How four new musicals journeyed to NYMF
The road to producing musical theatre in New York City is paved with endless challenges – covering costs, securing a venue, attracting an audience, competing to be noticed amidst all the other shows out there.
Every year, however, the New York Musical Theatre Festival
(NYMF) makes those challenges a little easier to overcome.
Since its inception in 2004, NYMF has supported more than 350 new musicals, fostering such pieces as Next to Normal
and [title of show]
by providing a safe, nurturing environment that lets artists test their work in front of an audience while still enjoying the support and feedback of the developmental process.
This year's festival – which runs through July 27 -- is no different, with a new crop of in-development shows ready to test their mettle in New York. Below, TDF Stages
chats with artists from four current productions about their journey to NYMF.
(John Tartaglia, director. Drew Fornarola & Marshall Pailet, book, music, and lyrics)
What is Claudio Quest?
What Avenue Q
is to children's television, Claudio Quest
is to video games. [Tartaglia is a celebrated performer and puppeteer whose credits include both
Sesame Street and
Avenue Q -- Ed.]
It's an 80s video game on stage where all the characters are in an existential crisis.
: It's an homage to the 80s, 8-bit style of video games, but it also asks, "What are the inner lives of these two-dimensional characters that we know so well? What does it mean to be brought to life in three dimensions on the stage, and what is going on in their emotional world?"
How did this show develop?
: This piece started with a commission from the New Musical Foundation
, which is a not-for-profit run by Charlie Fink [NYMF's board chair.] He saw my first musical, College the Musical
, which was in NYMF in 2008, and he said, as producers sometimes do, "I loved this. I don't want to produce it. What other ideas do you have?" We pitched him this, and he gave it its first life in DC in 2010, which was amazing.
It was then developed by some commercial producers at the time. It went out of options with those producers, but now it's back, as shows have these long journeys.
: So it's been basically five years of rewrites. And now we're ready to unleash it upon New York. Hopefully it goes well.
John, you started out as an actor in the piece. How did you wind up as the director?
I started out as a cast member, and I shared its sensibilities. I was laughing at it, touched by the storyline. I'm drawn to deep themes in musical comedy. And this was a very physical show, with puppetry and a wacky, visual world.
Drew and Marshall, what has John brought to the piece as a director?
: The obvious thing is the visual element. It's such a visually exciting show. With these video game/scrolling world sequences on stage, acted out with actors. The puppets, the boxes, the props – it's so visually exciting. But like any good director, he really gets into the character work with the actors, and he's creating really rich performances as well.
Most importantly: Can you compare the hero's journey to staging a musical in New York City?
: You get hit in the face a lot. You get beaten up a lot. You die a bunch; you come back to life; and then hopefully you get to the finish line before you reach Game Over.
Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty
(Noemi de la Puente, Book & Lyrics. David Davila, Music & Lyrics)
Manuel is based on a true story about an undocumented child immigrant who wins a Rhodes Scholarship, but isn't allowed to leave the United States. In your show, this leads him to a boxing match with the Statute of Liberty. How did this all come together?
Noemi de la Puente
: I attended a conference on race relations at Princeton, and there was a panel discussion on the militarization of the border between the United States and Mexico. This Princeton professor made an offhand comment about the United States being afraid of [undocumented] Ivy League scholars sneaking across the border and taking all these scholarships and trips to Oxford. I approached her afterwards, and she told me this story of this undocumented Princeton undergraduate, and I was compelled to turn it into a musical comedy. The story was so large – boy against country – that it needed the big container of a musical. We submitted it to NYMF last year as a reading, where it won the Reading Series award. Since then we've been dramaturgically revamping so it's cleaner, it's easier to follow, and it's more exciting.
We found a really interesting tone over this process. The Statue of Liberty is played by Shakina Nayfack
, who is a New York cabaret icon. She's very much a rock goddess, like Hedwig. So when it came time to rewrite the music, we decided that the Statue of Liberty needed that. The [overall] show is hip-hop [and] glam-rock, with Latino flavor, mixed with patriotic music. There's such an energy in it!
Most importantly: Can you compare Manuel's journey to staging a musical in New York City?
: Haha!! There are such direct parallels! It is such a longshot. We both feel like we are the contender. We both feel like we're the longshot that can win. We're the dark horse closing in. That's us. You have an insurmountable, crazy-ass goal, and you're going to do it – be it an undocumented kid who's going to go to college and who's going to get scholarships and who's going to graduate. Or two unknown writers who are going to make their mark in musical theatre. It's astronomical odds.
: It's almost impossible to get a break in this town. You're waiting for that one person who can give you a place. And I'm grateful for getting the chance [to get] in like this. Manuel's professor gives him a break and lets him in. Someone gives you that break. And without that break – and that's really what NYMF is for us – this musical would just be an idea, or something that went up downtown and closed and everyone had forgotten about it. We feel so grateful that we have mentors, like Manuel has mentors, who can see the potential in them. And we're grateful to NYMF for seeing the potential in this show – for what it could be, where it can go. Without that we'd be lost in the system. Same as a lot of immigrants are lost in the system, overlooked and forgotten. And so many musicals are forgotten.
(Greg Cooper, Concept and Executive Producer)
What is ACAPPELLA?
We are combining musical theatre with acappella music to create a romantic comedy. A young gospel singer leaves the "music of praise," and he goes for the "music that pays." He comes back to his small, Southern hometown, and he reconnects with his friends, his family, and the girl he's left behind, and he asks the real question:
"Can you ever go back home?"
This is an acappella show with songs written by The Acappella Company. Can you tell us how everything came together?
The music of The Acappella Company is absolutely soul-stirring. That's where it started, the foundation of that music. Wanting to take that music and build a fantastic story around it.
And this is your first experience as a producer, correct?
Yes. I did radio for 28 years -- originally from south Florida, moved to Atlanta. I was general manager of two AM stations there, but I got bit by the development, creative bug. And the idea of creating would not let me go. So after listening to the music of The Acappella Company for so long, I sat down and decided it was time for the world to see the music in 3-D. So about a month ago, I made the brilliant, or maybe not-so-brilliant, decision to leave a 28 year career and move to New York and go all in.
Most importantly: Can you compare the hero's journey to staging a musical in New York City?
When you put something like this together, it's like going out into the West. You clear off a plot of land, you plant some seeds, you build a fire, and you have to create from vision. Jeremiah, our lead character, is trying to find his own voice. And that's exactly what our company of people is trying to do. Through the music, through the story, we are trying to find our voice.
Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera
(Elizabeth Searle, Concept, Book, and Lyrics)
What is Tonya and Nancy?
Tonya and Nancy: the Rock Opera
is based on the infamous knee-whack Olympic skating scandal. It is a rock opera that tries to delve into the emotions of the larger-than-life figures that were involved in that. It's an imagined piece, but we stick very closely to the events, because you know what? We can't improve them in terms of drama. I don't have anyone say or do anything crazier than what they actually said then. It's just all there. We have a lot of sympathy for the two girls and what they went through. They both went through the mill.
Whose journey are we following?
Both. We're following both. Because Tonya is the active character, she gets a lot of the book part of the show. However, the Nancy character has an evolution of her own. She becomes strong through this. If you look at Nancy these days, she's very in control of her life. She's a wife; she's a mother; she skates on her own terms. Some people misunderstand her in lots of ways. We try to clear up a lot of these things about Nancy because she had a lot
of strength. Because when it came down to it in that skate-off – which was one of the most watched sporting events ever – Nancy held it together. She skated great. She really did. We try to capture those parts of Nancy. But Tonya is the active character. We have the most incredible Tonya – Tracy McDowell
. She was born to play the part. She has these raw feelings, where she sings with a lot of rage to her ex-husband. She's fierce!
Most importantly: Can you compare Tonya's journey to staging a musical in New York City?
Definitely a lot of parallels! NYMF is so supportive and so great, and they make it so possible. But as anyone knows who has ever done a musical, it's a long, long journey. It's a long, hard road. Tonya Harding worked her heart out to perfect her athletic skills, made it to the Olympics, had many, many setbacks. I think she is in a better place in her life now. The journey of making a musical is very similar: You have to have a ton of discipline and work to create something from nothing. There's a long, long road to it. In a sense this is like the Olympics for us, to get to New York City, the capital of theatre in the world. It's a journey!
Andrew Block is TDF's Manager of off-Off Broadway Services
Top photo: A rehearsal for Claudio Quest
Photo credits: Claudio Quest by Jeremy Daniel. Manuel Versus. the Statue of Liberty by Shira Friedman. Acappella by Sammy Lopez. Tonya and Nancy by Robert Pushkar.