8 February 2017

If/Then: A Night at the Opera

I'm not a big theatre goer. In fact, the last time I went to see a play must have been ten years ago.
While I have great respect for the theatre, I never developed a taste for this particular art form. Which made last Friday a bit of an exception, when I went to see a musical with a friend from school. Our school got a bunch of free tickets to the preview of the new adaptation of the musical If/Then at the Malmö Opera, titled Tänk Om ("What if"). And who can say no to a free ticket?

If/Then was originally a Broadway musical that opened on March 30th 2014. It was written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt and starred Idina Menzel in the lead role. It closed the following year. And now it made its way to Sweden.

I had never heard of this musical before, and I was intrigued by the plot. If/Then is about a woman named Elizabeth, who moves back to New York City after a rough divorce. As she is waiting for her two friends in the park, her phone rings. And this is where the laws of quantum mechanics kick in, and the Universe splits in two, creating two parallel timelines. In the one timeline, Elizabeth doesn't answer the phone, which leads to her meeting a young field surgeon who's come home from active duty. While in the other timeline, she does answer her phone and gets a job offer in the new city development project, and as a result she doesn't meet the young doctor.

From that moment on we get to follow two different versions of Elizabeth - Liz and Betty - as well as her friends as their lives unfold in two completely different ways. We watch them evolve, grow apart and find their way back to each other, as they deal with tragedy and the mundane little things that make up their existence. And all the while, they're wondering what life would have been like had they just made different choices.

Like I said, I didn't know anything about this show, so I didn't have any expectations whatsoever.

And I absolutely loved this show.

It's probably wise to mention that I love the "what if"/parallel timelines tropes. A crack in the Universe that splits it in two. Parallel dimensions, and alternate histories. Choices and events that at first seem non-essential but turn out to have irrevocable consequences. These stories have an unlimited potential for coaxing our imagination and making us think outside of our cognitive boxes. And if done right, they can explore the characters, discover their greatest strengths and weaknesses, as well as start interesting conversations about things like choice, destiny and the free will.

But as appealing and exciting as these tropes may be, there is also something unsettling about them. Personally, I find the idea that there may be another "me" who is leading a life so different from mine disturbing.

We are always forced to make choices, and most of the times we end up questioning those choices. We can spend hours, if not years exercising in fruitless thought experiments, and trying to construct various alternate scenarios of our lives.

The hardest part about making a decision is living with it. Could things have turned out differently had we made a different choice? Maybe. Maybe not. Bottom line is, we can never know. We can only tell if the decision we made was the right one after we made it. And thus the torturous question "what if" becomes useless.

When it comes to fiction, most of the times, the hero is able to travel to that other Universe or that other timeline and experience the life he could have had. Thus, the hero is granted the ability to see if the choices he made were the right ones. The hero is aware of the other versions of himself and is able to learn valuable lessons from this experience, and get a new perspective on things. But in If/Then, neither Liz nor Betty get that chance to teleport to each other's timelines. They ask themselves "what if?" but they cannot answer that question. I think this is what makes If/Then such a strong story. Liz and Betty can never be one hundred percent sure if they make the right choices because that's how it would work in the real life.

And even though we as the audience do get to see where Liz and Betty's decisions lead them, if asked which decision was the right one after all I think most of us will hesitate to answer. The fact that we get to see where Elizabeth's decisions lead her doesn't take away this uncertainty. There are no definite answers.

By the time the curtain closes, both Liz and Betty, having gone through their respective journeys once again stand at the crossroads, faced with choices that may seem non-essential at first, but that may have huge consequences for them in the future. I love this ambiguous ending. Or should I say, endings? I love the uncertainty. I love the endless possibilities that these stories have. When the show ends, the audience is left with tons of questions. Question that we may not be able to answer, but that we can dwell on for a long time. And perhaps we can trust that whatever is supposed to happen will happen.

Of course, the story wouldn't have been half as impactful if it weren't for the actors' engrossing performances. I was almost moved to tears by their performances. They gave one hundred percent and showed real raw emotions that were only magnified by their incredible vocals. The lead actress - Linda Olsson - perhaps deserves special credit, as she was on stage almost the entire time, and was constantly switching between the characters of Liz and Betty.

My only complaint about this production is the set. It's minimalistic, and considering that the story is supposed to take place in New York City, this set doesn't always have what it takes to convey this big city feel. But really who cares about sets when the actors and the music breathe life into the story, making it feel so real?

The story follows Liz and Betty during the course of five years, and the writers do a really good job showing the impact that time has on these characters. We only get to see certain key moments in their lives, and that is more than enough to imagine the moments that we don't see. The blanks are ours to fill.

A good story, no matter how fantastical, is supposed to serve as a reflection of reality. Not only does it have to be believable and grounded in realism, but we have to be able to relate to its characters. It's not enough to simply understand what the characters are feeling, but their emotions have to mirror our own, in order to find resonance in our hearts.

It's a difficult task but If/Then shows that it can be done. I'll stop gushing now, and just give this musical two thumbs up.

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