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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at
The New York Musical Theatre Festival

An Interview with Kris Stewart, Geoff Cohen,
and Isaac Robert Hurwitz

by Warren Hoffman

New York will be host to a premiere event in September, the first annual New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).

Given that Broadway is virtually synonymous with this singing and dancing American art form, it's surprising that New York hasn't hosted a festival like this sooner. With 31 premiering musicals, 283 performances, and almost 1000 performers and musicians, NYMF is an ambitious undertaking.

I recently sat down with the artistic and producing staff of NYMF, Executive Director Kris Stewart, Executive Producer Geoff Cohen, and Programming Chair Isaac Robert Hurwitz, to discuss the origins of this festival, the state of the musical in America, and whether or not the target audience for musicals really is seventy-year-old Jewish grandmothers.

Warren Hoffman: There are so many theater festivals happening in New York, from the Fringe Festival to the recent SPF Festival. How did this festival idea get started and whose brainchild was it?


Isaac and Kris
Photo: Trisha Doss
Kris Stewart: The idea of the festival came out of a non-profits roundtable in 2003, where a number of New York companies got together to discuss ways to come together and share resources. One of the challenges that came up was what it was like being in New York, where musical theater is so important, diverse, and central, but a lot of what is new exists just below the radar. That's what we're trying to change - we want to be about new work, new talent and new ideas. As the festival began to develop, the model we had in our minds was not only the Edinburgh and New York Fringe Festivals, but also the Sundance Festival where you can have wonderful nurturing showcases of new artists, talent, and ideas, introducing new works to a wider audience.

WH: How does this festival differ from the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) Festival?

Geoff Cohen: We're New York-based and open to the general public, not just to member organizations or producers. We also have seminars, concerts, and performers presenting songs, not just readings.

WH: And movies too!

KS: Yes, the Museum of Television and Radio is tying in a program of Musicals on Television with us.

Isaac Robert Hurwitz: For us, I think another piece that is key is linking commercial producers and individual producers with the development process. There's often a gap between those two.

KS: Unlike the closed forty-five minute readings of eight to twelve shows that NAMT does once a year, our festival will premiere thirty-one shows. Also, we wanted to go beyond the step of just giving musicals a reading, which is not where it ends, but going further and getting these shows produced to a fuller standard, putting them on stage in front of the general public.

WH: What will we see then in terms of production values? Will there be sets and costumes?

KS: They will be showcase productions with each show doing something a little different. What we said to the creative teams is that what you're trying to do here is to find a way to showcase your work. The focus should not be on enormous sets, but on the work itself. That said, we want to do enough costumes and enough sets so that we're serving the show. It should be more than bar stools!

GC: A couple of the shows will have orchestras as large as nine or ten people. Most will be five to six-piece bands. There will be some very modest productions to a more elaborate production such as The Blue Flower, which will feature video projection design.

KS: A number of our shows are coming from Australia, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and bringing with them more polished production values. Some of the shows are more fully formed.

WH: This summer, NYC also got treated to the first Summer Play Festival (SPF), produced by multi-millionaire Arielle Tepper. Yet at the same time, we also witnessed this year the dissolution of Musical Theatre Works, another developmental home for musical theater, due to a lack of funding. Where is funding come from for this festival?

GC: We have several donors who have given us a start. We're selling program ads and tickets. We have media sponsors. We set up a model that draws on diverse income sources and which spreads the risk out among all those sources.

KS: We've been offered a lot of generosity by supporters who really want to see this happen. Many people have donated resources, equipment, and time to help out. There's a community out there that wants to help us.

WH: What do you see as the current relationship between commercial theater and the current state of musical theater? Are producers being too conservative about what they will produce?

IRH: A festival of this size is trying to show the incredible breadth of what is out there. We have some shows in the festival which are very much of a Broadway model, but some shows are much more avant-garde and performance art or concert-like. These things stretch the boundaries of musical theater and we wanted to show that diversity. But the fact that we' re selling reasonably priced tickets in real venues in a central location helps to merge these different types of theater. The festival also includes events such as musical theater improv shows. One of our goals was to present an image of a much larger industry.

KS: I think that we're at a really interesting and transitory stage in the development of the musical with shows like Avenue Q, Urinetown, Hairspray, Wicked, and maybe The Full Monty. There's something about their aesthetic, often written by younger writers and targeted to younger audiences, that really seems to be connecting. Perhaps revivals haven't been working as well because there has been an audience shift. Our goal is to create a broader opportunity base for new writers and thereby help renew the base of musical theater. What happens to writers now is that they spend two years writing a show and ten years trying to get it on. Writers need to keep writing and working and seeing their work on stage, otherwise it's a pretty pointless exercise.

IRH: Exactly. If it takes you five years of your life to go from step one to step two of the development process, that's five years of your life when you're at least 30% not able to devote time to the next project. I think that makes it much harder to create and develop new work. The first show is not necessarily the best show.

WH: What do you think about the current trend of megahits such as Wicked, Hairspray, and The Producers where unlike the 40s and 50s where you had many good shows running at once, today only a few shows move to the front of the pack?

GC: I think we're reverting to the 40s and 50s. We had this unnatural period where shows ran for decades, and shows never ran that way before. Now I think it's coming back around.

WH: But shows have to run longer now to recoup their investment . . .

GC: They do, but a show like Caroline or Change won just one Tony Award in a minor category and it was able to run all summer.

WH: What do you think about the trend of musicals becoming too ironic, satiric, or parodic?

KS: I think the self-referential musical theater thing is sort of self-destructive. And Urinetown, though I loved it, appealed to smaller and smaller audiences because they either got the "in" jokes or they didn't.

IRH: I think the state of musical theater is only as healthy as its diversity. There has to be a place for that self-awareness and satiric commentary.

WH: Are there certain audiences that musical theater writers seem to be writing for or should be writing for?

KS: It's funny, I was at a conference and a producer said that you have to make sure that the show has appeal to seventy-year-old Jewish ladies who will spend $100 on a ticket. I thought that's the most self-destructive circular thinking. Theater has to be more inclusive.

WH: True, although it seems that one reason that the nature of musical theater has changed is that, if you can only afford a single $100 ticket once a year, then you want to see something that's really going to knock your socks off. Only a few people really go and see everything that gets produced on the boards.

KS: Yes, that's true. Though I love the commercial Broadway musical, if that's the only perception of what the musical can be, then you're destined for an awful lot of heartbreak.

IRH: Everyone is trying to find new models to present more material in an affordable way.

KS: I would love for there to be, ten years from now, a few places in midtown where you could get a $35 or $40 ticket and see something good.

WH: Where are some of the other spaces that shows are coming from today? Is Broadway still the main center for the creation of the musical?

KS: Shows are coming from all over including Encores!, the West End, Off-Broadway, downtown theaters, and regional theaters. Shows aren't coming out of Broadway nowadays, but are created elsewhere.

WH: Though this festival does feature work by established writers such as Kander and Ebb and Stephen Schwartz, who are some of the new people writing now that you admire?

GC: I'm really interested to see the new David Yazbek piece Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I really enjoyed The Full Monty. Yazbek's a great talent to welcome into musical theater.

KS: D.J. Javerbaum who's the head writer of The Daily Show and came out of Tisch wrote a musical called Suburb a few years ago. Pete Mills whose work will be in the NYMF Festival is smart, smart, smart!

IRH: Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller who just won the Jonathan Larson Award are good. The thing that struck me about all these submissions is how many people I was not familiar with, but are writing really interesting pieces.

WH: How many submissions did you get?

KS: We got 220 for the Next Link Part of the festival. We got many other submissions for the rest of the festival.

GC: We got entries from all over from Maine and Alaska to Russia, Australia, and Canada.

WH: As a final question, people who work in musical theater are often passionate about the art form. What is it that gets you excited about musicals?

GC: It's the emotion. You can be swept up into a show in so many different ways, whether it's the beauty of the music, the eloquence of the writing, or the gracefulness of the dance. There are so many different elements that make it so challenging to create and produce, but also make it such a rich experience.

IRH: I think it's the intensity of the collaborative process. You're interfacing with many people and everyone is weaving his or her various crafts together. Good musical theater reveals the seamlessness of the craft. There is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

KS: I would agree with that. With musical theater, there is a place within it for every other art form, but not to the exclusion of any other art form. Ultimately, its depends on if the story works or if it doesn't. Paradoxically, it's an art form that is both extremely complex, but also very very simple.

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For more information about the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), including a schedule of events and ticket information, visit www.nymf.org.



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