December 10, 2018

Michael Greif takes on ‘If/Then’

Some choices are no-brainers.

If the musical team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey were in need of a director to pilot their musical follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” then the director and guiding force behind that production, Michael Greif, was going to get a phone call.

And if Greif were called for this project, then he would be inclined to clear his busy creative schedule to rejoin the team.

But if producer David Stone also found a way to get Tony Award-winning actress Idina Menzel to star in this musical — marking Menzel’s first return to Broadway since creating the role of Elphaba in “Wicked” in 2003 — that would be even more reason for Greif to jump onboard, having worked with the actress nearly 20 years ago on the groundbreaking rock musical “Rent.”

“It’s not like I needed any further incentive to want to work with Tom and Brian again,” said Greif, 56, a three-time Tony Award-nominated director. “But it was wonderful to imagine a reunion with Idina, particularly in a musical written by Tom and Brian.”

The result, “If/Then,” is currently playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through Jan. 3 as part of a national tour. The musical was developed through a series of workshops and played an out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., en route to Broadway, where it ran for just under a year, closing in March 2015. 

In the musical, city planner Elizabeth (Menzel) moves back to New York from Phoenix after a failed marriage. A single, seemingly innocent choice she makes in Madison Square Park sets Elizabeth down two paths with radically different outcomes, both of which are played out on stage through the characters Liz and Beth. The musical follows what happens to Beth, who takes a high-powered job with the city of New York, and to Liz, who misses out on that job but finds love with an Army doctor.

“For me, the story was always about how a woman might fulfill her potential in a variety of ways,” Greif said. “I think that’s a generous and optimistic notion about the world — that we do have the opportunity to frame and perceive things. How we choose to think of something affects what it is. How we rise to certain challenges, how we confront terrible adversity all shape us, and the way in which we cope with those things makes us who we are.” 

Menzel has returned to the role of Elizabeth for the first leg of the tour — which includes the Los Angeles run — along with original Broadway stars Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder. The involvement of the four principal cast members made rebuilding the show for the road that much easier, Greif said.

“When you’re making a new musical — and it’s probably been true of every new musical I’ve done — a lot of the development process involves some big changes and being able to withstand those changes,” Greif said. “Like how you cope with adversity when a song gets pulled or a song gets changed or a relationship changes. Often when you’re working on a new play, you’ve got your seat belt on, ready to experience any of those things and then to be able to investigate freshly what you actually are certain is there.

“So coming back together after they ran the show for over a year, knowing that they knew the next couple of weeks of rehearsals wouldn’t involve changes — that, I think, really allows us all to work at a level of great comfort.”

The Brooklyn-born Greif grew up in a working-class home in Brighton Beach. His maternal grandparents were observant Jews, and Greif attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox temple.

“I grew up in a not very observant home close to an observant grandmother,” Greif said. 

As an adult, when he encountered the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies (“Dinner With Friends,” “Brooklyn Boy,”), Greif discovered that Margulies was writing about familiar territory.

“I recognized that he and I went to the same Hebrew school, in fact, because of the way in which he depicted certain characters,” Greif said. “I recognized the teachers and the rabbis he was writing about. It was a great discovery for me to get in touch with Donald and find out that we grew up in very close proximity to one another.”

Greif studied at Northwestern University and earned his graduate degree from UC San Diego. He had several New York and regional credits when he returned to San Diego to become the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse from 1995 to 1999. After the enormous success of “Rent,” which he directed for Broadway and on its national tours, Greif left the Playhouse and returned to New York. He subsequently earned Tony Award nominations for “Grey Gardens” and for “Next to Normal,” the tale of a woman struggling with manic depression.

Although he alternates freely between directing musicals and straight plays, Greif’s upcoming dance card will involve a lot of singing. For New York’s Second Stage, Greif will stage “Dear Evan Hanson,” about a young man trying to fulfill his dreams. In June, he reunites with his “Grey Gardens” creative team on the world premiere of “War Paint,” a musical that details the rivalry between beauty entrepreneurs Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, and their respective imprints on the industry. Featuring Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, “War Paint” will premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in June.

And though he won’t be part of either experience, “If/Then’s” Rapp knows that the “Dear Evan Hanson” and “War Paint” companies will be in the surest of hands. Like Menzel, Rapp was part of the original company of “Rent” and worked as Greif’s assistant on an early incarnation of “Next to Normal.” 

“He’s a real collaborator,” Rapp said of Greif. “Michael has always had a strong aesthetic and strong vision in bringing material to life. Every moment you’re in that room, there’s a possibility of doing really intentional, deep, rigorous work with the material. There’s not a moment wasted.