IF you plan a getaway specifically to attend Idina Menzel’s new Broadway show, THEN you might end up seeing her standby… and other thoughts about a whirlwind trip to New York
During the summer of 1997, I attended a week-long camp for high school students. Focusing on vocal music and technique, the program at Miami University of Ohio featured individual, small group and large group instruction.
One of the classes during that week highlighted musical theater, a genre about which I knew little more than the show tunes I’d heard at my high school’s variety shows. The instructor introduced us to a musical called “Rent,” which I had never heard of.
A retelling of the Puccini opera “La Bohème,” Rent is a rock musical by Jonathan Larson. The story involves a group of friends – most of whom are young artists and musicians – struggling to survive and trying to thrive in New York City’s Lower East Side.
We summer camp high-schoolers sang three songs from “Rent” – “Will I?”, “Seasons of Love” and the finale. The famous lyrics of “No day but today,” which occur in the finale and throughout the show, have always been especially poignant because Larson died suddenly the night before the show’s off-Broadway premiere.
After that week-long camp, I bought the two-disc soundtrack and began memorizing every single word. Two of the original cast members were Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp, who played the roles of former lovers Maureen Johnson and Mark Cohen. Although I knew my voice was categorized as a light soprano, I pretended to be a mezzo belter, like Idina, in the car and in the shower. Heck, who am I kidding? I still do!
In the fall of 1997, I saw “Rent” on Broadway. Idina had moved on by then, but I have the Playbill to prove that Anthony Rapp was still in his original role at that time. I got to see him again in Pittsburgh when he and Adam Pascal, who created the part of Roger, reprised their roles in the 2009 national tour of “Rent.”
In 2003, another new musical called “Wicked,” starring Idina Menzel as the green, misunderstood Elphaba, debuted on Broadway. My friend Jana introduced me to the music. While we loved listening to Idina’s powerful voice on the original soundtrack, we didn’t see the show together until it stopped in Pittsburgh in 2008. I may’ve memorized every word to “Wicked,” too, and I saw it again in Cleveland in 2009 and in Columbus in 2010. At all three tour performances, I thought about how amazing it would’ve been to see Idina in the Elphaba role she originated, the role that won her a Tony Award.
During the summers of 2010 and 2011, I saw Idina Menzel in concert as part of her “Barefoot at the Symphony” tour. While it was so cool to hear her perform selections from “Rent” and “Wicked,” I still wanted to see the real deal, the whole thing – Idina in a Broadway theater, in a role she originated.
So when I heard last year that Idina would be returning to Broadway in a new musical called “If/Then” in 2014, I started pining. And whining. To my husband and my mom and anyone else who knew Idina’s name. It all seemed impossible with the cost and the travel and the childcare logistics.
Then the Disney movie “Frozen” happened. Suddenly every little girl knew Idina Menzel’s name and the lyrics to “Let it Go.” When I read that Idina would be singing about “frozen fractals” live on the Oscars, I realized that her celebrity was about to increase exponentially. “If/Then” may be my last chance to see her in an original Broadway musical at a cost I can (sort of) afford, I thought. And bonus – Anthony Rapp was also part of the cast.
About that time – a couple weeks before the Oscars – I was talking to Jana and, knowing her husband was going to be out of town for eight or nine weeks in late spring and early summer, I decided to throw out a crazy idea: “Would you want to go to New York and see Idina in her new show?” Jana liked the idea because it would take her mind off her hubby’s long absence, and we would finally be able to see Idina in an original Broadway role. After a few days of looking at possible dates, we had chosen a weekend and arranged for our moms to keep our children. What seemed impossible was coming together for what could be a dream-come-true weekend getaway.
The motivation for our trip was to see Idina, but of course we were excited to return to New York and revel in all it offers – the food, the shopping, the subway, the food, the landscapes, the attractions and the food. A girl’s got to eat, right? Jana’s most recent excursion to the Big Apple was in 2008, but I hadn’t been since 2002. It had been a long 12 years for my city heart!
We departed last Friday, tired but happy and excited for a girls’ weekend. After a snafu during our layover at Philadelphia International Airport, we eventually made it to LaGuardia, where we hopped on a bus, then the subway to get to Manhattan. New York may be a little stinky and quite crowded, but that place has got public transportation down. It is truly one of my favorite things about New York. As self-professed map lovers, Jana and I consider ourselves to be excellent navigators. And there is no better place to prove those skills than NYC.
Our hotel was small and our room, a little stuffy, but the location could not have been better. Fittingly, we were directly across from the Gershwin Theatre, where “Wicked” debuted and still makes its home. The Richard Rodgers Theatre, home of “If/Then,” was a short, four-block walk away. We felt so lucky and thankful to be there.
So, of course, out we ventured. First, to the West Village, where we wandered the streets and bought wine and ate dinner at a Thai restaurant. Then we went back toward the direction of our hotel, passing it by 10 blocks to go to Serendipity 3, home of the now famous frozen hot chocolate featured in the movie “Serendipity,” which starred John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. We arrived back at our hotel stuffed full of lychee and rice noodles and coconut and chocolate and whipped cream and sprinkles.
Our plan for Saturday was to sleep in. Because, you know, when does that ever happen for moms who have young children? So we just pondered the thought of sleeping in and not having to set an alarm. Ahhhh, that was going to be so nice.
But we were ready to explore, too, in the spirit of the lyrics from “One Short Day” when Elphaba and Glinda travel to the Emerald City in “Wicked:”
One short day, full of so much to do
Ev’ry way that you look in the city
There’s something exquisite you’ll want to visit
Before the day’s through
There are buildings as tall as Quoxwood trees
A hundred strong
There are wonders like I’ve never seen
It’s all grand
And it’s all green!
I think we’ve found the place where we belong!
I wanna be in this hoi polloi
So I’ll be back for good someday
To make my life and make my way
But for today, we’ll wander and enjoy:
One short day…
To have a lifetime of fun…
For our “One Short Day,” we planned a trip to Central Park, a sight both of us had previously seen only from a distance. I wanted to go to Bow Bridge, which was featured in a scene of the movie “Keeping the Faith” starring Edward Norton, Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman. Jana expressed interested in going to Belvedere Castle, where she recalled seeing “Wicked” cast members Megan Hilty and Shoshana Bean perform “For Good” on TV. We found both attractions and got some exercise along the way. Central Park is gorgeous. And the weather was really close to my favorite temperature of 72 degrees. It was a perfect morning.
We grabbed lunch at a cute deli and took the subway to Rockefeller Plaza, where we thought about going to the “Top of the Rock.” Deciding against that option, we did two things at which we are pros – drinking Starbucks Frappuccinos and buying shoes. After purchasing our littles some overpriced candy and souvenirs at the M&M’s World store in Times Square, we walked back to our hotel to doll ourselves up for the main event.
Donning cute dresses, painful heels and eyeliner on the top and bottom of our eyes, we were ready for dinner and Idina. We drank sparkling water and ate chocolate pasta with Vodka sauce and shrimp. Jana sipped wine, and I had sangria. Everything was delicious and filling. We had plenty of time to walk to the theater and find our seats. As we rounded the corner, we saw the illuminated “If/Then” and the complimentary sign below it, declaring “Idina Menzel is triumphant!” I snapped a picture just as I noticed a line of people standing on the sidewalk. I figured they were waiting to have their tickets scanned and get in the door, so I stood there motionless for a couple minutes.
The commotion was distracting, and as I was about to ask the two young ladies in front of us what was going on, one of them violently swung around and blurted out something that sounded like musical dissonance that never resolves.
“Did you hear? Idina is sick. She’s not doing the show. The understudy is in.”
The words hung, suspended in the air. I felt sick to my stomach. Jana and I looked at each other and whined, “WHAT?!”
“We came all the way to New York just to see her,” Jana protested.
“So did we,” one of the girls said.
A foreign voice bellowed, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the refund line,” motioning at the crowd of people Jana and I were among. “If you still want to see the show, walk around and head into the theater.”
It was 7:45. The show – and probably every Saturday night Broadway production – started in 15 minutes.
“Could we go see another show?” Jana wondered aloud.
We saw an official looking woman who was handing out small yellow sheets of paper that seemed to be important. We each took one and read that we could receive a refund, but that could happen only after the show began at 8 p.m. So seeing something else that night was not an option. Or we could still attend the show with the standby, keep our tickets and use them to gain free admission to a later performance of “If/Then.”
We had to make a decision quickly. When would we ever get back to New York? was the question that kept running through my mind.
“At least we can still see Anthony Rapp,” I offered.
“Maybe the understudy will blow us away,” Jana tried.
“But we came here for Idina. We planned this whole trip because we wanted to see her. Hear her.”
It had been a near perfect day up to that moment. Turns out, IF I had read others’ postings on the Idina Menzel or “If/Then” Facebook pages, THEN I would have known that Idina had been sick since Wednesday evening’s performance, during which her standby Jackie Burns stepped in for the second act. I am so glad I didn’t know that. It would have ruined our whole trip.
We saw the show. Anthony Rapp and all the others were fantastic. And so was Jackie Burns. The whole evening I wondered how she was feeling. What does it feel like to be a standby?
Interesting question. Because the show is about choices and chances. Making decisions and starting over. One decision can alter the course of one’s life, and “If/Then” explores that principle.
After the show and for the rest of the weekend, we reflected on some of the things that happened on our trip, making if/then jokes about them. IF we had checked the boards at the Philadelphia airport, THEN we would’ve seen that our gate changed and wouldn’t have missed our connecting flight. IF we had chosen a different weekend to come to New York, THEN we would have gotten to see Idina perform. IF the train conductor hadn’t hurt her finger and been taken away in an ambulance, THEN we would have made it home waaaayyy sooner.
Although we were not taking ourselves seriously, it made me realize that living like that – questioning and dwelling on every single move and decision – is a surefire way to go crazy.
Jana and I believe that God is a God of second chances – that IF we are following His truth, THEN he will always bring our lives to where they are supposed to be. And “If/Then” captured that. Elizabeth, the role Idina Menzel originated, ends up at peace with where and who she is.
So now I think it is up to the God of second chances to determine if, in fact, Jana and I get a second chance at “If/Then.” Either way, I still consider our trip a once-in-a-lifetime getaway.