Sunday, March 13, 2016

If/Then: A Two-Decade Fulfillment I Didn’t Know I Needed

**It's been a while since I've done a write-up on non-kinky stories I love.
But I loved this show so much for so many reasons, I just have to share.
Warning. Excessive fangirling and spoilers for the theatrical play If/Then

I was twelve when I first heard “Seasons of Love” and fell in absolute love with Rent. Just starting junior high, it was the first time I’d really seen love portrayed as more than a fairytale. Where love felt complicated and hard and even unhealthy sometimes. When love wasn’t something that just happened to you, but that you did and chose and worked at. It was the first time a happy ending wasn’t guaranteed; when love wasn’t always enough.

It was also, for me, the first time I really saw such diversity in storytelling. Where people of color were prominent plot-changing characters. Where interracial relationships existed. Where gay characters got to tell their stories. Where all these diverse people, who normally were side characters if they existed in stories at all, and their lives and loves were portrayed as just as real and honest and important and complex as the ones we’re used to seeing. It was, for me, one of the first times media looked more like the world I lived in and the experiences I knew. It, for me—for a lot of people—felt eye-opening and heartbreakingly and heart-mendingly relatable.

And, for years, it was my favorite musical. I would listen to the two-disc CD set over and over again on loop, vicariously falling in and out and in love with these characters.

But, as the years passed and my understanding of both story and romance grew...

Don’t get me wrong, I still love Rent to this day. “Take Me or Leave Me” is one of my go-to songs to sing when I need to get out of a bad mood. “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” still tugs at my heart every time I hear it. But, as I grew older, suddenly my unqualified “you have to see it!!!” recommendations came with disclaimers. About how my love might be tainted by nostalgia and romanticized naivety. About how you might have needed to see it as a thirteen-year-old girl in the late nineties to truly understand why I loved it so much. It—like Buffy and NSYNC—became a symbol of a time and place in my life. Something that would always be meaningful to me, but whose meaning didn’t feel as relevant anymore.

A little like your first high school relationship that, at the time, feels like forever and all-consuming. But, that, with time and distance later, feels hazy and removed. A lovely memory that I love to revisit but can never fully recapture.

Then, this weekend, I saw If/Then, which is from the producer from Wicked and the director of Rent, and was written for and stars two of Rent’s unforgettable actors, Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp. In essence, it is a show made for me to love.

And it did not disappoint.

It was as if Rent had grown up with me, had evolved with the romantic and sexual landscapes, to become a brand new, but deeply familiar show. If Rent was my first serious, high school theatrical love, If/Then is like going to my reunion and realizing, after all these years, that there are certain feelings—certain corners of your heart—that never fade. That, once claimed, never let go.

It takes elements that made Rent great, like complex relationship issues and diverse stories and cast, and takes it to that next level.

As complex as the relationships had seemed and are in Rent, If/Then beautifully explores the detriment of things like fixating on people who cannot love you or fixating so much on the possibility of risk or failure that you’re afraid to love. Lucas’s love for Elizabeth is so often really unhealthy. Particularly when he’s willing to be with her in any way he can. And at any cost to himself. It’s a romantic idea, to be with someone who wants to be with you no matter what. Who will give and give and give and expect nothing in return. It’s a dynamic that so many stories romanticize and glorify. But should they? His song “You Don’t Need to Love Me” broke my heart because I’ve been on both sides of that relationship dynamic and it’s never healthy. For anyone. Any relationship where one person gives more than the other is difficult to sustain. Anytime one person’s needs are being met more than—or, worse, at the expense of—the other’s, that’s a relationship that is bound to and should fail. And, in the show, it does. Almost irreconcilably.

And, on the flip side, songs like “Here I Go” and “Best Worst Mistake,” show both the very human fear of opening yourself up to hurt and loss as well as the exhilaration and thrill of risking all that for the chance at love and happiness. In a play that hinges on the idea that a single choice in the main character’s life alters her lifeline in significant ways that plays out in two distinct versions of her future, the idea of odds plays a key role. The odds of a good outcome and a bad one. The odds of what may come because of one simple act—one seemingly inconsequential decision—versus another. And how indecision and regret over that impacts us. So often we spend so much of our lives wondering “what if.” And, the truth is, we can’t know. You do the best you can, in the moment, while you can. And, for a natural worrier and odds-measurer like me, that’s a great message. Because, though it is cliché to say, of all the things I regret in life I regret the chances I didn’t take far more than the ones I did. But, even in the face of that, I can’t go back. I can’t change what’s already happened. All I can do is move forward and trust that life will go on. Because, until you die, it does.

And the relationship of Kate and Anne, Elizabeth’s friends throughout the whole show, is a great example of that. Theirs is the most long-term and, arguably, healthy relationship in the show. We get to see them support each other through good times, like Kate winning a teaching award, and hard times, like seeing Elizabeth lose her husband. We get to see them go on dates and get married and live their lives.

And we see them fight. When Anne cheats on Kate because of a difference in libido levels, we see them, like many others, face the decision to divorce or stay together. In one version, they divorce, because that’s what it’s assumed people do. When an infidelity happens, we assume—we’ve been told that—separation is inevitable. It’s the right thing to do. And, sometimes it is. It is a violation. A betrayal. And it almost always hurts like hell.

But, statistically, 60% of men have cheated and 40% of women have. It happens. A lot. To pretend otherwise, to think that it will never happen to you, is to willfully ignore the facts. And I really like that this show addresses the first-response reaction to cut-and-run as well as questions whether one should act on it or not. In one version, Kate leaves Anne. And is okay. And, in another, Kate stays with Anne. And is not only okay but happy. They’ve worked it out and worked through it. I like that this show admits the viability and reality of both options.

I also love that Lucas, played by Anthony Rapp who played Mark in Rent, got to be an open and visible bisexual character. With the dual nature of the show, you get to see Lucas pine and obsess over an unrequited love with Elizabeth in one version and you also get to see him let go of that obsession and find happiness with a gorgeous, kind, Asian man. It’s not always easy to portray monogamous bisexual characters because, so often without deliberately and often clumsily telling the audience, it’s easy to assume that they’re straight or gay. Lucas beautifully shows how, for bisexuals, gender just doesn’t matter when they meet the right people.

And, even though it gained both uproarious laughter and disapproving groans, I kinda loved that they had a line in the show about bisexual invisibility, stating how Elizabeth doesn’t “believe in bisexuals; pick a side.” Because, while I don’t believe the statement to be true, I do believe there are people who do. Even those, like Elizabeth, who dated Lucas in college and saw him date both men and women and who would go on to see him form a family with another man, who should know better. For me, having that line in the show was as important for addressing bisexual invisibility as it was to show Lucas having feelings for both men and women.

And, yes, as someone who loves Mark Cohen, Rent’s tortured artist filmmaker who ends the show as the only main character unattached, it was nice to see him get a happier ending this time around. To see him not only become friends with his ex and her chosen partner, but also find his own. And with someone, whatever their gender, who felt right for him.

While there was so much to love about If/Then, from its storytelling to its songs to its set designs and costume choices to its choreography, the thing I likely will love best is that it fulfilled a hole in my story-lover’s heart that I didn’t even know was there. That it took a show I loved so long ago and found a way to rekindle, transmute, and transform it into something new and just as, if not more, lovable. Thank you, If/Then, from 12-year-old me who didn’t even know she was waiting for a closure she finally got twenty years later.

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