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Musical Diversity

A New York Musical Theatre Festival preview. logo
Amy Eschman, Dana Acheson, and Jamey Hood
in The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
(Photo © Brad Starks)
To anyone who has ever heard the music of The Shaggs, a musical treatment of their story might inspire both fear and excitement. The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, featuring book and lyrics by Joy Gregory and lyrics and music by Gunnar Madsen, is just one of the many shows that form the second annual New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF for short), which runs from September 12-October 2 in various venues in Manhattan. NYMF debuted last year to both audience and critical acclaim, and led to the Off-Broadway transfers of Altar Boyz and, more recently, The Great American Trailer Park Musical.

This year's festival showcases a wide range of material, encompassing over 30 new musical productions, as well as staged readings, seminars, and many other related events. One of the festival's goals is to explore the range of musical styles and subject matter that artists are working with. "I think there's much more diversity than gets represented a lot of the time," says Isaac Hurwitz, NYMF's Director of Programming. "If we're going to continue to have a vibrant musical theater community, we have to embrace that and look at how musical theater intersects with the stories we want to tell today."

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is based upon the bizarre real-life story of a father (played by Tony nominee Peter Friedman) who forces his three daughters to drop out of high school and start a band. Frank Zappa called The Shaggs "better than The Beatles," contributing to the band's cult popularity, while several music critics simply labeled them "the worst band ever." Gregory and Madsen have not crafted a jukebox musical, however, nor are their songs in the style of The Shaggs. "We mostly hear the characters' inner lives which are full of different kinds of music -- gospel rave-ups, super duper pop tunes, plainsong chants, doo wop songs of sexual frustration, hymns of anxiety, etc." says Gregory. "We wanted to make it about people who have fantastic music inside them, but when they try to get it out, it comes out all flat and weird and atonal."

NYMF has attracted a wealth of talent, with several Broadway and Off-Broadway performers appearing in various shows. Tony winner Cady Huffman is featured in Richard Cory, based upon a poem by E.A. Robinson. Cabaret and Broadway star Karen Mason performs the solo musical You Might As Well Live, inspired by the life and writings of Dorothy Parker. Ousted American Idol star and Rent soloist Frenchie Davis appears in Monica! The Musical. Country music singing sensation Sherrie Austin and Deven "Bat Boy" May are the title characters in The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde. And Rent star Anthony Rapp co-stars with Amy Spanger in Feeling Electric, a rock-opera about a woman being treated with electroshock therapy to cure her long term depression.

One of the more eagerly anticipated entries in this year's festival is The Big Time, featuring a book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen, direction by Christopher Ashley, and Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte in the starring role. A co-production with the award-winning theater collective The Drama Dept., the project started out as a screenplay for Oliver Stone, which was to parody films like Under Siege. So why didn't it pan out? According to Beane, "they wanted to move towards more violence and I wanted to move towards more show tunes."

The Big Time, which is about a U.N. peacekeeping ship captured by terrorists and the lounge act from Atlantic City that saves the day, was actually written prior to the events of September 11, 2001, and shelved immediately after. But in coming back to the script, Beane says, "It's shocking how little throwaway jokes I put in are hugely important now. There was actually a joke about Code Orange and Code Red, and that was long before we were doing it."

Some NYMF selections stick to the traditional, such as Plane Crazy, with book, music, and lyrics by Suzy Conn. "I love the retro, old-fashioned, Pajama Game sort of musical," she states. "And that's the kind of musical I wrote." Set in 1965, Plane Crazy tells the tale of two young stewardesses learning about life and love. "It comes from a personal story that I wanted to tell about my struggle between family and career," says Conn. "I'm married with kids, but I'm also a writer. I wanted to tell that in a fun way that would not be preachy."

Another old-fashioned musical entry is by brothers David and Joe Zellnik -- but due to its subject matter, it never would have been produced during the time it's set. Yank, according to David Zellnik, is "first and foremost a love song to platoon movies, and then also to 1940s Broadway. In it, an old gay veteran thinks back on his time spent in World War II as a reporter for Yank magazine, and his love affair with a fellow soldier." The show's music is evocative of the swingtime era, and the production incorporates a number of tropes from the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, including a dream ballet. Yet, Zellnik makes it clear that this is not a spoof. "It's about what gets written and what gets remembered," he states. "When we talk about gays in the military, it's important to remember they've been serving in every war and their stories exist."

The Mistress Cycle, featuring book and lyrics by Beth Blatt and music by Jenny Giering, fits within the realm of traditional musical theater, but it is more experimental in its structure. The show is a song cycle about five notorious adulteresses -- three fictional, two non-fictional (the historical figures being acclaimed writer Anaïs Nin and Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henri II of 16th century France). "It's very surreal," says Blatt. "The characters all live in their own worlds, but travel into each others' and become different people. There's one song where Diane de Poitiers nurses her lover's wife back to health, and all the mistresses play Henri's wife. So, four people play one character. It's weird. You sort of have to go with it." Blatt describes the piece as post-feminist. "It's a world of consenting adults," she says. "You should be able to do what you can live with in a relationship. Some of the characters may not do the things you would do, but hopefully it's well written enough for you to understand why they did it."

Erica Ashe, Omar Evans, Chelsea McKinnes,
and Rodrick Covington in No Boundaries
(Photo © Jackson Lynch)
The NYMF show that arguably demonstrates the most musical diversity, however, is No Boundaries. Hip-hop, soul, rock, and gospel are among the musical styles represented in this original score by six contemporary artists who do not usually work in theater: Sam Bisbee, Pamela Laws, Laura Love, Grammy winner Marcus Miller, Speech (a two-time Grammy winner with his multi-platinum hip-hop group Arrested Development), and Spooks. "The trick of working with this group was to push them towards theatrical music," says book writer and director Liz Oliver. "But all that means is you've got to be able to tell a story, develop a plot point, and be able to have a song that holds the characters." Oliver was inspired by the way films use a range of song styles during the course of a movie, and worked with film music supervisor Barry Cole to select the artists who eventually became part of the project. "All of these songwriters write for their own voices, so the variety has integrity of sound that comes from the soul of the writer," says Oliver.

No Boundaries centers on a young white girl who auditions for an up-and-coming all-black rap group, triggering a series of events rife with racial tension and threatening her friendship with her best friend, an African-American male. "It's about identity, loyalty, friendship, and race," says Oliver. "The story tracks what happens to the main characters' friendship and their sense of who they are, how others see them, and how they see themselves."

"Musical theater is a big tent," says Hurwitz. "There's a real diversity out there and opportunities need to be spread really widely if we're going to have a thriving industry." Hurwitz stresses the importance of the majority of NYMF shows receiving fully staged productions. "A lot of things hit a glass ceiling of readings and do not make it to a production stage," he states. "We felt that theater was about much more than just a reading." The festival attracts a large number of producers and other individuals scouting for talent. Obviously, many of the NYMF participants hope their work will transfer on or Off-Broadway. "I see my show not only as entertaining and informative, but as extremely commercial," says Conn. "I'm hoping everyone else will see it that way, too!"

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