They're really doing it. I wasn't 100% certain that they could. Oh, I knew they meant well, but the idea of two 30-year olds raising $450,000 to do a midtown musical theater festival seemed overly daunting to me. We're lucky that the prospect didn't seem nearly as intimidating to Kris Stewart and Elizabeth Lucas.

When I met them in June and heard their grandiose plans, I immensely liked the pair, their spirit, and their intelligence. I hoped that all their dreams would come true, but I couldn't help remembering someone else I knew with deeper pockets who told me in 1998 that he'd hold a midtown musical theater festival in 1999. When I saw him in 1999, he said it had been postponed to 2000; and when I saw him in 2000 and asked what was new, he said, "Hey, I'm healthy and I'm living in the greatest country in the world." You get the point.

While I guess it's still possible that the New York Musical Theatre Festival won't actually occur between September 13 and October 3, the announcements keep pouring in as we get closer and closer to opening day. So it looks as if Stewart, the festival's executive director, and Lucas, who's on the programming committee and has coordinated the musical movie screening series, are going to succeed. Not bad for people who didn't even know each other until two years ago, when they met at a networking event and bonded over their love of musicals.

Stewart is Australian. "The first musical I saw," he told me, "was the first one I directed, Merrily We Roll Along." (I was tempted to say that like the show, he was approaching the art form backwards, but I let it go.) After that, he did productions of Assassins, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, and Company. (Do we see a pattern of excellence here?) Then he decided to come to America. "I'm sorry to say," he said, "that musical theater is about as appreciated in Australia as ice hockey is in New Zealand -- meaning not very much."

Lucas is an Indiana native and a Northwestern graduate. At that university, she directed Nine, which is her favorite musical -- and not just because she's crazy about Maury Yeston's score. For while many a man can relate to Guido, Lucas says that she can, too. "I understand the child who doesn't want to grow up and is career-obsessed," she said. "When I'm working, the rest of my life goes to hell -- which is fine," she adds convincingly. "I'm happiest and at my best when I'm directing."

Last September, the two organized a roundtable that was attended by representatives of such organizations as Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, the York Theatre Company, the Genesius Guild, and Raw Impressions. According to Stewart, "We said, 'In a year, we're going to do a festival -- and we're going to do something good. We're going to show how diverse this city is in musical theater.'" Pretty strong words in this era of revivals, stage musicals based on movie musicals, songbook shows, and parody shows. But Stewart and Lucas got former Paper Mill Playhouse and Madison Square Garden honcho Geoff Cohen to be their executive producer. Then they cast their nets and -- surprise! -- they were able to find plenty of musicals with original scores and books (including, of course, a few adaptations).

Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
"We had 221 musicals submitted from 42 states and 11 countries," said Stewart with understandable pride. "We whittled them down to 54, then 36. Then we went to people like Kathleen Marshall, Scott Schwartz, and Jeff and Bobby to get their opinions." (Isn't it something how "Jeff and Bobby" have already become an idiom in musical theater? But that's what a show like Avenue Q can do for you.) Said Lucas, "I was surprised when we got down to 54 musicals and I liked them all so much."

As of now, there will be a ton of virtually full productions and a few readings at 19 different venues; 31 premiering musicals, 14 concerts; 283 performances in all, with nearly 1,000 performers and musicians involved. Best of all, most events will be offered between 37th and 54th Streets. "We wanted to be in midtown, where the producers are, so they can find these shows easily," said Stewart. So no excuses from any impresario that he tried to get to a show but he just couldn't find the Henry Street Settlement!

We'll have semi-familiar names (Jeffrey Lodin wrote the music for A Hundred Years into the Heart) and very familiar names -- like Stephen Schwartz, whose Captain Louie tells about a kid who has moved to a new neighborhood and is a little ill at ease about going trick-or-treating on Halloween. This is not to be confused with a very different Halloween musical, The Chromium Hook, wherein two teens claim that a crazed killer is stalking their neighborhood. Some of the shows have been produced with success in other cities, including the felicitously titled The Big Voice: God or Merman? Some that I've admired in readings are getting another look, such as Barbara Campbell and Gary Schocker's Far from the Madding Crowd, and Peter Gootkind's Ducks and Lovers. The terrific composer Neil Berg has two shows in the festival: The Man Who Would Be King and Tim and Scrooge. Patricia Birch is directing Emma (based on Jane Austen); Jim and Bob Walton, as writers, take a look at middle-age in The Eyes Are the First Thing to Go; and Christiane Noll has the Barbara Stanwyck role in Meet John Doe. There'll be seminars, master classes, forums, and a night at Jim Caruso's Cast Party -- a networking event where the next Kris Stewart and Elizabeth Lucas may very well meet.

But the centerpiece of the festival will be Like You Like It, the musical that the powers-that-be judged worthy of its New Voices Prize, thus securing it a full production. I thought this update of the Bard's As You Like It -- book and lyrics by Sammy Buck, music by Daniel S. Acquisto -- was marvelous when I saw it some time ago, so I'm sure looking forward to it now. The forest of Arden is now The Arden Mall; Rosalind is an academic achiever who lusts for varsity wrestler Orlando but doesn't have the nerve to ask him out. So Rosalind disguises herself as a fraternity brother, and -- well that's just the start. I also love it that the show has a character named Audrey Shepherd.

Kevin McCollum
Kevin McCollum
Commented Stewart, "I believe something that Kevin McCollum (co-producer of Rent and Avenue Q) said: 'I only want to produce things that look like they won't work, because if you do something safe, you're going to be 10 years behind the curve. By the time you get it up, everything's moved on.' He's right. You'd better do something that people aren't quite ready for; by the time you get it to the stage, they will be ready for it."

When Lucas told me that she was doing a Movie Musicals Series, my eyes glazed over, for I expected her to gurgle with excitement as she told me that she'd be showing Singin' in the Rain and West Side Story with the Big Drawing Card of projection on big screens. Hardly; Lucas has much more vision than I. She's featuring the works of new directors, including herself. One of the offerings is her 16-minute musical film Isabella Rico, about a woman whose bridegroom really meant it when he said that he'd give up the drug business once they were married -- but he's assassinated on their wedding day, and now she has inherited his business.

"I was interested in doing movie musicals before Chicago," Lucas insisted. "Even before Moulin Rouge. So were a lot of other people." Additional films to be screened in the festival include Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, Deliverance: The Musical, and Fairies. For those who missed Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Broadway: The Golden Age on the big screen, they'll be on view, as well. All of the films will be shown at the AMC Theatres Empire 25, located at 234 West 42nd Street.

Tickets are priced at $10 for the movies, $19 for the live shows. "We're going to get these works in front of audiences that wouldn't typically come because of the price barrier, because they don't know how to buy a ticket, because they don't think it's for them," says Lucas -- and, this time, I'm not going to doubt her.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]