According to a recent New Yorker story, a while back someone called the office of then-New York City director of city planning Amanda Burden with a request to talk to her—-about an upcoming musical about urban planning. Understandably, Burden didn’t believe it. “I said, ‘That has to be a prank call,’” she told the New Yorker. But then this spring, she saw the new musical If/Then and—-surprise—-encountered a version of herself onstage: “‘Oh, my God,’ she recalled thinking. ‘I think that’s me!’”
So yes, as a Planetizen headline put it today: “New Musical Glamorizes Urban Planning.” And if ever a field needed glamorizing, it’s got to be urban planning.
The protagonist of If/Then is Elizabeth (played by Idina Menzel of Frozen fame), an urban planner whose life could turn out one of two possible ways: Either she gets married and has two kids (and calls herself Liz), or she becomes New York City’s top city planner (and calls herself Beth). Writer Brian Yorkey told the New Yorker he originally had Elizabeth as a microeconomist but shifted her to city planning after reading an article about Burden. He did research by reading Jane Jacobs, talking to former D.C. chief planner Harriet Tregoning, and reading about the controversial Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn.
Jeffrey Barg, an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society who writes musicals in his free time, saw the show and spoke to Property about it:
There were a few times that I leaned over to my wife and whispered excitedly, “They just mentioned the APA’s Daniel Burham Award! That’s an actual thing!” “She’s working on rebuilding Penn Station! They’re actually doing that!” There were one or two instances when I was the only one in the theater laughing at the planning jokes, but I think it’s fun even if you don’t know anything about planning, but you just like to hear Idina Menzel belt it out. Which she definitely does.
Burden apparently also liked the show. “They got everything right,” she told the New Yorker. “Not only how this city planner—Idina’s character—shaped those very large plans for very large developments but the process of deciding what goes there. Does it have affordable housing? How do you treat developers? The politics of it: who you alienate and who you have to win over.”
Here’s a brief montage from the show: