Imagine you’re a seventh-grade boy, hormones raging, energy constantly pumping through your veins, and all you want to do is gather the courage to talk to a girl. Better yet, you want to make her smile, laugh out load, and think you’re the funniest guy in the room. Brian Yorkey did; and that girl he made laugh, she set him on a course that would dictate the rest of his life as a playwright and lyricist.
“She said to me, ‘You’re funny, you should come to my dad’s theatre.’ I mean, a girl thought I was funny. What else are you supposed to do? You go to her dad’s theatre,” said Yorkey over the phone, as the touring company is his latest musical endeavor, “If/Then, prepares to come to Dallas for a short stay at the Winspear Opera House.
The dad in this story just happened to be one of the brains behind the Village Theatre. Based in Issaquah, Washington, the Village Theatre is one of the leading producers of musical theater in the Pacific Northwest, one of the region’s best-attended professional theater, and the host of such educational programs as Pied Piper and KIDSTAGE; the latter of which Yorkey became an integral part of.
“I started right away at the theater, and worked my way up. And they have this summer program for high school seniors that allows them to direct a show. It was finally my turn, I was about 17 or 18, and we wanted to do ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ But we couldn’t get the rights to the movie version. So, we decided to write to Roald Dahl [the author of the children’s book] and get his permission. It was a risk. I had no idea if he would say yes. But for some reason, he did. Maybe because we were young, or it was a summer program, but he said yes, and I got to direct my first show.”
Yorkey didn’t always have his mind set on musicals, though. As a child, he had every intention to become a playwright; he even went to Columbia University to pursue that dream. But “musicals were just what I got into,” he says. Columbia has a century-plus-old tradition called the Varsity Show, in which undergraduates write, produce and perform a new musical every year. It’s where Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart first worked together. It was where the only collaboration took place between them and Oscar Hammerstein.
Then, in a real-life “meet cute” – Hollywood’s name for the standard plot device in which two people meet in a way that’s charming, ironic or just generally amusing – the Varsity Show set the scene for Yorkey to meet his creative partner, Tom Kitt. They have since won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for “Next to Normal” (staged locally by Uptown Players). Musicals might have been what Yorkey fell into, but they seem to be what he was meant to do all along.
“Music can work on the human heart and soul the way words can’t,” said Yorkey. “It’s rich and it’s deep. It’s thrilling — it gives you a new outlook on life.” Which is an idea that comes forth in his sophomore offering, “If/Then.” Coming off of the incredibly successful run of “Next To Normal,” Yorkey and Kitt had an incredible burden to carry. Would they be able to face the pressure of creating another hit?
Would the collaboration between Yorkey and Kitt survive?
“Collaboration is like a marriage,” the writer says. “It’s not always easy, and you don’t always do a good job, but it’s about learning to compromise and to share. It nurtures creativity, and while you’re not always going to agree, you have to trust each other to know that you’re going to be able to come out the other side. I trusted in [Tom].”
“If/Then,” at the outset, was Kitt’s idea, and his story is not unlike Yorkey’s. As an undergraduate at Columbia, Kitt never dreamed of a life in the theater — that is, until one day a young woman showed up at his dorm room and pleaded with him to work on music for the annual campus show. That show was the Varsity Show. And the day Kitt, then an economics major, said “Yes” was the day the course of his life changed.
But Kitt always wondered, “What if?” What if he hadn’t been in his dorm room that day? What if he had said no? What kind of life would he have led? It was those thoughts that inspired “If/Then,” a musical about a supremely cautious woman, Elizabeth, who gets the chance to live out two lives through some theater magic and, of course, some song and dance. It’s a show about the lives we lead, and the lives we might have led. It’s about the possibilities of tomorrow, and while that might sound like metaphysical dribble, “If/Then” manages to tell a story that is urgent and truthful.
“I think this show really captures what it’s like to live in this day and age, and to live in an American city,” said Yorkey. “Not everyone’s path is a straight line, and I think this show really gets at what’s joyful and what’s painful in life.”
Yorkey had his own if/then moment when work first began on the show. He wasn’t sure how it was going to be a musical, until he realized that the question of destiny vs. chance, of romance vs. loss, was at the heart of Elizabeth’s story. Then the musical metaphors came flooding.
“This show is about the lives we live now, and it makes you think, ‘What if I had turned the other way? What if I had said no, or what if I had said yes? Where would I be now? Who would I be now?’ It’s easy to cave into pressure, to just drop the mic and walk away. But there were stories we wanted to tell, ideas we wanted to explore. We both just felt as if there was so much left to do; that we had only skimmed the surface the first time around. And it’s also exciting to take a risk and try something we hadn’t done before — and that led us to ‘If/Then.’”
With a rapidly growing new audience for musicals – thanks in part to the success of “Glee,” the love/hate relationship we have with FOX’s determination to restage classic musicals live on TV and our obsession with contemporary musicals like “Hamilton” – more millennials are now heading to the theater. A show like “If/Then” speaks to that generation, while also speaking to Gen-Y and Gen-Xers.
Unlike the characters living in the magic of theater, none of us actually takes a peak through portals to a parallel universe. We get to live vicariously through characters that are just like us: brave, curious, looking for a fresh start. If we accept that there could be boundless possibilities left to explore, then maybe Elizabeth, Yorkey and Kitt can teach us a thing or two about life.