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Musical Flairs

A preview of the third annual New York Musical Theatre Festival. logo
A scene from Have a Nice Life
(© Carol Rosegg)
"I am all for anything that fosters new work, and in particular new musicals," says Emily Skinner. The Tony-nominated actress is just one of many immediately recognizable theater names participating in the third annual New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), with performances September 10-October 1 at a number of different Manhattan venues.

Skinner is part of the ensemble cast of Have a Nice Life, written by Conor Mitchell and Matthew Hurt. The new musical revolves around a group therapy session and what happens when the revelations of a new participant cause the rest of the group to examine their own dark secrets. "I play the woman with anger issues," says Skinner. "The piece sounds like it would be a big comedy, but it's pretty serious. And it's not based on a movie or a book; it just came out of somebody's mind. Because of how much everything costs to produce these days, producers out of necessity are often looking for shows that have a built-in audience because they're based on movies or on an artist's catalogue of songs. So this kind of musical wouldn't necessarily get the attention and fostering that it needs anywhere else but NYMF."

Even shows that have had previous productions elsewhere in the country often have a hard time breaking into the New York scene. The Night of the Hunter, with music by the late Claibe Richardson and book and lyrics by Stephen Cole, is based on Davis Grubb's best-selling novel of the same title, which was also made into a hit 1955 film. "The movie was wonderful, but it took the poetic language of the book to convince me to adapt it," says Cole. "Whole phrases jumped out that felt like lyrics."

The musical received its world premiere staging at the Willows Theatre in San Francisco two years ago, after many years of workshopping. "It went really well and got great reviews," says Cole, "but it's hard to do in New York. It's got 18 people in the cast, so it would really need to be a Broadway show. The expense of it, plus the fact that Broadway has lately been leaning more toward musical comedy and less toward serious musicals, has meant that we haven't been able to get it to that next step." The NYMF production features a star-studded cast including three-time Tony nominee Dee Hoty, two-time Tony nominee Beth Fowler, Mary Stout, and Brian Noonan, who reprises his San Francisco role of the Preacher.

Flight of the Lawnchair Man, featuring music and lyrics by Robert Lindsey-Nassif and a book by Peter Ullian, has also been seen regionally. It was first developed as a one-act at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia in 2000, and the full-length version premiered at Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals in 2005. The NYMF production reunites the Goodspeed cast and creative team, including Broadway veteran Donna Lynn Champlin and the show's director/choreographer, two-time Tony nominee Lynne Taylor-Corbett. The show is partially inspired by numerous real-life accounts of people launching themselves and their lawnchairs into the air with the help of toy balloons.

"There are rules now for this extreme sport," says Lindsey-Nassif. "I love the loopiness of it; it's rather a Don Quixote-like quest to conquer the sky with toy balloons." To musically capture that almost whimsical quality, the composer drew upon European circus music for his score. "This is a high-wire act," he says. "The music is oftentimes atmospheric and evocative of grand distances. It's surreal and clownish, yet there's a real heartfelt sincerity. The story is about a universal quest for identity and fulfillment. Any artist -- any person, really -- who feels somehow apart from the everyday world, who feels different, can understand what this means."

Laura Daniel in
The Tragic And Horrible Life Of The Singing Nun
(© Jim Levendos)
A similar sentiment informs Blair Fell and Andy Monroe's musical comedy The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun. The show takes an irreverent look at the woman best known for singing the Grammy-winning '60s hit "Dominque." Fell first tackled the subject in 1996 with a non-musical, identically titled version of the show. "It was a play that yearned to be a musical," he states.
When doing his research, all the information he could find on the Singing Nun at first was in French or Flemish, which Fell translated with the help of a friend. He even visited her convent in Belgium, where the nun in charge was none too helpful. "That's why I told the story through the eyes of this drag queen nun, Sister Coco Callmeishmael: to allow for the comedy as well as the fallibility in my telling of the biography," Fell explains. Since then, an English-language biography of the Singing Nun has been released; Fell incorporated a few new facts into the musical as a result, but was amazed to learn that what he thought were theatrical exaggerations on his part were much closer to the truth than he realized. The author has also strengthened the lesbian love story at the heart of the show. "As a young writer, I couldn't necessarily land on some of the emotions," he says. "My own progression in the last 10 years has enabled me to understand more about what she went through -- and, with music, we can get to those emotions."
Arthur W. Marks and Sheri Sanders
in The Screams of Kitty Genovese
(© Lyn Hughes)
A real-life tragedy is the basis for The Screams of Kitty Genovese, featuring a score by Will Todd and a libretto by noted playwright David Simpatico. The 1964 murder of 28-year-old Queens resident Kitty Genovese shocked the nation, not just because of its violence but also because the victim's anguished cries were ignored by 38 neighbors who witnessed the attack but did nothing to help. "I wanted to explore the connection between a scream and an aria," says Simpatico. "They're both extreme forms of vocal expression. Structurally, the piece is an opera because it's sung through, and there are a lot of complex levels going on at the same time. But I would never want to make it an opera per se, because the immediacy of the Broadway voice is something that's easily relatable."

While the musical focuses on both Kitty and her murderer, Winston, it also delves into the lives of the neighbors. "It's really about these people in a horrible situation, and why they're not responding," says Simpatico. "It's about the struggle between wanting to help an individual and assuming that, if there's a larger group, someone else will do it." The show does have its lighter side, especially in its first 25 minutes, during which the characters are introduced prior to the murder. "I write about deep, disturbing things, but I like to get there through the safety net of humor," says Simpatico. "It's easier for people to listen to the harsher stuff when they are relaxed and receptive."

It's a great compliment when a composer tells an actor that he wants to write a musical just for him, and an even greater honor when that actor is given the opportunity to have a say in the musical's content. Obie Award-winner Darius de Haas, who is starring in the one-man show The Man in My Head, got that chance when approached by his friend, Michael Wartofsky, who penned the music and lyrics. Says de Haas, "I wanted to say something about people who really aren't represented in musical theater -- in this case, young, gay, black men."

Though the piece started out as a song cycle, it soon began to turn into something more, so Thomas F. DeFrantz was brought in to write the book. According to de Haas, the story follows "an out, proud gay brother" and the dilemma he faces when the ideal man in his head does not match the reality of the men that he dates. Over the course of the solo show, the actor plays six different characters. "I've done concerts where I'm used to talking and then singing," says de Haas, "but really being these characters and making them all very distinct is going to be a challenge."

Part of NYMF's popularity arises from the top-tier talent it attracts, but the festival also allows relative newcomers onto the playing field. While The Children does not feature any marquee names in its cast, it does have a score by returning NYMF participant Hal Goldberg, who wrote the music for last year's NYMF hit Nerds. This time around, he has teamed with playwright Stan Richardson for an offbeat adaptation of the 1980 B-horror flick The Children.

The work is a parody of sorts, but it aims to do more than just tickle your funnybone. "At the time the movie was written, the world was dealing with the Cold War and the whole idea of latchkey kids left home alone by their parents," says Goldberg. "These were important topics then, and one of the things we've tried to do with this show is to keep it earnest -- not necessarily naturalistic, but at the same time not working to poke fun of it." Adds Richardson: "Our approach has always been to move a low-budget horror film from the screen to the stage, but to do it as they did low-budget horror films at that time. These movies weren't dripping with irony; they really were intended to scare people. We essentially took the screenplay, then gunned it in certain spots and put in songs. The script is fairly flat, but the songs break open the inner worlds of the characters."

These seven shows are only a small portion of what the festival has to offer. NYMF includes the premieres of 34 new musicals and 84 other musical theater events. Its programming features full productions, developmental workshops, commissions, concerts, seminars, panels, partner events, and a dance series. "We've had so much growth in the last three years," says Kris Stewart, the festival's executive director. "Each year, we get more submissions and more Tony Award-winning artists who want to be involved. I hope that's partly about people getting more and more knowledge about what we can do for audiences, for the industry, and hopefully for musical theater in New York City."

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