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Six New York Musical Festival veterans share sneak peeks at five new shows
Every summer, thousands of theatre lovers flock to Midtown Manhattan to feast on dozens of shows presented at NYMF: the New York Musical Festival. During its 13-year run, several artists have returned multiple times to participate in this exciting annual fest. So to celebrate the 2017 edition, we gathered a few NYMF veterans to ask, "Why do you keep coming back?"
"Easy: I had a blast!" says Lesli Margherita of Matilda The Musical fame, who's returning to NYMF for the second summer in a row. Last year, she spent much of the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired show A Scythe of Time as a decapitated head! This year she reclaims full use of her body as Mephistopheles, an agent of Satan in Matthew McConaughey Vs. The Devil: An American Myth (July 10-16), which asks the question, "How did Matthew McConaughey win an Academy Award?"
"I love getting to do something brand-new," Margherita says. "I love meeting and working with these new writers who are so excited to see and hear their work." She also appreciates being part of the creative process -- something she doesn't get to do much of when working on Broadway. "I have so much fun -- it's so low budget, but who cares? It's all about the work. There's something really cool about figuring it all out together. There's something organic and grassroots about putting up a show like this."
"Everyone involved is really committed and it's so inspiring to be a part of," says Marissa O'Donnell who, at the tender age of 23, is appearing in her sixth NYMF offering, Camp Wanatachi (July 30-August 1), which is being presented as a concert. With a book co-written by This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter, this all-female Christian summer camp coming-of-age musical is using NYMF as a springboard for further growth. O'Donnell plays the born-again Jana, a role she originated six years ago in the show's first iteration at La MaMa when she was just 16 and fresh off her Broadway debut in Shrek the Musical. Camp Wanatachi's theme of "no fear in love" applies to what O'Donnell's learned about her own work through NYMF. "It's taught me so much about just jumping right in, about staying in the moment and getting it done," she says. "That's what theatre is about!"
Michael Bradley and Artie Sievers are also NYMF veterans, though this marks their first year as artists. The two became friends six years ago while working as NYMF house managers, and were able to see many of the fest's diverse offerings. "I think as an audience member, I've always had ideas about what I could do when I got to this point," says Bradley, who also runs the review site theatreinthenow.com under his birth name of Michael Block (Bradley is his artist pseudonym). "Over the past two years, I have reviewed every single full production in the festival," he says. "I've been around -- I've seen it all. In 2014, my New Year's resolution was to write a musical. So I put up on Facebook: 'Who wants to write a musical with me?' Artie said, 'I will,' and here we are now."
After several years of development, their show The Goree All-Girl String Band (July 24-29) makes its debut at NYMF. Based on a true story, the musical is about a group of female Texas inmates who, as Sievers describes it, "decided they were going to form a band without any musical training. They were going to learn how to play these instruments. They were going to get on the radio. They were going to get famous. And because of that they were going to get pardoned for their crimes. And they did it."
"Collaboration is key to anything in this festival," says performer Brian Charles Rooney, who's returns to NYMF for a seventh time. "You need a very open and collaborative team, from directors to designers to musicians." This year he stars in the solo musical Miss Blanche Tells It All (July 12-16), a Tennessee Williams-inspired tale set in 1969 New Orleans about a drag queen at a crossroads. With less than three hours of tech time and shared facilities, Rooney has learned to put a great deal of trust in the NYMF team. "You are in a shared dressing room and you don't get to leave your makeup behind," he says. "You're in and out. Those are the big challenges. In Miss Blanche, I come in half drag, have to take it off and put the whole thing back on onstage, full face, all the contouring shadows, eyes, eyelashes, lips, all of it. That is going to be the biggest challenge I will have faced in this festival -- or in any show!"
Having worked with Cirque du Soleil and the Big Apple Circus, director West Hyler is used to tricky situations. Yet he counts his work at NYMF as some of the greatest of his career. The Awakening of Angel DeLuna featured a trapeze act that had to be rigged and disassembled in the fest's tight 15-minute setup and strike time. "At that time it was the most expensive show ever at NYMF," Hyler chuckles, adding, "They had never seen any insurance like that before." For another NYMF show, Flambé Dreams, he found a creative way to conjure fake flames via lighting and fabric due to the fest's strict no-fire policy.
This year he serves as director and book writer for Georama: An American Panorama Told On 3 Miles of Canvas (August 2-6). Without revealing too much of the theatrical magic in his stagecraft, it's safe to say that he's found an inventive way to avoid putting a literal 900-foot-long painting onstage. Since each show is allotted a 4x4 storage space, Hyler has learned what's truly important when mounting a NYMF show. "Make it perfect for the festival; don't try to make the Broadway version," he says. "Have fun. Keep the audience using their imaginations. Put the beautiful music and storytelling up front and center."
See NYMF 2017's complete lineup -- which includes full productions, readings, concerts, and other events -- at the festival's official website.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for select New York Musical Festival shows. Go here to browse NYMF offers.
Andrew Block is TDF's Manager of Off and Off-Off Broadway Services.
Top image: Wayne Wilcox and Lesli Margherita in Matthew McConaughey Vs. The Devil. Photo by Michael Kushner.