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Inside four shows in this year's New York Musical Festival
"Now! I have my chaaaance!", croons Raúl, the young Mexican entrepreneur at the center of Children of Salt, one of 18 full productions at this summer's New York Musical Festival (NYMF). Raul could be signing for the hundreds of artists who gather each summer for an opportunity to be discovered by NYMF audiences.
The festival is dedicated to presenting new musicals of all styles, and this year's incarnation runs through August 7. I had the chance to visit rehearsals for four of the current productions, and whether I was speaking to early-career directors or seasoned Broadway veterans, I was always curious to ask the same question: In the vast field of musical theatre, where so many people are struggling to get their work seen and heard, what does a festival like this offer a new show?
Or to put it more simply: Why NYMF?
Children of Salt
Set in Mazatlán, Mexico and loosely based on the Biblical story of Lot's wife, Children of Salt is composed by Jaime Lozano, with book and lyrics by Lauren Epsenhart. They've been working on the show since they were paired as thesis partners at NYU's graduate musical theatre program.
TDF: Tell me about your journey to NYMF
Jaime Lozano: We've been writing this material for eight years now, and this is finally the first time we get to see this show on its feet.
Lauren Epsenhart: NYMF is such a great platform for new artists to explore their work and give light to it in a way that they might not have the opportunity to do otherwise.
JL: We were tired of readings and readings and readings. The next step is to see the show on stage, to see what is really working and what isn't working. To see where we are right now.
TDF: Any parallels between the journey of your hero, Raúl, and your own?
JL: Personally, I came to NY in 2007 with a full scholarship to NYU. I left everything in my country, [Mexico]. I was attached to my home, but made the decision to stay here. It was like Raúl -- try to go to the big city and try to be successful, but all the time thinking about the past, connected.
TDF: What do you want people to walk away with?
LE: I want people to walk away feeling hopeful. That no matter what has happened to them, they can always make the choice to move forward and find happiness. Something we can all relate with.
A Scythe of Time
For two Broadway veterans – director David Alpert and star Lesli Margherita – NYMF provides a place to reconnect with creative roots, while also providing star power to a property with commercial ambitions. A Scythe of Time, based on two stories by Edgar Allen Poe, centers on 19th century writers who take their own lives and, while they're dying, write about the experience. To set the mood, the Poe-inspired rehearsal room features a dark Victorian wardrobe, a mock scrim, and a furry dog hand-puppet.
TDF: Why NYMF?
David Alpert: What's really exciting about NYMF is that they present it so Broadway producers and people in New York will actually come and see it. It's very accessible to get to. It's smack dab in the middle of the New York theatre district.
Lesli Margherita: The thrilling thing about this is literally building something from the ground up. Most of these writers don't get the chance to see what they've written performed and staged. The coolest thing is to get to do something that they've never seen.
TDF: What's your rehearsal process like?
DA: Right now we're in the third week of rehearsal, which in NYMF-land is like 6 weeks at this point. It's a very condensed process. We just did our first stumble-through on Saturday, and we have this week to clean, to do rewrites, to fix, and then next week we are in tech.
TDF: How do you approach the tricky tone of Poe's world?
DA: The subject matter is very dark. Our writing team is very funny. I like to make a rehearsal room really funny, and I cast some very funny people. I knew that combining all that would balance it out. But it's also understanding that we can't play into the tone of it. PJ Griffith [who plays a lead role] is terrifying. I told him today to back off of that a little, see what it's like to just offer that as real, and not a scary thing. It's the thing we say in rehearsals: "This is great, but what is the 'Poe world'?"
LM: These two stories in particular are actually very funny, very darkly funny. Especially this character of mine, Zenobia, who is a bit off in a great way. It's not slapstick – but it's definitely dark humor.
TDF: What do you want people to walk away with?
DA: We live in a world where sensational writing is the norm and where we see leaders rise up that are pushing for crazy things. I hope we can step away and get back to real journalism that is based on fact, and allowing the reader to create their own inroad.
LM: Exactly! Zenobia is okay with herself until she sees these articles and says "Oh no, I need to do this to even get more fame." All the things we deal with today. Sad and frightening and true, and it needs to be told.
Most of the time, Rachel Klein directs shows for adults (Anthem, Around the World in 80 Days), but at NYMF she's aiming for a family audience. A spin on the Peter Pan story that focuses on Tinkerbell, Tink! promises to be a sprawling adventure, with a 19-person cast of children and adults.
TDF:What gets you excited about festival work?
Rachel Klein: Usually with festivals the show I do is one of the largest, and that is absolutely the case with Tink. To create the epic nature of Neverland we've asked people to bring a variety of different talents – in addition to fantastic actors, singers, and dancers, we also have acrobats, vaudevillian circus acts, and a national figure-skating champion.
My favorite thing about festivals is the challenge, working under the gun. You have to work incredibly well under pressure, have the ability to stage very quickly. As long as long as you're working with a great ensemble of actors who understand we are moving, moving, moving – without pausing – we can get things done efficiently and effectively.
TDF: How did you meet the writers?
RK: I met the creative team at a NYMF mixer, which was a success story. I read about it in advance and thought "Oh my gosh, there's a Peter Pan musical all about Tinkerbell as a teenager, and it doesn't have a director!? I'm going!" I recall the definitive moment where they knew that I was the one for the show - a certain moment where Tinkerbell pauses the storm. She's using her fairy magic inadvertently and creates a weather condition. It was a new thing they wanted to incorporate into the script. They were asking my thoughts on it, and I said, "That sounds like Evil Willow from Buffy!" There was a pause, followed by an "oh my god." And the offer came shortly after. I will chalk it all up to being a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
TDF: Why do people keep coming back to stories about Neverland?
RK: Ha! And this is the third one I've done! People love the story. People connect to the characters. The villains are such tried and true villains. They love how Peter Pan doesn't want to grow up, because there's a part of all of us as adults that doesn't grow up and has that nostalgic longing where things were simple. But this one is different . It's about Tinkerbell's relationship with her family. Her best friend Tigerlily is a no-nonsense, fierce diva who's seen the world, and Tink is sheltered and frustrated and she wants to get out of her small fairy town. Something that New Yorkers can identify with, those of us who are New York transplants particularly.
The Last Word
Set in 1976, The Last Word tells the oddball story of a dreamer in debt who sets out on a road-trip across America to raise cash by hustling games of Scrabble. London-based film director – and first-time composer, writer, and lyricist – Brett Sullivan is teaming with veteran NYMF director Michael Bello.
TDF: Has this experience taught you anything about creating a musical?
Brett Sullivan: What really surprised me was how big the community here was that wanted to do new work. That's what blew me away, from that first orientation weekend [for the festival] where you meet and greet a ton of people. I was like, "You really want to work on this show?!?"
BS: What are the challenges? Are there any limitations?
The time limit that NYMF has – there's nothing better than them saying the lights turn off at this point. Boy, we better tighten up that dialogue and make some cuts. I like that. This is the box you're working in. When you don't have big sets, you ask yourself, "How imaginative you can stage this?" We have a huge challenge: we're a road trip! Michael has got to stage a road trip that goes from place to place. That's an exciting thing.
Michael Bello: Two years in a row now, I've watched how the very realistic limitations that come with NYMF really do help a musical refine its storytelling. It requires you to be as creative and as efficient as possible. So you really are asked to refine the play down to its most necessary beats and storytelling. While the musicals usually will expand after a NYMF production, it really helps clarify exactly what story is being told.
TDF: Where did the idea for this piece come from?
BS: Scrabble lent itself to wordplay, so with the lyrics, there's a license there that you have to have fun with words and letters. And really it was a road trip – I thought hustling something that was not cool, not like pool, I thought hustling Scrabble was definitely not that cool. A lot of people don't even know you can do it. I wanted question marks raised from the beginning, so it sounds like a slightly bizarre journey.
TDF: Any parallels between the world of Scrabble hustlers and putting on a new musical?
MB: It's a hustle of a different breed, but a hustle nonetheless.
Andrew Block is TDF's Manager of Off- and off-Off Broadway services.
Top photo: A scene from a Pittsburgh production of Tink!, which played earlier this summer. Photo by Kelly Tunney.