When Stewart, an Australian, arrived in New York four years ago, it surprised him that a full-scale event devoted to showcasing new musicals did not already exist. "I think a lot of people are surprised that an event like this is still so young," says Stewart. "What festivals do so well is making shows into an event. They get buzz and momentum." Stewart became executive director of the National Music Theater Network, but was frustrated by the organization's inability to produce full-scale productions. "Authors need to see their show get up on its feet," Stewart says. "That's how they learn, and that's how producers can see whether it works."
When the first New York Musical Theatre Festival was announced and unveiled two years ago, it was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism from the industry, the press and devoted musical theatre fans. Set for three weeks in September immediately following Labor Day and the Republican National Convention, everyone wondered whether this seemingly wonderful idea could achieve even a moderate level of success in a town already filled with too many theatre festivals to count. And frankly, producing thirty new musicals all at once sounds like the kind of artistic and financial challenge that only Don Quixote would attempt.
"We were sick of being 30 years old and shut out of musical theatre," Stewart says. "And it came to the point where it was like 'OK, fine, let's just do it!' And from my perspective, it was easy because if it was a disaster, I could always go back to Australia. A lot of us involved had nothing at stake. So we put out the press release, booked the theatres and did the numbers so that if it did disastrously, no one was going to lose their house or get thrown out on the street."
But to everyone's surprise, the festival was a hit! Eighty-five percent of tickets were sold, a number that few Broadway musicals can ever achieve. Altar Boyz, an irresistible musical comedy about a Christian boy band, transferred almost immediately to Off-Broadway, where it is still playing to enthusiastic audiences. In fact, about one out of every five shows presented at the festival went on to a commercial run including Captain Louie, The Great Trailer Park Musical and, currently, [title of show].
To add icing to the cake, Jujamcyn Theaters awarded NYMF with their $100,000 annual award in January 2005. "We moved quickly from everyone having nothing to see and living on the fumes of the excitement to trying to figure out how we can make this happen over and over again," 28-year-old executive producer Isaac Robert Hurwitz says. "The money from Jujamcyn and Cadillac helped, but what it really got to do was consolidate and ask ourselves what we were really trying to do. Our goals are about serving and providing a platform for artists. We've continued to engage artists at every level, even in the selection of shows."
Flash forward to year three! Prime Off-Broadway spaces like 37 Arts and New World Stages are now being used. Many of the shows are expected to sell out before their runs begin. A-list Broadway actors like Hunter Foster, Terrence Mann and Donna Lynn Champlin are appearing in productions. Dance musicals, a mysterious sub-genre, are being seriously explored. And most importantly, NYMF has deservedly received the reputation of being New York City's hotbed for creating new musicals with up-and-coming authors, directors, actors and producers.
"Why were we able to grow so quickly?" wonders Stewart. "We filled a gap. People quickly understood what we were trying to do and why. Writers and producers needed someone who could act as a filter. With the practicalities of being a commercial producer, spending ten million dollars is like a crapshoot. You need to know as much as you can about your project. And it didn't take an enormous leap of imagination to see that Altar Boyz could be moved three blocks and be a success." There are two ways that a musical can enter the festival. The show can be formally invited to take part in the event. Or, it can apply—as over 400 shows did this year—through a blind submissions process called the Next Link Project. This year's Grand Jury to pick out a lucky lot of 18 shows included theatre professionals like Marsha Norman, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Rapp, David Henry Hwang and Thomas Meehan.
"I remember getting phone calls on the day of the deadline from writers asking if they could get another five hours to finish their show," Hurwitz says. "There was a real urgency to what people were submitting. That's what [title of show] hit on. We had given writers a deadline and a reason to get their show done. They feel like it's going to happen now or it's not going to happen at all." Or, as Kris Stewart bluntly put it: "We can sit around, scratch out butts and never get the show on. Or, we can make the decision to take our career into our own hands, write the show, and perform it. And if necessary, steal a chair from the apartment that we're subletting."
This year's 32 shows range from The Man in My Head, a one-man rhythm-and-blues experience, to Party Come Here, a new musical comedy about a 500-year-old Jewish caveman who meets a statue of Jesus. Flight of the Lawnchair Man, about a New Jersey everyman who straps strapping 400 helium balloons to his patio furniture, will feature its premiere cast from Goodspeed Opera House. Desperate Measures, with music by David Friedman, will turn Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's problem play about sex and corruption, into a gun-totting Western. And Smoking Bloomberg will look at a single drycleaner's attempt to take revenge on our current mayor's smoking ban.
"The great advantage of a festival is that you're not working in isolation," Stewart says. "There's a support network in place so that artists can collaborate. We can match young writers and producers with the right people. We're all about discovering new talent, serving young writers and showing how broad musical theatre can be. NYMF was not meant to showcase just three artists or five shows. We're about making a lot of noise, grabbing a lot of artists and getting them above the radar."
(Playbill.com is a media partner of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.)
2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival website