The vibrant new musical If/Then, created by the Next to Normal team of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/book writer Brian Yorkey, is an ambitious production that follows two parallel storylines. They are the two different paths that newly divorced urban planner named Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) could take in her life depending upon a key choice she makes. One storyline involves her dating a politically conscious college friend named Lucas (Anthony Rapp) and the other with a newly discharged Army doctor named Josh (James Snyder). As scenes unfold in different locales, they generally shift from one storyline to the next, exploring many of the same themes in different contexts.
Tony nominated scenic designer Mark Wendland had a lot to chew on as he worked out set pieces that could help move the story along without encumbering it with bulky props and scenery. “The biggest challenge, really, was the script because it’s a new work,” he tells PLSN. “It’s not based on anything else. It was Tom and Brian’s idea, and we all went into it knowing that there would be lots of revisions. I think the biggest challenge was keeping the design fluid enough that we would never be weighted down with something that either wasn’t needed or got in the way once the script changed. I think it was always in our minds to try to think of how to make a world where it seems like the characters are always making it and you never knew what was coming next. That’s why we have pieces that could roll around and fit together in any kind of configuration to make a world that the characters were creating, and then, when scenes changed and new locales came up, it was easy to figure out how to use the toys in a different way.”
The story of If/Then unfolds in numerous locations, including offices, apartments, a rooftop, a subway car, and Madison Square Park. In order to keep the pace going, many of the spaces are partially implied, through the use of staging and blocking around some significant set pieces like desks, beds, seats, and a catwalk/fire escape unit that cuts across the stage and is raised or lowered depending upon the need in each scene. The stair units are also flown in from above.
“The catwalk has the ability to fly, so for certain scenes it creates a frame at the top of the picture,” notes Wendland. “It disappears when we need it to, but it’s always in view. For park scenes where we want a more open feeling, we fly it all the way up.”
The show opens and closes in Madison Square Park, which is adorned with umbrellas and tables. A bedroom set piece takes center stage for a couple of scenes, while other spaces are more open than implied, as in many musicals. “It’s a fast-paced show with lots of scenes back to back to back to back, so it was helpful to have those rolling wood frames,” says Wendland. “Sometimes they hold props, and sometimes they create doorways. They help it to be as fluid as possible. It was always the hope to use those rolling frame units to play a lot with the perception of space. One of my favorite things was having a big, open park scene as the first scene, then going down to this tight, closed off subway scene — it was a nice contrast.”
Five wood frames were rolled onstage to create subway cars for that pivotal scene after the opening sequence. “They were [outfitted with] individual chairs organized as if they were benches. The poles were just those wooden beams, so it was pretty abstract. It’s funny; it’s one of those things where your mind fills in the picture. I love when that happens so you’re not hitting the audience over the head with the image, but you’re allowing them to be a little more active in the show and fill in what they’re not seeing. When you hear the sound of the subway car, you get immediately where you are, and to me that’s more fun than putting a literal subway car on the stage.”
A key scenic element that helps with transitions and sets different moods through color changes is the back wall, which is surprisingly not a video wall. “It’s the genius of [lighting designer] Ken Posner,” declares Wendland. “It’s a bounce drop, and he only had about two and a half feet upstage and couldn’t backlight it because of the size of the turntable. It’s all front lit, and he was a genius at figuring out how to make it seem as if it is a video wall. We were always looking at Mark Rothko paintings for ideas of how to compose that space, and Ken certainly did an amazing job at getting those looks.”
The two designers worked closely together during the creation of If/Then. Wendland points out that the show is so tightly packed that they could not do anything without talking to each other. With about only 32 feet of stage depth in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, it was a challenge for them to pack everything in, and determining the lighting positions was another big challenge. “I couldn’t finalize anything without first making sure Ken was happy and could do what he needed to do,” affirms Wendland.
The color transitions along the bounce drop helped to signify transitions along with changes in the blocking and the dialogue. “It was just to try to get you to know that you are moving from place to place without literally saying it. You’re getting information from the characters and letting the words do the job. Especially for a musical, where we’re so used to being spoon-fed everything, it’s more interesting to let the audience be a little more active in the process and put two and two together themselves.”
The most prominent set piece is a large reflective surface about 32 feet wide by 24 feet tall that is made up of two-by-four-foot tiles that looks like a giant mirror. Wendland says it is made of a Mylar-like product that was picked because it is lightweight. PRG, who built the set, recommended the material for that reason.
“It’s on a pivoting gantry, so it can play in any number of positions,” explains Wendland. “In the show, we probably use it in four or five different positions.” The mirror is mostly used in various vertical positions to reflect objects on and LEDs in the floor, but at the beginning of the show it is preset in a horizontal position so that its initial appearance surprises the audience. When it is used in a fully vertical position, it is about nine feet off the deck and reflecting back set pieces to add depth or make something like a fire escape appear to be multiplied rather than having extra set pieces.
Wendland says he was never worried about the reflective surface catching the audience at all. “For a show about contemporary New York City, I always thought it would be cool to see the audience,” he says. “I actually advocated trying some things where we played around with that, but in the positions we use it in you don’t really see the audience much. In the scenes where it is vertical, you are aware of the aisle lights and the balcony, but I thought that was cool because it looks like New York City lights. You aren’t quite sure what you are seeing.”
If/Then production photo by Joan MarcusThe mirror also reflects LED lights that are placed in the floor that are used both to create a starry sky, such as during romantic scenes with Liz and Josh, and a subway map configuration also fashioned from LEDs.
“What ended up being the most satisfying [aspect] is we found a bunch of ways of using the mirror that, to me, were very magical,” explains Wendland. “You see it for what it is in the first several scenes, and you embrace [the fact] that it’s allowing us to have a bird’s eye view of what’s happening to this woman on the streets of New York. That was the starting point for the idea of the mirror, but what became magical to me as the show progressed is when we moved it into different positions. It allowed you to see space inside the theater in ways that to me were really unusual, unique, and a surprise. There is something about theater space that to me can sometimes be airless. In a traditional musical, when the back wall flies in and the sidewall wagons on from the side and the coach is on a palette, it pushes me away a little bit. I think the fun thing about the mirror is that I would be seeing things happen in space that I wasn’t quite sure how it was happening, and it drew me in. It made me a little bit more curious and a little bit more of an active viewer of the show.”