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As the second annual New York Musical Theater Festival gears up, Filichia talks to its creators about their formula for success. logo
After Jujamcyn Theatres decided to give an annual award to a regional theater, the New York Shakespeare Festival had to wait seven years before it won. Yale Rep had to wait eight, American Conservatory Theatre endured 12 non-winning seasons, and Manhattan Theatre Club didn't hear its name called for 17 years. But the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) was given the $100,000 Jujamcyn Theatre Award on January 8, 2005 -- a mere 110 days after it mounted its first production on September 12, 2004. Not even Eve Harrington got that much fame and fortune that fast.

Neither Kris Stewart, NYMF's 31-year-old executive director, nor Isaac Robert Hurwitz, its 27-year-old director of programming, will ever forget that day -- and not because it happens to be Elvis Presley's birthday. "I was at our offices when the call came in from Rocco Landesman at seven o'clock," says Stewart. (Isn't it interesting that Landesman felt he could call that late and that someone would still be working?) "He said, 'I'm Rocco Landesman, and you may have never heard of me. I'm with Jujamcyn.' I told him that I indeed had heard of him, and that's when he told me about the award and the $100,000. Pretty soon, we were off the phone and I was running around the office."

Actually, Hurwitz had an inkling that good news was coming NYMF's way. He had been an associate to music director Rob Fisher at City Center Encores! -- where Jack Viertel, Jujamcyn's creative director, doubles as artistic director. Hurwitz thought he'd ask Viertel to read scripts for the 2005 festival even though he'd turned Hurwitz down the first go-round. "Jack told me, 'I swore I'd never do this, but I'll read scripts for you,'" recalls Hurwitz. "And then he added a by-the-way that I was going to be hearing from Rocco."

Stewart and Hurwitz had met at the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab two years ago. Soon, they were expressing their dream of seeing musical theater grow in the city. "The first version of the idea was to reach out to companies that had musical theater programs, such as AMAS, Raw Impressions, EST, and have them submit the best shows they'd been developing," says Stewart. "Then we thought, maybe this should be a festival for people whose musicals had hit that glass ceiling -- shows that had had two or three readings, some development, had gotten to a certain point, and then nothing happened. Sometimes it's surprising, even embarrassing, to find that some people with great reputations wrote good shows that didn't move on for one reason or another."

The pair landed on the idea of doing presentations of a couple of dozen or so musicals in the Broadway theater district. "Some people told us we'd be better off just choosing three or four shows and doing them on a grander level," says Stewart. "We figured if we picked 30 works, five would turn out to be fantastic and five would certainly not. We're not saying we could predict what the five big hits or the five terrible flops would be, no more than Broadway can predict what will be its big hits or flops each year. We just wanted to offer the opportunity to show things in the best of kind of light."

They put out the call for scripts and were astonished when hundreds poured in from all over, from Rector Street to Russia. Then they asked some musical theater professionals to read the submissions; Robyn Goodman, Kathleen Marshall, and Scott Schwartz were among those who said yes. "We wanted at least four people to read the shows, and we had them read them without knowing the names of the authors," says Hurwitz. "Later, they'd sometimes be surprised to find the names of famous people they knew associated with the scripts."

Stewart and Hurwitz's dream came true on September 13, 2004. "We waited until after Labor Day, when people are back in the city and ready to resume normal life," explains Stewart. "We scheduled some shows at 4:30 in the afternoon so people could attend at the end of their work day. Once we got the theaters, we scheduled shows all day long. We didn't know how it would unfold, how people would take to it, or how the industry would respond."

According to Stewart, the festival sold 85 percent of its tickets, an amount that many a Broadway show's producers might envy. Hurwitz notes that this happened even though "we had the challenge of Jewish holidays over two weekends, which affected our Thursday-Friday-Saturday performances. Some of those days, we had 12 performances." One show that did 100 percent capacity was Altar Boyz. "When Altar Boyz sold the last seat for every performance in no time at all and the crowds in line outside the theater were so disappointed, that's when I felt we were getting somewhere," says Stewart. Then he corrects himself: "No, it happened a little before that, when I was walking along the street and saw so many people with programs from our shows."

A large percentage of those people were the same ones that some musical theater savants had written off as impossible to get into the seats: the twentysomethings who allegedly didn't give a damn about musicals. Yet here they were, packing the houses. "Listen, there are a lot of shows on Broadway that I don't want to see," says Stewart. "But if you give people in their 20s and 30s shows they want to see, they'll attend. A lot of people didn't want to partner with us last year because they felt that musical theater wasn't for the audiences they expect to reach, but now such companies as WB11 have come aboard."

Altar Boyz has moved on and is still packing them in at Dodger Stages. Captain Louie played this past spring at the York. The Great American Trailer Park Musical is in rehearsal for a September opening at Dodger Stages, while [title of show] is looking forward to a commercial production. And who knows what shows will move on from this year's festival, which runs September 12-October 2 (without any Jewish holidays to contend with, notes Hurwitz).

So, what's on tap this time? Everything from The Wild Women of Planet Wongo to Nerds://A Musical Software Satire (where you can hear Bill Gates rap) to But I'm a Cheerleader (a story about a girl who's presumed to be lesbian) to a new musical The Big Time by Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown) and Douglas J. Cohen (No Way to Treat a Lady). There'll be free readings of shows that are new (Seagull: The Musical proudly says of itself, "Chekhov called his play a comedy, and at long last we're taking him seriously") plus some that have been a-borning for a while (Gary William Friedman's Sheba is coming back). Finally, you can probably guess that Monica: The Musical isn't about Monica Evans, who played Cecily Pigeon in The Odd Couple.

"There was a fear in the corner of our minds that, after year one, we would have run out of material or we'd get things that had been sitting in people's drawers and wouldn't be good enough," says Hurwitz. "But we had to proceed with the idea that people would continue to write -- and, if we could keep this going, we could provide a motive for people to write. It turned out there were people who were reluctant to submit in year one who submitted for year two." Adds Stewart of the selections, which were read by people including actress Joanna Gleason, producer Kevin McCollum, and yes, Jack Viertel, "The subject matter doesn't matter to us. We just want you to be good."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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