Luckily for Tom Kitt, he was in his dorm room at Columbia when opportunity knocked. Though an economics major, he agreed to write his first music for theater after his future wife, Rita Pietropinto-Kitt, having heard of his musical talents, asked if he would be the 99th Varsity Show's musical director. In the 20 years since, he's often wondered about the other life he might have led, the other Tom he might have become, if he hadn't been in, hadn't said yes, or hadn't noticed that the woman who'd come knocking on his door was quite lovely—thoughts that would inspire If/Then, his latest collaboration with lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey.
Their musical about a supremely cautious woman, Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), audaciously leaps over traditional story structures. In the opening number, the character considers the probable outcomes of a simple choice: to help a friend (Anthony Rapp) gather signatures to protest a housing development or listen to music with her new neighbor (LaChanze). The show then magically lets her give each option a shot by splitting her in two, as Liz and Beth, and the proceeding parallel narrative shows how big and small choices like Liz's agreeing to take the phone number of a handsome war vet (James Snyder), or Beth's taking a phone call from an old friend (Jerry Dixon), significantly alter the life and personality of each.
Liz and Beth may share an initial resistance to risk, but Kitt and Yorkey embrace it. Like their previous collaboration, Next to Normal, which earned the pair the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, If/Then is a wholly original musical in an era of movie adaptations, revues, and bio-sicals. I sat down with Kitt in early June, when If/Then's cast album was released, to discuss the choices and serendipities that have shaped his life and work.