NYMF (which kicked off July 11 and runs through August 7) has earned a reputation. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal (which began at NYMF as Feeling Electric) to the cult Broadway hit [title of show] to Off-Broadway’s Altar Boyz, the New York Musical Festival has proven itself as a launch pad and festival audiences can say they “saw it when….”
While catching a future blockbuster can be a thrill, the true beauty of the festival is its scope. This year, more than ever, proves that theatre continues to prioritize diversity, both in style and in storytelling. “I’ve seen NYMF shows in the past, and I’ve loved them in the past, but something about it felt very musical theatre, and the work that I’m attracted to is things that kind of break the boundaries,” says Srda Vasiljevic, who directs this year’s Dust Can’t Kill Me. “But I think the work that Rachel [Sussman, NYMF programming director] is attracted to and the shows that are selected this season, in particular, are very engaging. The stories that we’re seeing across the board this year are very representative. It’s exciting to see such diversity in NYMF programming and also diversity in new musical theatre.”
Dust Can’t Kill Me tells the story of the Dust Bowl in a minimalistic folk musical style with all of the actors also serving as instrumentalists. “It has this very contemporary folk feel to it à la Lumineers, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Mumford & Sons,” says Vasilijevic, “and it brings all of those into the show…. It’s like what would happen if we were at an outdoor band concert at Coachella and we had a contemporary folk band telling us this story?”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is this season’s TINK! The idea for the twist on the Peter Pan origin story by Anthony Marino actually came from Marino’s 14-year-old son. “He said, ‘There’s never been a story about Tinkerbell,’” recalls Marino, who relishes the opportunity to revisit J.M. Barrie’s Neverland.
Originally written and produced for Stage Right Theatre Company in Greensburg, PA, the show harkens back to the days of the grand musical. “We wanted to write a big show,” says Marino. The original featured a cast of 85 for the non-profit company and its affiliated school. At NYMF, the show is a scaled down 20, but maintains that feeling of largess, sparkle and wonder. “I love the old-fashioned musicals,” says Marino. “I wanted to write something that theatre companies across the country could do as well.”
Far from the fantasy land of pirates and dream weavers, writer Scott Gilmour and composer Claire McKenzie drew inspiration for their Forest Boy from the news cycle. “This was a story that was trending, at the time in 2013, on Twitter and Facebook about this kid that turned up from Berlin and claimed to be living in the forest for the past five years of his life,” says Gilmour. If that story doesn’t sound familiar, don’t worry. The Scottish writing team find that most Americans are in the dark on this one; it’s one of the benefits of presenting at NYMF. “I think that there’s been an added sort of boldness from doing it over here because the story wasn’t as viral over here, so it actually turns back into being a mystery again,” says Gilmour. Ripped from the headlines, the show has a modern intimate feel to it.
Newton’s Cradle may be the standout of the bunch. Written by a mother-son duo, Heath and Kim Saunders, the show (starring Heath and his brother Trent Saunders) tells a story of a family, identity and autism. “From my racial background to my sexuality to my career choice…it’s always been a journey for me about spectrum—where you fall in the spectrum—and I tend to be interested in labels of mental situations,” says Heath. “Where does a label help us, and where does it hurt us?”
If that weren’t enough of a daring theatrical exploration, the show’s sound introduces an electronic component more common of concert venues than stages. Writing for a character with autism, the Saunders needed to “create songs that actually feel natural, and this electronic component really helped us,” says Heath. “It gave us this sort of distinct, unusual sound for a musical.”
As a festival, NYMF encourages theatregoers to find that one new show they love, but also to experience an array of possibilities. “Our audiences will see multiple things, and they’re here for that experience,” says NYMF executive producer Dan Markley. “They want to compare and contrast, and some things are big and some things are small, and some things are a little bit darker, and some things are a real comic romp, and most of our audiences like that eclectic nature of it.”
Sussman works year-round to deliver a buffet of promising musicals. Her curation of young and established artists, new-age and nostalgic styles, expansive and minimalist concepts, fantastical and historic and newsworthy and familial stories, reinforce the identity of NYMF as a fertile crescent of diverse theatre and a place to ignite an appreciation for theatre some ticket buyers never knew they had.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.