I certainly don’t have all the answers to everything, but when I think I might have the answers to some, I want to share them because I want to encourage anyone and everyone I can. But once I had an inkling of what I wanted, I went for it. I took a chance and applied to graduate school in DC, and got in. I moved up knowing no one and nothing, but in the end my risk paid off. There’s a chance perhaps, that it might not have, but I actively made choices and decisions and strived my hardest to stay here. It’s been a little over three years now, and my life is something I’m very happy with, something I’m proud of, something that I built with the wonderful encouragement of several amazing people and screwing up my courage. Something I built with careful steps and learning to be increasingly self-aware and unafraid to present myself to the world, which is never easy. But to hear from some how “lucky” I am, is massively frustrating because while yes, some things definitely fell into place for me, I also worked for it. I actively lived, and there were and always will be obstacles and hard times. But there are also innumerable good ones. I saw the chance to reinvent myself, to reinvent my life, and I took it. As the lyrics to the opening of If/Then go, “There’s a moment when everything changes/There’s a moment you leap off the cliff.”
The same can be applied to matters like social and political change. Anthony Rapp’s character, the activist Lucas, fights for things like affordable housing in Manhattan among other issues, and in one of the story lines, ends up successful in his efforts as well as publishing a book concerning his thoughts, opinions, and efforts. He could have sat back and simply forsaken the world, could have simply said “well, there’s nothing I can do to change anything” but instead he did the exact opposite. As in our personal lives, doing nothing when there’s an issue facing the world that we see and are passionate about, that we are aware of and want to change, is the best way to get nothing done. A great deal of people in modern society seem to live with the wrong opinion that we have suddenly entered a stagnant period in which the world will only continue to spiral downward and it’s completely out of our power. But let me tell you something: this is our world, and if won’t fight for it, then who will? Are there bad things that came with the way the modern world exists? Sure, of course there are. There’s pollution and nuclear weapons and genocide and any number of things. But humanity has also taken great strides forward, and continues to improve and better itself. Just look at the massive difference in life expectancy, in civil rights, in technology, in medical advances, just to name a few. Sitting back and saying “well the world sucks” and then not doing anything about the sucky parts is passive and unacceptable, certainly the best way to keep things the way they are. As former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor, author, and professor Robert Reich said “you can’t inspire people if you yourself are going to be uninspiring.” I love Dr. House, but when he said “people don’t change” what he should have said is “people don’t change if they choose not to.” We are not stuck in some kind of pre-determined fate. We determine our path and shape our fate.
Don’t spend your life wondering “what if?” while looking backward. Instead, learn from the past, take it with you, and spend your life wondering “what if?” while looking forward. Then do something about it.
Leap off the cliff, because for all you know, there might be a life down there waiting to greet you.