Is the New York Musical Theatre Festival Musical Enough?

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Chad Kimball in NYMF's Julian Po
Chad Kimball in NYMF’s Julian Po
Photo: Steven Rosen

The just-ended 2013 New York Music Theatre Festival-NYMF to intimates-was its tenth year. Obviously, what’s immediately called for is a rousing “Happy 10th birthday, NYMF.”

But can we follow that salute by suggesting this year’s annual event might be termed, pardon the Cole Porter-ish musical pun, NYMF errant? I don’t quite see how. I’m certainly not the one to point the finger. I’ve been writing about-usually in reviews-the festival since the first year, when I made big deal in a TheaterMania notice about Altar Boyz. I have reason to believe it was the tuner’s first review. As a result, I guess I can reach for the cliché and say, “The rest is history.”

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So put me down as a booster. But the NYMF party planners don’t need me to toot their trumpet. According to the current promotional materials, “more than 350” new musicals have been presented through the last decade. There’s no reason to doubt the statistic, certainly not if the adjunct events-readings, for instance-are included.

Furthermore, the people giving the welcoming speech before each $25-ticket presentation-and plugging the need for financial support in the way of donations-point out that many of the decade’s offerings have gone on to full-scale productions. No mean achievement.

Everything’s relative, of course. In the festival’s general program-into which the individual programs are slipped-there’s a two-page spread listing breakout productions. It’s impressive, although on closer analysis it might be less so. There, you learn that of those 350, three-count ’em, three-have reached Broadway (Chaplin, Next to Normal, [title of show]).

Do the math, and you realize that less than one percent of the musicals tapped by NYMF have attained that magical realm. On the other hand, if even just one has received both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize-Next to Normal-it’s not chopped liver.

To go on: Twenty-four of those 350 have transferred to off-Broadway. Not bad. Or is it? Again, it’s all relative. When the math is done here, 24 comes up as about seven percent of 350. Maybe the best news is that 86 have, as the program puts it, “gone on to further productions.” That’s about 25 percent. And even if where those “further productions” have taken place is not specified, that’s not a bad number. Furthermore, taking into account that there can be many explanations for shows having life beyond NYMF-or not (check out the Yank! saga)-the festival exposure has to stand for something highly positive.

But what’s behind the path to that exposure? Though there’s something of a financial boost in the organization’s Next Link component, the larger number of annual entries may seem to face another it’s-all-relative proposition.

Executive director and producer Isaac Robert Hurwitz estimates that the cost of a festival offering ranges from $15,000 to $75,000. For most of them, the NYMF contribution is the performing space and promotion-although many productions feel it necessary to employ independent publicists for supplementary tub-thumping, and that, naturally, is part of the bill. On the other hand, Hurwitz will point out to anyone who asks that even $75,000 can be a pittance when contrasted to the cost of more traditional workshops.

So, yes, I remain a NYMF booster in the abstract and happy to second its 2013 Drama Desk Special Award. Attending Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 2011 was enough to buoy my spirits, and watching Unlock’d, another NYMF alumnus, at the Duke recently boosted my morale as well. I’ll also submit that the festival’s concentration at the Pershing Square Signature Center is a boon. The potential for musical lovers to mingle in that mingle-inducing lobby-something Hurwitz has wanted for a long time-is indisputably welcome.

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But having admitted that much, why do I have certain reservations about the three-week undertaking? Is it because I expect too much of NYMF, where it may be that the backing necessary-no matter how relatively little-excludes many better productions and includes productions already too far advanced? Is it simply that I’d have a higher estimation of NYMF if I scheduled more than a few shows every year?

Sure, you could say my dissatisfaction this year is entirely attributable to the luck of the draw, but I say it’s something sneakier, something bothering me that goes deeper. I regret to say that what I detect is an erosion of the very crafts required for constructing musicals. I’m almost tempted to declare that they just don’t write them like they used to.

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Certainly, the five I saw-which discouraged me from wanting to spend time viewing more-were unfortunate evidence that the basic elements of the musical (music, lyrics, book) are in woefully short supply. There was a time, for instance-the musical-comedy dark ages now?-when songs were important to musicals and great songwriters abounded. But where are they today?

Actually, I did hear songs that stuck to the ribs in Roger Bean’s Life Could Be a Dream, but that one was a jukebox musical reprising ’50s and ’60s standards-and the Top 40 hits were embedded in an already successful revue that, it strikes me, is past the NYMF development mission.

But do I want to hear any of the songs from Julian Po again? (I’m still trying to figure out the ending of that misguided piece.) Nor do I care to have anything played from Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue Presents ‘The Brontes’-funny as the (unrealized) premise is-or from the heavily contrapuntal Crossing Swords or from Marry Harry.

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In favor of Crossing Swords I’ll note that librettist-lyricist Joe Slabe, who won an Award for Excellence as a result of his book, deserved it for spinning on Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac. Clever indeed to have his three focal characters benefit from the mistakes made by Rostand’s ill-fated three. In favor of Marry Harry I’ll note that Annie Golden, who never disappoints, raised the artistic level whenever she arrived.

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To help determine what I wanted to see of this year’s list, I went to a press preview during which one song from nine of the available productions got sung. The only one I liked was from Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue Presents ‘The Brontes,’ and now I realize it was the cast’s enthusiasm that gripped me-not a minor selling-point for any year’s NYMF festival.

I concede I’ve had one or two other shows recommended to me by patrons (Volleygirls, chief among them), but the nitty-gritty is that while I cheer the fact of NYMF, I remain dubious about the actuality of genuine audience entertainment. Maybe the truth is that at any given time, only the rare Guys and Dolls, say, materializes, and the past always look brighter in retrospect. Or it may be-let’s hope it isn’t-that while many wannabes working on new musicals have the drive, too few have the wherewithal.

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