To consider life after NYMF, my mind goes back to life before the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which premiered in 2004.
Creating musicals is a herculean task made more difficult by the thorns and nettles of producing theatre in New York. It shouldn’t be so hard. After all, New York contains a huge number of talents who are extremely good at what they do: performers, directors, choreographers, designers, musical directors. Being the crowded place that it is, New York, more than anywhere else, contains people who are interested in seeing new musicals, and this crowd includes critics, producers who might be from out of town but come to town to find material to produce elsewhere, a savvy audience that’s seen many a new musical before.
I tend to use the term, Critical Mass, a lot. What I’ve just described is the intersection of two Critical Masses – the makers of musicals, and those who appreciate new musicals. If one were to try to mount a show someplace else, say, Dubuque, Iowa, both masses would be far smaller, and the whole thing becomes harder. You don’t have a large-enough group of talented-enough folk to do a show and fill the seats with interested-enough theatre-goers. I picked Dubuque because I know a guy there who’s been attempting to create and produce a new musical there for many years. But, wherever you are, it can’t be denied that, compared to New York, your critical masses are puny.
But Gotham, that cruel mistress, throws stumbling blocks in your way. One is the price of real estate. So many people want to live in Manhattan, the laws of supply and demand make every inch of the island a spot likely to be used as a living space. And now I’m thinking of my beloved West 57th Street: I had a show in C.A.M.I. Hall and attended the BMI workshop in two different West 57th Street locations. But now one cranes one’s neck to gawk at the incredibly tall and thin Steinway Tower and the even taller Central Park Tower where a modest studio apartment goes for a million and a half. The longest-reigning Tallest Building in the World, the Empire State, is now the seventh tallest in Manhattan. Talk about puny!
And imagine the land use problem with finding a performance space for a show. Tiny theatres – and we’re not talking nice-looking ones – charge exorbitant rents. In 2000, my musical comedy, Area 51, played at the Sanford Meisner Theatre, way the hell west on the West Side Highway, across from Chelsea Piers. Audiences had to be really committed to walk there. Wasn’t anywhere near a subway. In a famous letter, Jason Robert Brown, whose Songs For a New World had played around the corner, said he didn’t venturee that far. The joyful noise of tap dancing paratroopers hit relatively few ears.
Something had to be done, and, one day, a group of young people who cared about the future of musical theatre – specifically, how new musicals are made – met to discuss ideas. What if they presented a bunch of shows at the same time, in the same small set of theatres? Normally, a musical plays for an hour or two and the rest of the day, the theatre lies empty. What if the same venue hosted different shows all day long? One at one, one at four, one at seven, one at ten. You could sell four times as many seats. The cost of producing could be split between many shows. Imagine the fee for renting a keyboard. Normally, one show pays the whole tab, but what if you had ten different musicals sharing – not so high a cost.
Now we’re talking a critical mass of new musicals, an economic structure based on sharing space, and maybe they all share a casting director who’ll run a huge audition, and a publicist. An individual musical like Area 51 failed to get press coverage, but “Hey, we’re doing 30 musicals over three weeks in New York!” warranted a full page in the Daily News. And a mass of critics would attend, and out-of-town scouts looking for new shows to do, a far-more fertile ground for Life After the Festival.
Just as many of us know all we know about Gypsy Rose Lee from the “musical fable,” Gypsy, there will always be those who know what they know about NYMF from one of its first-year offeringss, [title of show], Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s musical-à-clef about their process of getting in the festival. It went on to Broadway, as did Feeling Electric, but not until after Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt changed the title to Next To Normal. Both have small casts, as you’d expect from a festival situation. Two of my favorite NYMF experiences were two-man musicals about guys writing musicals, the hysterical Gutenberg! and the warm and winsome The Big Voice: God or Merman? But I’ll run out of space if I list the shows I loved there, including ones by friends, Night of the Hunter and Like You Like It.
Rather, I can illustrate the great goodness wrought by NYMF by discussing my 2007 career highlight, Such Good Friends. First, being accepted, by blind submission, meant something to a lot of people. Area 51 had been produced by my collaborator. Such Good Friends attracted a top-flight director, Marc Bruni, who hooked me up with a producer, Kim Vasquez, and Kim was one of the innovators at the founding-of-NYMF meeting described above. Musical Director Michael Horsley and choreographer Wendy Seyb were also dying to work with Marc. Our cast was mostly Broadway vets, including two Tony Nominees, Liz Larsen and Brad Oscar – fantastically talented performers who were willing to devote their time to the show because they wanted to be part of the creation of something new. All wanted to be a part of NYMF. We won raves from various esteemed media outlets, interest from a scout from a well-known out-of-state theatre, and all sorts of awards.
Our theatre, the Julia Miles, has since been knocked down for some massive apartment building. And now comes the news that NYMF has gone out of business. And again we’re all lost in the wilderness, our individual shows lonesomely looking for a home.