New York Musical Theatre Festival Disappoints Musically

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NYMF gives regards, but not shows, to Broadway.

Now that the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) has ended, what lesson or lessons can we learn from it? What can we glean from an enterprise presenting more than 350 new tuners to date that “boasts” about three of them having opened on Broadway—less than one percent?

The toughest lesson I’ve taken on board this year is a hard one: the art of songwriting is in a perilous state. Even calling it an art is severely overstating the situation in light of this NYMF. Songwriting is a craft, and from the looks—make that the sounds—of things, there are worryingly few craftsmen or craftswomen at work today.

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I have to confess that this is going to be an anecdotal report. Of the 24 productions presented, I only saw eight, or one-third. I did attend the press preview at which nine shows were represented with one song apiece, and assuming that the producers of each chose what they considered the best one, I was instantly able to eliminate six of the shows.

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Just for the record, I’d say that the least appealing of the unappealing half dozen was “No” from Clinton: The Musical. In this witless trio, the Bill Clinton character was rehearsing a speech after the Monica Lewinsky incident and kept blurting double entendres, to which the Hilary Clinton character and an associate repeatedly shouted an adamant “No.” That such a dated subject treated so sophomorically is considered to be even faintly amusing by anyone, including the songwriter, is a troubling concern.

Before I get to more detailed discussion—always accepting the possibility that the 11 shows of which I have no knowledge may be the work of geniuses—I’ll say that of what I did hear, there’s only one song I’d ever care to hear again—“Song in You” by Taylor Ferrera and Matt Webster from Propaganda! The Musical.

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No. Wait. I have to qualify that. One show—The Gig (book, music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen)—featured an entire score I’d like to hear again. Apparently, others feel the same way, since The Gig has been judged as the Festival’s best for both music and lyrics. Still, The Gig wasn’t new to me as of this NYMF. I’d seen it during a series of performances it received at the Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) 20 years ago. I greatly admired it then and admire it still.

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The Gig at NYMF
Cast of The Gig

The musical about a sextet of amateur jazz musicians who get a two-week Catskills stint has deserved a full-fledged New York production since its initial MTC showing. Inexplicably, it hasn’t received one. That explains its presence here, where—if the NYMF mission is to present developing projects—it arguably doesn’t belong.

Nevertheless, thank providence that it was on view. It raised the level head and shoulders above everything else to which I exposed myself at NYMF. On the other hand, I’m sorry to say, it also suggests something ominous about the direction in which songwriting for musicals is heading.

The Gig was written at a time when those aspiring to write musicals still paid attention to the standards set for them by predecessors. To be more specific, Cohen wrote the show, based on Frank D. Gilroy’s play of the same title, as well as No Way to Treat a Lady, when perfect rhyme was a tradition to which lyricists paid strict attention. That’s why he writes in a song call “Drifting” such a deft lyric as: “Wonder if this trip will prove more tragic than comedic…At present I would kill to have a Sealy Posturepedic.”

I need to say, however, that rhyme shouldn’t be considered an end in itself. It signifies something else in danger of being lost. When used properly and creatively, rhyme lends structure, continuity and strength to a lyric. Without singling out particular songs in The Snow Queen, ValueVille, The Mapmaker’s Opera, Bayonets of Angst, Propaganda! The Musical and Mother Jones and the Children’s Crusade, I’ll just say I heard myriad off-rhymes that merely indicated careless writing.

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I heard rhymed clichés. Take this sort of rhyming: “Do you want my kiss? / Do you want my bliss?” and “Embracing who you are / Makes you a shooting star?” Those two are from the same property that includes the meaninglessly pretentious lyric, “The journey is the end, and the end is the beginning.” Huh?

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I will admit that the worst off-rhyme I’ve heard in recent weeks wasn’t in any of the NYMF works but in the new musical Atomic. In one of the belted anthems there, “office” is off-rhymed with “nauseous.” Compounding the ear-ritant is the fact that “nauseous,” although commonly used, is not the correct form of the adjective: it’s “nauseated.”

To be sure, rhyming isn’t everything. It’s not always required. There are traditions where off-rhymes have long been considered acceptable. This is true of folk songs, and Bayonets of August, in which the Civil War is recounted comically (much like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson recounts President Jackson’s life), and a folk-song sound is helpful. Yet, even here, since the musical comedy mode is employed, lyricist Rick Kunzi, who also composed the music and wrote the libretto, might have further enhanced the level of the humor through more attention to imaginative rhyme.

Speaking of rhyming, another development this NYMF suggests is that the Stephen Sondheim generation—the period when so many aspiring Broadway tunesmiths thought they had to out-Sondheim the master, often without understanding his rhyming technique and philosophy—may be over.

Songs, of course, are not just words. What about NYMF and music? I can only say that though much of what I heard is proficient and often served the shows’ purposes—at least the ones I attended—only The Gig contained anything memorable. And those tunes were distinguished by the jazz twists and turns songwriter Cohen worked into them. His is the show that deserves to be the fourth NYMF entry reaching Broadway.

Otherwise, in what was implied by the level of the scores, NYMF is a disappointment above and beyond the individual shows. We can only hope that this annual event isn’t indicative of what’s being written elsewhere, too.