Not many festivals can pin their success on a Catholic boyband. But two Septembers ago, Altar Boyz appeared in the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s debut season, and the show’s ensuing Off-Broadway run—still going strong after 18 months at New World Stages—helped cement NYMF’s reputation as a harbinger of hits. This year brings 34 new musicals, all hoping to generate similar buzz during a three-week bonanza that ends October 1. Few of them, however, say “instant crowd pleaser” like those Catholic lads. Instead, a remarkable number of this year’s crop are courting crowds with politics, violence, and dark thoughts.
This season’s musical about a pop band replaces altar boys with white supremacists. Based on the real-life girl group Prussian Blue, White Noise depicts two Aryan teens who form a bubblegum act to spread their hateful message. That might sound over-the-top, but creator-director Ryan Davis insists his show has fangs. “We saw that just making it campy wouldn’t acknowledge how dangerous [the subject] is,” he says. “The show begins in a campy way, but the tone shifts when the girls learn to hide their message and become more subtle.”
Dark currents also ripple through Oedipus for Kids, which rewrites the Greek tragedy as a children’s show. Amid cheeky songs like “My Husband Is My Lover Is My Son” there are also jabs at an advertising industry that treats toddlers like commodities. Meanwhile, partisan politics fuel Smoking Bloomberg, a musical look at the city’s recent smoking ban, and even a whimsical fantasy like The Flight of the Lawnchair Man makes room for political commentary. The titular hero may fly by tying balloons to his patio furniture, but not before he quits his soul-crushing job at Wal-Mart.
The most harrowing subject matter, however, belongs to The Screams of Kitty Genovese, about the infamous 1964 case in which a Kew Gardens woman was murdered on the street while her neighbors listened from their apartments. When it begins, the 70-minute drama almost seems chipper. In a blend of jazz, funk, and classical styles, Genovese’s neighbors complain about their jobs and explicitly describe their sex lives. But the light mood darkens with the attack. By the time Genovese’s ghost sings a sorrowful finale, the show has asked questions about what it means to stand still in a crisis. “It takes on public culpability and public apathy,” explains lyricist David Simpatico. “It asks people to say, ‘OK, all kidding aside, what are we made of?’ ”
All the shows mentioned have done brisk business at NYMF, where short runs and a $20 ticket often help fill seats. In the rest of the world, though, these projects may be a tougher sell. Do mainstream theatergoers really want their musicals tackling such unsettling subjects as murder, racism, and corporate greed? Simpatico thinks they do, noting that more serious-minded fare like Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens hit Broadway this fall. “I think the palette of what’s acceptable and commercial is expanding. You don’t just have to be fun and frothy and sexy,” he says.
Kris Stewart, NYMF’s executive director, agrees, though he knows the hurdles are high. “There have always been musicals that speak with a more serious voice,” he explains, “[but] as commercial theater becomes a bigger risk, and as the number of commercial houses available becomes smaller, the chances that a darker, political work by an unknown author [will succeed] become less and less likely.” That makes NYMF’s support of edgy material crucial. Stewart continues, “Putting something before an audience can give it momentum and can give a producer more courage.”
And if this season’s offerings do inspire courage, then next season could very well see a character like Kitty Genovese screaming right down the hall from the altar boyz.