Tuner casserole

The New York Musical Theater Festival sings out

RAP SESSIONS No Boundaries brings a hip-hop sound to musical theater.

RAP SESSIONS No Boundaries brings a hip-hop sound to musical theater. Photo: Jackson Lynch

Having sweltered through this summer's innumerable offerings, audiences may be forgiven a sense of festival fatigue. But the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) features more than enough wattage to jolt them back up in their seats. The next three weeks are a show-tune lover's buffet, crammed with Broadway stars, high-profile writers and buzz-heavy new works—not too shabby for a festival that started last year.

The NYMF was founded in reaction to the exorbitant costs of out-of-town tryouts and workshops. "A lot of fantastic musicals get caught in a no-man's-land," executive director Chris Stewart says. "People have the resources to develop them up to a certain point, and then it suddenly becomes very expensive." By pooling and absorbing the costs of theater rental and advertising, the festival provides a relatively low-risk forum for developing shows. Roughly half of the offerings are part of the Next Link Project, chosen through a blind submission process. "The readers don't know who the writers are," producing director Isaac Hurwitz says. "That's important in an industry that can be very insular." Thirteen other shows are participating by invitation. "We don't want to be only the sum of the musicals that arrive in the mail," Stewart explains. "We also want to search out and commission other works."

The system seems to be working: Three musicals from last year's NYMF—Altar Boyz, Captain Louie and The Great American Trailer Park Musical—have already gone on to Off Broadway runs. Here are five 2005 selections that hope to follow in their footlights.

Ship shape
"It has a very checkered past," says Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown) of The Big Time. The zany piece, in which lounge singers defend a United Nations ship against hijackers, was conceived as a parody of the Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege. "I started writing this seven years ago as a screenplay for Oliver Stone—I know, crazy!" the waggish scribe recalls. "But he wanted more violence and I wanted more musical numbers. As is often the case." So Beane, joined by composer-lyricist Douglas J. Cohen, reworked the material into a stage musical, which was set to begin rehearsals in October 2001. "Then, obviously, September 11 happened, and terrorism didn't seem that funny," Beane says. But the show has reemerged as the centerpiece of the NYMF, with a crackerjack cast led by Tony winner Debbie Gravitte; the outrageous Jackie Hoffman (Hairspray) plays one of the hijackers. "Many people have likened her performance style to terrorism," Beane jokes. "The only thing lacking was an M-16. And now we've gone and put it in her hand."

Hip to be square
As The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues its hit run on Broadway, the geek-musical genre expands with Nerds, a satirical look at the dweebs-to-riches lives of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. "It's a kind of corporate morality tale, in addition to being a very funny parody," says Sean Dugan, who plays Gates. In real life, the actor points out, the Microsoft mogul was not the high-school pariah depicted in the musical (written by Hal Goldberg and Bomb-itty of Errors creators Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Wiener), but Dugan understands the appeal of the classic nerd archetype: "Most all of us understand being outsiders at any given moment of our lives."

Poor Richard
Popularity, of course, is no guarantee of happiness—as illustrated in "Richard Cory," Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem about the suicide of a much-admired gentleman. Ed Dixon's musical adaptation is based on work by A.R. Gurney, who expanded Robinson's 16 lines into a play that he asked Dixon to musicalize. "Because Richard is so disenfranchised, [Gurney] wanted Richard Cory to be through-composed, except that the leading character would have no music," Dixon explains. "I said, 'It sounds fantastic for an impossible idea.'" But that concept has survived into the show's current form, whose cast includes Herndon Lackey and Cady Huffman (The Producers). "Everyone's singing their hearts out," Dixon says. "But whenever Richard speaks, the music stops."

Affairs to remember
The Mistress Cycle, a song cycle by composer Jenny Giering and librettist Beth Blatt, also began as verse. "About ten years ago, Beth brought me a poem called 'Death by 1,000 Cuts,' which is basically a laundry list of bad-men songs," Giering says. "We were both really sick of men." Their resulting collaboration examines the dilemma of a frustrated modern woman who is contemplating becoming a mistress; her story is interwoven with those of four historical figures, including Anas Nin and New Orleans madam Lulu White. "Every character has a different style of music, but it all sort of falls under the umbrella of me," says the composer, who has earned a reputation for ambitious and distinctive yet accessible theater art songs. "You need to push the envelope. So much of musical theater sounds exactly like 'musical theater.'"

Oliver's twist
Liz Oliver, the book writer and director of No Boundaries, also chafes at the limits of the show-tune genre. "I wanted to write something that reflected the contemporary world around me," says Oliver, best known as a producer. "I didn't see a lot of that in musical theater." So after making sure that she wasn't deluding herself—"I had enough people who would honestly say, 'Please, go back to producing!'"—she assembled six experienced songwriters from diverse backgrounds, including jazz (Miles Davis producer Marcus Miller), indie rock (singer-songwriter Sam Bisbee) and hip-hop (Arrested Development front man Speech). Their music, she says, suits the show's racially fraught tale of a young white woman who auditions for a hip-hop group. "Why can't you use different kinds of sounds?" she asks. "Pop, rock, gospel, hip-hop—if they deliver the dramatic moment, they can all be theatrical music."

NYMF is at various venues Monday 12 through October 2.