Sonic Youths

A festival sets out to make musical theater seem hip again

According to the folks at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, live theater—not the Internet, digital music, or video games—is "the next frontier for young adults." Citing the success of shows like Rent and Avenue Q,the festival's producers refer freely to "an exciting revolution" and a "groundswell of creativity and young adult curiosity." As executive director Kris Stewart puts it, "We want the festival to prove that musical theater is living and vital and young and hip."

Grandiose claims are certainly nothing new among New York's numerous play festivals. But NYMF, as its founders refer to the three-week event, has something beyond the typical grandstanding: credibility. In only its second year, it has already captured the attention of some of the biggest names in New York musical theater, including Kevin McCollum, producer of Rent and Avenue Q; Tim Jerome, president of the National Music Theater Network; and the judges of the coveted Jujamcyn Prize, who awarded the festival $100,000 in its inaugural year.

NYMF has yet to have the breakaway success that the New York International Fringe Festival saw in its early days with Urinetown, but one out of every five productions it brought to the stage last year has gone on to an additional run. This year's crop of shows clearly has an eye toward capturing that same kind of commercial success. The hope, says Jerome, is that "the person sitting to your left may be a theatrical producer trying to suss out the next blockbuster." There's Nerds: //A Musical Software Satire, which tells the story of the dueling careers and egos of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and apparently means to capitalize on the geek-chic popularity of shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A host of quirky, self-referential musical comedies, ranging from Monica! The Musical to Wild Women of Planet Wongo, seem to be vying for the Urinetown spot. Meanwhile, at least two productions have their eyes on replicating Rent's rock-opera success: No Boundaries, a hip-hop-inspired piece that punctuates its story of interracial teen friendship with J.Lo-style dance numbers, and Project Footlight, a semi-improvised "choose your own adventure" musical from the Upright Citizens Brigade, which features piano-based rock-rap fusion (think Ben Folds meets Linkin Park).

Yet for all the talk of representing the youthful and avant-garde vitality of musical theater, the festival's various offerings are tailored more to the tastes of contemporary Broadway producers. Plane Crazy, about two young stewardesses coming of age in the 1960s, features a highly conventional orchestral score and a smiling, dancing, Broadway-sized cast. And one can hardly imagine throngs of teenage fans lining up for a musical adaptation of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones or for The Mistress Cycle, a serious study of concubines and consorts throughout history. Even Broadway stalwart Stephen Schwartz has an offering in the festival (his second entry in two years), a musical revue of works from his unpublished back catalog, entitled Reluctant Pilgrim.

"Musical theater is a broad, big tent of an art form," says Stewart, and the festival tries to reflect that variety. Still, he hopes that all the festival's offerings will "connect with young audiences and new audiences." One of the goals is to give young artists a chance to experiment in whatever form they feel is best suited to their work, be it innovative or traditional. "Too often a musical gets stuck in development," says McCollum, "when what it really needs is a live audience."

Whether the uneasy collection of quirky, traditional, innovative, and familiar pieces Stewart and company have assembled will be enough to draw young adults away from their iPods and Web browsers—and to convince industry producers that those same young audiences will keep coming back over time—remains to be seen. But with an impressive first year under its belt, the NYMF seems poised to at least push a few more worthy musicals away from the development labs and out in front of the footlights.


For information, visit nymf.org.

 
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