Theater News

A Festival of New Musicals

David Finkle takes in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s staged readings of a clutch of new tuners.

In a program for Joe!, this bold-face line of copy is placed next to a maze in the form of an exclamation point: “Help Joe find his way out of the musical.” As it happens Joe! was one of 10 brand-new or recent shows given staged readings this week at the 12th Annual Festival of New Musicals under the aegis of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. Actually, there were 14 readings, if four fringe presentations are included.

As participants from 118 member organizations shuffled in and out of the Douglas Fairbanks, the John Houseman and the Westside Arts during the four-day event, none of them necessarily looked as if they were trying to find their way out of a maze. But it would have been understandable if–like the above-mentioned Joe, who’s trapped in a musical–they had also felt caged and disoriented. Because, you see, putting on a new musical these days is no easy task. That’s one of the reasons why NAMT was organized. Since tuners seem to be experiencing growing pains (or middle-aged pains?) as the new century begins, figuring out what audiences want and how to get that elusive commodity to them is puzzling.

The musicals showcased in the Festival were selected from properties that were either given full productions this year or are in development at 14 of the member theaters. In addition to Joe!, they included Mandela, a biography in song of the South African leader; Glimmerglass, inspired by James Fenimore

Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales; Far From the Madding Crowd, a treatment of the Thomas Hardy classic; The Ark, a look at what happens when Noah and his fractious family leave dry dock with their animal friends; Hot and Sweet, which recounts episodes in the lives of an all-girl band as World War II is ending; Lizzie Borden, an up-close-and-personal scrutiny of the New Bedford lady with a hatchet; Convenience, in which a mother and son review their troubled relationship; Liberty Smith, a kind of Forrest Gump does the Revolutionary War; and Cupid & Psyche, a souped-up and sexy tale of the mythical lovers and his mother, Venus.

Since these offerings were selected from 140 submissions, the temptation arises to regard the festival as a place to get an accurate fix on things musical. Maybe it is, and
maybe it isn’t. One thing the festival is not for is critical assessment; although the press is welcome to look over the pieces, reviewing them opus by opus is not allowed. And yet, without actually reviewing them, an onlooker might wish to make certain observations about the cumulative effect of the festival.

Perhaps the most positive statement to be made is that, at the event, growing numbers of theater professionals can be seen exercising their dedication to the promotion of musicals. NAMT membership has increased impressively in the 12 years since the festival was inaugurated. Trudi Biggs, the recently-appointed executive director, notes that, this year, she and her small staff have seen to it that participating producers and writers have established tighter bonds; as a result, a “doing business” atmosphere prevails. Considering the complicated logistics involved, the festival certainly runs smoothly. And attention paid to maximizing opportunities for dissemination of information is marked. This year, for instance, presentations were followed by the handing out of CDs, manuscripts, and at least one CD-rom.

But if the operation is business-like, so are the presentations. While those in attendance at this year’s event fraternized vociferously, no single entry set off a festival-wide buzz. None of the shows looked to be gathering the enthusiastic word-of-mouth that was generated last year by, say, The Big Bang or the year before by The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, both of which had commercial productions in Manhattan this past season. The shows that were heard to garner some audience favor were Liberty Smith, Hot and Sweet, Glimmerglass and Cupid & Psyche. Perhaps the work that most consistently pleased festivalgoers was one of the fringe presentations: Adventures in Love, an urbane revue about what the title says it’s about.

It’s possible that the reason for the cooler response of this year’s attendees was that, in contrast to previous years, most of the readings were preceded by few explanatory remarks concerning what the audience was about to see or would not have time to see in the 60-minute or 30-minute slots. (Each show, by the way, was offered twice.) So while it was clear what was happening in Far From the Madding Crowd–which, of course, comes with narrative in place–it was difficult to figure out what was missing from the plot of Hot and Sweet.

If one were to make generalizations about the shows, it might be said that the conventions of the traditional musical have largely been jettisoned. Because sung-through shows continue to be fashionable, story is increasingly told entirely, or primarily, through music and lyrics. What this seems to have led to is the demise of the idea of a musical score as a series of separate occasions for expressions of emotion or humor. Curiously, the plot of Joe!–to some extent a spoof of musical conventions–demands that the focal character not sing at all until the final number. If show tunes were essentially a chance for performers, composers and lyricists to show off their talented wares, that is no longer always the case. In other words, songs aren’t tailored to stop the show; they’re intended to keep it chugging along.

Yes, there was at least one ditty that wowed the crowd: Barbara Schottenfeld’s “C’est La Vie, C’est L’Amour,” written for Hot and Sweet. Otherwise, the songwriters on tap looked as if they were more interested in the integrity of their entire score than in making particular songs show-stoppable. This is, however, not to mention lyricist Marcy Heisler and composer Zina Goldrich, whose songs for Adventures in Love–some of them already Manhattan cabaret staples–served up the wit, warmth, and verve of pre-’60s Broadway tunes to the audience. These songs were expertly delivered by Kevin R. Free, Ellie Grosso, Timothy Gulan, Brian d’Arcy James, Kendra Kassebaum, and Jennifer Prescott.

Theoretically, of course, de-emphasizing the discrete song is neither good nor bad; but if, in practice, it involves the substitution of earnestness, mediocrity, and literality for energy, connection, and excitement, then something is going awry in this transitional period. It’s important that all art forms develop, but that shouldn’t mean that formulas in use during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s should be replaced by those predominating today.

Sadly, on the evidence of this year’s festival, that’s exactly what is happening. It’s always easy for composers, lyricists and librettists to grab up some book in the public domain and musicalize it; both Far From the Madding Crowd and Glimmerglass are examples of the approach, as is a version of The Prince and the Pauper that was showcased at the festival’s opening cocktail-party-cum-entertainment, Prelude 2000. Introducing selections from this adaptation of Mark Twain’s book, Dallas Summer Musicals’s Bob Rohlf noted to his audience of peers that “everyone of your markets knows the story.” He went on to stress that the show would appeal to adults and children–as do Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, he was undoubtedly thinking. (By the way, it was during Prelude 2000 that Mary Rodgers Guettel–speaking as a representative of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatre Library–called for an “Orpheum circuit” of small musical houses to introduce talent that otherwise doesn’t get much of a chance for exposure. This is a first-rate idea that NAMT members might be wise to rally round.)

Towards the end of the four-day musical marathon, one attendee was overheard saying before the next show was unveiled, “I feel as if this is the first time we’re about to see a real honest-to-God musical.” That remark certainly indicates that, whatever the merits or failings of particular shows represented, NAMT efforts are greatly appreciated.