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Rebooting the Musical

Lisa Mulcahy • Feature • December 3, 2007

The New York Musical Theatre Festival is changing the way musicals are developed and presented.

Since fall 2004, the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) has annually presented a slate of more than 30 new musicals at venues throughout midtown Manhattan, transferring seven groundbreaking shows Off-Broadway, not to mention facilitating many more regional pick-ups, option deals and financing arrangements.

Altar Boyz, The Great American Trailer Park Musical and [title of show] (which is rumored to be headed for Broadway) are just a few of the pieces NYMF has introduced, and established mu-sical theatre talents such as Stephen Schwartz, Karen Ziemba and Duncan Sheik have now worked with the festival. NYMF’s philosophy is to buck the trend of producing fewer musicals with less money, and just stage more. The organization’s confidence that theatergoers are hungry for fresh creativity has paid off both critically and at the box office.

A Mission of Intuition
NYMF started on a hunch voiced by its executive director, Kris Stewart. Originally from Australia, Stewart had worked as a director for many theatre and opera companies, plus had produced numerous large-scale events, including concerts and festivals. Moving to New York City in 2003, Stewart began working with the National Musical Theater Network.

“With a number of other nonprofits, we cohosted a roundtable to talk about ways to collaborate and share resources,” Stewart recalls. “As an outsider, it seemed kind of odd to me that there was no musical theatre festival, so I raised the idea of starting one. We began working on the idea as a sort of marketing and outreach program, but as we were developing it, I thought more about low-risk ways an independent artist could present their work. I saw a kind of sweet spot; if we were able to produce 30 shows across five or six venues, we could actually get enough scale that people would get excited by it. We could launch a whole range of shows this way.”

Other theatre veterans quickly came on board. Among them was NYMF founding producer Ste-ven Yuhasz, himself a successful director/artist.

“We said, there has to be a better way to produce new works, more than a showcase, so that peo-ple could see a large number of new works in a short period of time, particularly people coming in from out of town,” Yuhasz says. “It turned out that there became a group of about 20 of us ex-cited about this idea. Kris spearheaded things; in January 2004, the festival was announced, and in September 2004, we had our first festival with 30 new works.”

From that first fest, NYMF’s philosophy encouraged complete freedom of expression.

“We love work that’s exciting and contemporary, not that it needs to be contemporarily set, but it’s important that an artist have a very personal and unique take,” enthuses Stewart. “Talent can actually get you seen and heard.”

Putting It Together
NYMF has a tried-and-true formula for finding, developing and rehearsing its chosen works. Composers/book writers first submit their work to a panel of top theatre pros; more than 400 scripts per year are initially entered into contention.

“Each script goes through about six people before it passes to the next selection level, “ says Yu-hasz. “I think the scripts that do make it through are the ones that are ready for presentation to an audience. What the festival does not do is produce your musical, although it will provide services for you. You have to have your orchestrations, find your designers and director.”

“Between February and late April, we make our selections so people will know by early May if they’re in the festival,” Stewart elaborates. “Participants normally use from May to July to get their stuff together — casting people, working on the script, bringing in ideas on how to market themselves at the festival. Then each show gets four weeks of rehearsal and six performances at the festival; those six performances will be over two weeks, sharing a theatre with about five other shows. Each show hopefully gets two days clear for tech, and then because you’re sharing a theatre with other people, you need to be able to change over quite quickly. You’ve just got to get your show up — you’ve just got to do your work!”

Artists often relish the fast production pace. James Walton, composer of Die Hard: The Puppet Musical, a breakout hit from NYMF’s 2007 fest, says, “The most helpful thing for me about NYMF was having a concrete deadline. We had to have a script that had a beginning, middle and end. I had to write those last few songs that had been eluding me. Having to put the whole show into a nice and tidy package by a certain date really lit a fire under us. Also, knowing that we would be judged against a couple hundred musicals that were being created by some of the top talent in New York City forced us to really raise the bar and find the crew we needed to make it happen.”

Dean Strober, Die Hard: The Puppet Musical ‘s director, planned his NYMF rehearsals very carefully. “A smart thing we did was to have a four-performance workshop in late August, fol-lowing no less than four weeks of sporadic rehearsal,” he recounts. “With a cast of eight per-formers and designers instrumental to the show process, there was no way we could get everyone together for such a rehearsal time in September. Then just before NYMF, we ran the show once around a table, then once in a rehearsal room, and then put it up.”

Walking the Tech Tightrope
Speaking more specifically about tech issues at NYMF, here’s the bottom line: The disorganized need not apply.

“The production levels are high,” stresses Yuhasz. “The shows that succeed are the shows that can be self-sufficient. For example, with storage — you’re allowed maybe a two-foot by three-foot space to stack a door or a couple of screens. Six shows can be sharing a space where the stage is a 99-seat house with a 20 by 20 stage, so you have to have a good stage manager.” Speed is another trick participants should have up their sleeves, particularly right before per-formance time.

 NYMF provides a floating tech director for all productions, who can lend a hand if sound or lighting snafus crop up, but you’ve got to be able to troubleshoot your own work as quickly as possible. “You’re basically given an hour before your performance to re-gel a light, or to set up any scenic elements or props,” says Yuhasz. “After the show, you need to strike within an hour.”
Strober rose mightily to the time-crunch challenge. “Our set was light and manageable in many ways,” he explains. “But add to that 35 puppets, two overheads, 20-plus slides, two stage tables, 20 toy props and a full-stage backdrop with a towering office building. Then try to assemble it in 30 minutes, then disassemble it in another 30, all while carrying everything in and back out to a van parked on the sidewalk!”

Strober prevailed and credits the skill of his hard-working company. Still, he advises paying close attention to which specifics of your show might cause unforeseen headaches. In his produc-tion’s case, “At the end of each show, the ‘cast’ (i.e., puppets) had to be packed into plastic bins and bags and stored away — as quickly possible. This gave us some problems, as some puppets didn’t fare so well in transport. The secret: A hot glue gun was on backstage during most of the shows.”

What the Future Holds

NYMF’s goals for the years to come include bringing cutting-edge musicals to an even wider range of commercial producers and enthusiastic theatergoers. “I think we’d like to develop longer runs, somewhat like what the Public Theater does — we’d like to give these works a chance to grow beyond the festival,” says Stewart. “We’d also like to do more in terms of com-missioning writers and supporting people throughout that process.”

In the end, what’s the most vital info any theatre pro approaching NYMF should keep in mind? First: If you do your job well, prepare to be intensely supported. Recalls John Ardolino, Die Hard: The Puppet Musical’s book writer/lyricist/performer, “We had full houses every night — people were eager to catch the energy of the show. There was such a nice buzz around town about the festival, and I was proud to be involved not only as a performer, but especially as one of the creators of the piece.”

Perhaps the most important thing is knowing what to do with the adulation you receive.

“The festival is a huge marketing tool for getting your work out there,” says Yuhasz. “Decide what you want from the festival — what are you hoping the festival will do for you? What is your goal — just to get the show up so audiences will look at it, or is your goal to have the indus-try evaluate it? Go in there realistically and do the very best production you can.”   

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