After all these years

The New York Musical Theatre Festival, currently underway, is celebrating its tenth annual occurrence.  I think it’s old enough to countenance a little criticism, which you’ll find below, but, more than most people, I’m full of praise and gratitude for its existence.

For NYMF was a particularly great experience for me.  Just the other week, my baby girl climbed out of her high chair, on to a tall table, reached up to a counter, grabbed my NYMF Award and smashed it against the table.  So there are all these little pieces of plastic I keep finding.  And I think: It was always just a Xeroxed certificate in a cheap curved frame.

But these things are not meaningless.  I know both the runners-up for Best Lyrics, Sam Carner and Frank Evans, and I’m sure they’d rather have the prize, chipped plastic and all.  (Carner’s Best-of-the-Fest show, Unlock’d, is currently playing.)  I was one of three winners for Such Good Friends, along with director Marc Bruni and leading lady Liz Larsen.  Liz and the show also earned Talkin’ Broadway Citations, as best performance and best show in any festival that year.

And there’s another prize you can’t hold in your hand: Being selected as a Next LinkNext Link selections have been submitted blind: that is, the selectors don’t know the names of the authors.  They don’t know if the show has any previous performance history.  They won’t be considering whether a show might sell a lot of tickets.  Their only concern is quality.

So, when Such Good Friends got chosen, it meant that NYMF’s panel of industry professionals found it to be among the very best of hundreds of submissions.  It also meant that I’d have a slot.  I wished to go to the festival, and so I did.

However, for economic reasons, NYMF fills only half its slate of full productions with Next Link picks.  NYMF administrators let their friends have slots, or famous people, or people who’ve done admirable work in the past – even if the current work isn’t quite up to snuff.  If a production is likely to sell tickets, maybe because it has some intriguing title, or a star attached, on it goes.  It’s rather maddening that the audience can’t easily tell whether they’re seeing something that’s there because those blind readers thought it was good, or because the NYMF powers-that-be want it there.  This smacks of cronyism, and delegitimatizes the enterprise.

It’s said that NYMF had its best year its first year.  To understand why, think how things were before the Festival was born.  New shows were getting written, but not mounted.  Or, when they were mounted, the “right” people wouldn’t come to see them, or didn’t know about them, leading to many a stillborn enterprise.  There existed, ten years ago, a huge quantity of great unproduced musicals sitting around, waiting for – no, needing – a platform like NYMF to get them to the next level.  And so the witty boy band send-up, Altar Boyz was seen by young producer Ken Davenport.  He mounted the show off-Broadway and it was a huge hit, running for many years.

Also wowing the crowds that year was the ultimate meta experience, [title of show], a musical about two guys writing a show that they submit to the New York Musical Theatre Festival.  If you’re reading this blog, chances are you can relate to this hysterical little theatre piece.  And, if you’re writing a musical, I heartily suggest you listen to one of its songs, Die Vampire Die, every day.

Even more truthful was The Big Voice: God, Or Merman?, the dual autobiography of a couple who meet and deal with religious backgrounds and a greater love for musical theatre and each other.  More traditional musicals, based on solid, dying-to-be-musicalized sources, were Like You Like It and Meet John Doe.

As years went by, alas, the pool of really good unproduced musicals began to be depleted.  NYMF makes a key mistake by believing that festivals require a certain size in order to sustain themselves.  Each year, there are too many shows for any one fan to catch, and, honestly, a lot of shows that aren’t yet ready for public consumption.  This has led to a bad reputation: Many believe the average NYMF show simply isn’t very good.  (A major producer called Such Good Friends the best NYMF show she’d ever seen; I took that as something of a back-handed compliment.)

NYMF likes to think of itself as the musical theatre equivalent of what Sundance is to film.  They’ve pointed this out to me when I asked why the costs of putting these shows on are borne, usually, by the writers themselves.  Sundance screens films that have already been financed.  Now, admirably, NYMF does a host of things to keep the costs as low as possible.  They rent theatres, and stuff them full of several shows every day.  Shows sharing a theatre can split the fees for spotlights, synthesizers and curtains, if they decide to.  NYMF facilitates this, and provides box office, venue managers, a casting director, and some behind-the-scenes staff. But putting on a show for six performances often eats up twenty to thirty thousand dollars. This is not a meritocracy, also, because only the well-off can afford to play.

And yet they do manage to keep costs far lower than they’d otherwise be.  And sometimes a shoestring budget is a virtue.  Gutenburg had a cast of two (including the then-unknown Christopher Fitzgerald) and no set, and how they made an entertaining musical out of a backer’s audition for a not-entertaining musical about the inventor of movable type – well, it’s a little miraculous.  Speaking of miracles, I laughed my head off at The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun before it took itself seriously.  And speaking of that, Next To Normal, the last musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, was seen at NYMF under the title, Feeling Electric.  All of these shows arrived at the festival in years prior to my own.  Would it be too self-serving to point out Such Good Friends got better reviews than all of them?

Well, that’s not a note to end on, so instead I’ll leave you with a ride based on a song first heard at NYMF.

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