Urban Planning's Broadway Moment

Elizabeth Vaughan, the lead character in the Broadway musical 'If/Then' may be the most famous urban planner in the United States, thanks to the star power of Idina Menzel and a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the planning field.

2 minute read

December 14, 2015, 5:00 AM PST

By Josh Stephens @jrstephens310

"A former professor of planning, Vaughan is exacting, keeping an entire Census’ worth of data in her head and crunching numbers on the fly; she analyzes every alternative in her head and sees demographic and social trends long before they take place. She has the toughness, intellect, and resolve of Janette Sadik-Kahn. She also has the awkwardness, self-doubt, and nonexistent dancing skills of Elaine Benes."

"She is the consummate pragmatic idealist. She understands the joy that pulses through a great city while she keeps the numbers all in their rows. Elizabeth and her colleagues speak honestly about gentrification, demographic trends, tensions between developers and stakeholders, political alliances, housing costs, and everyday things like bike lanes and sidewalks. Planning — if we take it in its purest form, serving the masses and making life better on average — is the ideal foil for the messiness and uncertainty of individual existence."

"Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, did his homework. Though Menzel’s black mane would have to go silver before some of her signature projects actually got approved, it’s a reasonable portrayal of basic planning. Terminology is used correctly, the issues are genuine, and even the places in Manhattan — right down to a thinly veiled Atlantic Yards — are real, illustrated with street maps and images of landmarks. If only all planners were as passionate as Elizabeth is, or as dazzling as Menzel is. Indeed, there seems to be an intentional chasm between Menzel’s celebrity and talent — though occasionally nasal, her voice is crisp and powerful -- and the anonymity and bureaucratic tendencies of her character’s career. Whatever choices we may face, we cannot all be Broadway stars."

"If/Then" began its national tour December 9 in Los Angeles. Click here for tour information. 

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