Carnival time

I can’t help noticing, from the tremendous onslaught on my electronic and snail mailboxes, that The New York Musical Festival is on again.  To paraphrase Chico Escuela: “NYMF been berry, berry good to me.”  It was four years ago – already! – that I had my greatest artistic success there, Marc Bruni’s shattering staging of Such Good Friends, which won all sorts of awards it couldn’t have won if not for NYMF.  Like a certain guy I went to college with, NYMF is best appreciated by considering what life would be like if it weren’t there.

NYMF began in 2004, so it’s not hard to recall the NYMF-free environment.  Dozens and dozens of new musicals played various venues, hoping to attract the interest of big-time producers, theatres and media.  Roughly 99% didn’t succeed in that goal of attention-grabbing and the reasons why are legion.  Let’s say you’re the Arts Editor of a newspaper and realize it’s been a while since you printed anything about a new musical.  Where to send a reporter or critic?  Well, there are a zillion postcards in your in-box and you’ve no time to go through them, so you send her to Elton John’s latest Broadway effort.  Or, say you’re an Artistic Director, and figure your theatre might want to do a new musical.  How will you choose among the postcards?  Some have wacky titles, or good graphics, but you’re a busy fellow and it’s hard to know which tuner to invest time in.  What show is worth your while?

Possibly, you’d flip through the cards to see if you spot a name you know.  If Terrence Mann and Kerry Butler are in a new musical, that would be one worth seeing, just for them.  Many of the musicals are self-produced or self-funded, so there’s no imprimatur saying they’re accomplished enough to deserve to be seen.  And you’re reading that newspaper where the damn Arts Editor has one “new musical” article and it’s about Elton John’s latest foray.  Might as well stay home.

New York is a loud and over-crowded marketplace.  If a hundred new shows are screaming to get noticed every year, well, that’s a lot of noise.  Are you going to scream louder than others?  Or, put less metaphorically, are you willing to shell out a couple of thousand to a publicist to get butts in your seats?  And let’s talk about the other costs.  Renting a theatre, and rehearsal space – extremely costly.  The Actors’ union is going to put you through hoops.  You’ll have to buy insurance, pay off the fire department, a trucker who’ll take your set away to a junkyard when it’s all done, and don’t forget the special lights you’ll have to rent.  All of this to put on a show those Arts Editors and Artistic Directors will likely opt not to see.

A group of young musical theatre people sat together and discussed the above.  It’s awfully hard for a musical writer to get her work seen.  What could be done?  They came up with the idea of a festival of new works, somewhat modeled on Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. Here are the basics:

  • NYMF would rent suitably-sized theatres in the Hell’s Kitchen area.
  • Into each theatre, they’d pack as many different shows as possible.  One show might play at one o’clock, another at 4:30, 8:00, midnight, etc.  Ergo, the shows would have to be compact, able to load out and load in quickly, with very limited space to store sets and props.
  • That special lighting fixture?  If six shows are sharing it, they’d each pay one sixth of the cost.
  • A special arrangement with the Actors’ union allows its membership to participate for a tiny fee.
  • Other unions, and designers, agreed to take the same tiny fee for their work.  (This is the so-called “Favored Nations” thing.)
  • Major Broadway stars could be coaxed to lend their talents, for the sake of new musicals in general, knowing that there’s a limited time commitment
  • A Blue Ribbon Panel of readers would pore over submitted scripts, hopefully ensuring that the best possible musicals, ones that are ready to be seen, fill the stages
  • The festival would handle publicity, ticketing, advertising and insurance.

One general principle should be emphasized: If you band together, as producers, you’re then a bigger consumer, and can haggle for a better price.  One show renting a light fixture won’t have the same economic clout as six shows sharing it.

Now that Arts Editor has something to cover!  What’s more, all NYMF shows generally get several reviews.  It was quite a thrill for me to get raves from Peter Filichia, Michael Dale, Lisa Jo Sagolla and others.  And a remarkable number of well-known Broadway veterans do these shows.  Indeed, I saw Terrence Mann and Kerry Butler in the hysterical Party Come Here.  But it’s not just “name” actors who get theatrical powers-that-be to come.  Being accepted into NYMF means that your show has been approved by that Blue Ribbon Panel (and NYMF publicizes the names, usually Tony-winners).  So, the postcard with the NYMF logo does carry a certain imprimatur.

I won’t bore you with specifics, but economics of the Bulk Buying and Favored Nations does result in shows being half as expensive to produce as they’d be outside of NYMF.

And yes, of course, there are problems.  But the good news is, they’re always seeking to improve.  I once sent them a detailed set of suggestions, and they responded appreciatively and then instituted some of the proffered alterations.  Someday, I might devote a post or two to how NYMF could do things better, but, here in their first week of their eighth season, this is not the time.

I just said “The good news is…” and let me take that back.  The real good news is that NYMF exists, providing a showplace for new musicals.  I wish every city had a new musical festival (Los Angeles, to the dismay of many, tried to copy NYMF but presented a majority of old – that is, previously produced – musicals.)  NYMF is one of the best options you have for getting your work out there.  I recommend it.  And, by all means, attend!  The more new shows you see, the more you learn.  And, the more you get entertained.


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