If the endless screeching of Idina Menzel in a deadly, misguided new Broadway horror called If/Then doesn’t drive you to decibel-shattering madness, then the ugly sets and costumes, the pretentious drivel of the boring, atonal music by Tom Kitt and the unspeakable book and potty-mouthed lyrics by Brian Yorkey are guaranteed to do the trick. There is even a song called “What The Fuck!” Where are the grammar police when we need them?
The score is so bad that, for the first time in my memory, the songs are not listed in the Playbill. Never mind. The audience, which consisted of the people who bought the Frozen album, was too busy trying to figure out what the show was about to care what the pop songs were called. Menzel fans, who have followed her mystifying career since her Tony-winning role as the green-faced evil witch in Wicked and through her catastrophic caterwauling on this year’s Oscar show, started the proceedings at the Richard Rodgers Theatre by out-yelling the star. By the intermission, the reactions were reduced to subdued politeness. They yelled again at the end, when Ms. Menzel took her bow, but by then, the whole thing had tanked.
This is one of those dazed “roads I didn’t take” ideas about one character with two identities. Ms. Menzel is a woman named Elizabeth, who leaves her loveless marriage and unfulfilled world back in Phoenix and moves to New York to start a new life and new love. Before you can say “split personality,” she has morphed into two people called Liz and Beth who exist in parallel stories. (They never really live.) Both of them meet men in Madison Square Park on the same day and split like atoms into dual narratives. Beth gets a call on her cell phone from an old school chum named Stephen (Jerry Dixon) who remembers her drawings of urban sites on bar napkins and now offers her a job as a city planner, while Liz gets arrested for closing down the subway and falls in with a group of urban protesters, including bisexual Lucas (Anthony Rapp) and handsome Josh (James Snyder), an army doctor from Nebraska who has just returned from a tour of duty. Beth (or is it Liz?) gets pregnant by either Stephen, Lucas or Josh. Liz (or is it Beth?) marries Josh. One of them ends up teaching urban development. The other one ends up redesigning New York. (You know what a city planner is: those people who are busy destroying New York by turning historic landmarks into rent-stabilized apartment complexes.) To illustrate, there is idiotic dialogue: “You’re a Republican.” “I’m an Independent.” “I don’t believe in independents, and I don’t believe in bisexuals—make a choice!” And there are cringe-worthy songs that rhyme “seed,” “need” and “creed.”
Ms. Menzel screams them all with a metallic voice that sounds like a fork beating the side of a pan, but her best gal pal is a lesbian kindergarten teacher played by LaChanze, who sings loud too but with a much better voice that doesn’t sound like it’s coming loose at the hinges. Kate laments the fact that the school library has only three books about feminist role models and one of them is Betsy Ross: “If I wanted a hero who sews, I’ll take Donna Karan or Diane von Furstenberg!” None of this has anything to do with neurotic split personalities, but it passes the time.
Nothing about If/Then makes a lick of sense. In Act One, Beth (or is it Liz?) has a baby. When the curtain rises on Act Two, she has two babies. Sometimes, her husband calls her Liz, and at other times, he calls her Beth. LaChanze gets mixed up and calls her both names. How is the audience supposed to tell them apart if the other characters onstage can’t? Another first: This is the first musical I’ve ever seen in which the lyrics are a primer of filth. Pregnant Beth (or is it Liz?) bends over in pain. “Contractions!” she yelps. Then, she adds, “No, it’s just poop,” and exits, wiping her backside. If/Then is not only boring and confusing—it’s also disgusting.
To keep the audience awake, Messrs. Kitt and Yorkey, who also wrote the overrated Next to Normal, provide songs about the environment, organic farming and schizoid thirtysomethings in the metropolitan jungle doing one thing while dreaming about doing something else. They all sound alike. There are a lot of awkward, mechanical movements mislabeled as choreography. You get pointless, show-off lines like “Meeting a man on the subway is like doing your Christmas shopping at Port Authority” and lyrics like “You need to keep your life inside you and never let it out. … You learn to live within, and you learn to live without.” The clumsy direction is by the usually reliable Michael Greif.
Ms. Menzel is such a bad singer she even changes vowels mid song. It’s all about sound, not lyrics. The audience greeted the star like a 737 taking off but later sank into a lull. If/Then is pure agony, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make money as long as word of mouth doesn’t bury it six feet under.