Not the same old song and dance
With a lineup that covers everything from Bloomberg to Gutenberg, the New York Musical Theatre Festival could be the big break for offbeat musicals
Special to Newsday
September 3, 2006
Analogies between Hollywood and Broadway aren't perfect, but one thing movies and musicals have in common is the astronomical cost of doing business. When an average big-studio comedy like "Talladega Nights" costs $72 million,
and a new Broadway musical like "The Wedding Singer" has to raise nearly $12 million just to make it onstage, it's clear that the price of entry has risen so high that only the lavishly funded need apply.
Though only in its third year, the festival has become so entrenched that top theater actors, designers and directors routinely waive fees for the chance to invest in the future of their field. Audiences have apparently been hungry for the chance to sample new work for a mere $20 per show: The festival boasted more than 95percent capacity both previous years.
The movie industry's response to these absurd economic odds has been the film festival, in which smaller films get a shot at wider exposure and distribution, and the talent pool can be freshly restocked. New stage musicals in search of a similar showcase-marketplace model have their own clearinghouse: the New York Musical Theatre Festival, a three-week bazaar of 34 new musicals that sprawls through midtown Manhattan next Sunday through Oct. 1.
It also quickly earned a track record as a launchpad for commercial productions. Its first-year roster featured "Altar Boyz," the boy-band parody that's still running Off-Broadway, and "[title of show]," the meta-musical that has been resurrected more than once Off-Broadway. Though other fest faves including "Trailer Park: The Musical" and Stephen Schwartz's "Captain Louie" have had disappointing commercial runs, and last year's festival offerings netted more options than actual productions, there's enough buzz that producers and writers hope the festival will be their ticket to success.
"Having a show in the New York Musical Theater Festival is equivalent to getting an independent film into Sundance," says Jeremiah Bosgang, a Malverne native who works as executive vice president for television of Sony/BMG. Bosgang is trying his hand at theatrical producing with "Having It Almost," a musical co-written by his wife, Wendy Perelman. "The
odds are still stacked against you, because there are many more shows than there are slots in the commercial
theater. But everyone goes into the festival thinking, 'I'm going to be the one who makes it.'"
The various stages
Festival founders Kris Stewart and Isaac Robert Hurwitz don't discourage such aspirations, even though they know that only about one in 10 of this year's offerings is likely to have a viable afterlife.
"People ask us, 'Why not just choose the three best shows and produce those?'" says Stewart, 31, an Australian director who relocated to New York four years ago. "If we knew which three shows were going to be smashes, we would. But musical theater isn't like that. You don't know what works until you've seen it up onstage."
Hurwitz agrees. "It's not an art form that's meant to live on the page," says the 28-year-old, also a director by trade. "In the last 20 years people have gotten very used to doing readings, but they don't get the chance to develop the work in three dimensions."
"There's a whole generation of writers writing for music stands and the reading format," Stewart chimes in. "But unless they get the shows on their feet, they'll never learn what can be communicated by staging, by choreography - what they don't need to say."
Not a workshop
The festival shouldn't be mistaken for a workshop process or an unedited grab bag. Stewart and Hurwitz vet every entry and enlist a panel of industry judges to help make final selections. While many of the shows come from known talents whose work has been solicited, at least half comes through an open submission process. "We really straddle the do-it-yourself and professional worlds," Hurwitz says.
Sometimes they commission pieces, as with the dance-ical "Common Grounds," featuring the work of five up-and-coming choreographers. Or they play matchmaker between shows and producers, as is the case with the surf musical "Go-Go Beach." The festival organizers invited Kevin Harrington, a producer who has mounted touring musicals from his Oceanside-based Plaza Theatricals, to take his pick from among several promising submissions. Harrington says he "fell in love" with the frothy "Go-Go Beach."
While Harrington relishes the chance to expand from Long Island into producing on and off Broadway, he points out that New York isn't the only place a new show can land. "Obviously, the first option is for a commercial run in New York City," he says. "But I believe 'Go-Go Beach' will have a tremendous future life in regional stock productions as well."
Not all artists are single-mindedly focused on their shows' long-term future. David Simpatico, librettist and lyricist of "The Screams of Kitty Genovese," says his "primary interest is to get the show up on its feet, and if it doesn't go anywhere beyond this, we want people to enjoy this production." His musical, written with English composer Will Todd, boasts one of the festival's tougher subjects: the infamous 1964 Queens murder of 29-year-old Genovese, who was stabbed near her Kew Gardens apartment as neighbors ignored her screams for help.
It's an intense, sung-through work with lots of complicated choral music, says Simpatico, who, in another key entirely, wrote the book for the stage version of "Disney's High School Musical." "If anything was inspiration, it would be 'Sweeney Todd.' It deals with some very gory subject matter, but we look for the humanity inside it."
When they started the festival, Stewart and Hurwitz were deluged with "trunk projects": long-deferred dream musicals that writers and composers brought out of mothballs for a chance at the spotlight. The second year, Hurwitz says, "We were concerned that we'd gotten to the bottom of that drawer." Instead, they have seen many brand-new efforts, some written with the festival in mind.
Where there's smoke ...
These submissions reflect a bracing freshness, whether in their style (the hip-hop musical "Kingdom," inspired by the controversial underground gang the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation) or their subject matter ("Kitty Genovese," the political satire "Smoking Bloomberg" and the white-supremacy parody "White Noise").
"Smoking Bloomberg" uses the mayor's smoking ban as a springboard for a skeptical look at the American dream. "As soon as we heard about the festival, we thought it would be a great place for the show," says Warren Loy, one of its four co-writers, and the author of "Up in the Air," a choose-your-own-adventure musical featured on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
'The Screams of Kitty Genovese,' (Newsday/ARI MINTZ)
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Notable deaths in 2006