Here's my final roundup of reviews from the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). I saw 19 shows over the course of three weekends. It was a bit grueling at times, but overall I found it exhilarating. There's so much passion out there for musicals, both in writing them and in attending them. Even if most of these shows never make to Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, the sheer number of shows in development is an encouraging sign.
Watch for future posts from me on the winners of the NYMF Awards for Excellence (for which I served as a juror), as well as for my take on lessons learned. Essentially, I'll be compiling a list of questions that would-be writers and composers for musical theater can ask themselves as they work on their shows, questions that, I hope, will help them avoid some of the pitfalls that I've seen over and over in developing musicals. (Just call me a dramaturg in absentia.)
Mr. Confidential - Anyone looking for an object lesson in the term "dramaturgy problems" need look no further than Mr. Confidential. I can't recall another show during which I had to continually ask "Um...what?" as frequently. It's not the plot that's befuddling: it's basically about a guy and his family starting a gossip magazine and pissing the wrong people off. What's confusing is understanding what people are singing about, why this particular person needs to be singing, and why the events are unfolding the way they are. Mr. Confidential has book and lyrics by Samuel Bernstein, music by David Snyder, and while Snyder's music is often quite good, often exciting, Bernstein's book and lyrics are a mess. I continually found myself asking: What's this song about? Why is this person making this choice? What the hell is going on? And so on. Bernstein needs to decide what he really wants each song to be about and then craft lyrics that more explicitly meet those intentions. Bernstein's book raises even more questions than the lyrics. For example, the magazine publisher, Bob Harrison, attempts to hire a recently unseated anti-communist politician to help find stories for the magazine, and because for some reason this guy would give Harrison access to famed columnist Walter Winchell. But why would Winchell help a rival publication with story ideas? He's got his own media empire to feed. The biggest WTF moment comes at the end. Apparently there's a car crash, which takes the lives of two of the characters, but the headline accompanying the scene says it was the publisher who killed himself and his wife. But Harrison is shown announcing the accident to the press, despite the fact that he's the publisher. It was a fittingly opaque end to a bewildering show.
The Travels - The Travels was perhaps the most thematically ambitious show I saw at NYMF this year. The book and lyrics are by Aaron Ricciardi, the music by Kelly Hoppenjans. The story involves a comic dystopian tale of a future America, including a daily TV show to encourage conformity, discourage travel, and foster devotion to a Big-Brother-like authority figure. Not so much a musical as a play with music, The Travels features diegetic, commentative numbers, not unlike half of the score to Cabaret, or most of the score to Chicago. For the most part, this approach works: the song interludes take us out of the story and remind us of the show's Brechtian ambitions. Ricciardi also makes the interesting choice to start each scene with a show card announcing the impending fate of the characters, a clear nod to Brecht's alienation techniques. Ricciardi displays a keen intelligence and sharp comic instincts with his imaginative language and precepts for his fictional world, even if the whole affair seems just a tad too dependent on 1984 and Brave New World in its fundaments. There are some clear flaws in the show's logic: when two foreigners enter the country and are forced to become "domestic domicile disinfectors," they seem to have no prior knowledge of the country's shift toward totalitarianism. But the show tells us that the current regime has been in place for 25 years. It's hard to imagine that word wouldn't have somehow gotten out over a quarter of a century. Still, The Travels works rather well, at least until it starts taking itself too seriously. If Ricciardi could find ways to sustain the satire and edge throughout the show, he and Hoppenjans might have a winner on their hands. (A final note: As I said last year, apropos of her star turn in Julian Po, the fabulous Luba Mason, featured prominently in The Travels, should always be in a Broadway show. Will someone please rectify this, stat?)
Madame Infamy - As I've mentioned, I hadn't been all that impressed by the quality of the music is this year's NYMF shows. That is, until my final NYMF weekend, when I started to hear some really strong music. Madame Infamy has a book by JP Vigliotti, and music and lyrics by Cardozie Jones and Sean Willis. The book and lyrics need quite a bit of work, but Jones' and Willis' score is pretty darned fabulous, despite a preponderance of what I call "beltando" and "riffando" on the part of some of the singers. Jones and Willis have quite a touch with memorable and stirring music, including some ambitious contrapuntal pieces. Madame Infamy tells the parallel stories of Marie Antoinette and Sally Hemmings, the latter a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson who also allegedly became the mother of a number of children by Jefferson. I kept expecting the two stories to come together, but they never really did. Apart from seeing each other from afar at a ball at Versailles (Jefferson is in France to garner support for the American Revolution), the women never come in direct contact. The authors would be wise to create more of a link between the two characters, historically justified or no. As a whole, the show feels like a combination of Les Miserables, Wicked, and The Princess Diaries, as produced by The Disney Channel -- sort of a schoolgirl's take on history. The lyrics need quite a bit of work: I frequently had no idea what characters were singing about, and somtimes didn't even know who the characters were. Much of the dialogue feels artificial, even creaky. Plot turns and character motivations are frequently difficult to discern. People in support positions act in ways inconsistent with their station. Members of court act condescendingly and imperiously toward Louis XVI and Marie. One of Jefferson's slaves tracks him down to punch him in the face. Um, who's in charge here? This isn't a high school dance in 2014. It's the court at frickin' Versailles. (Final note: the authors should re-familiarize themselves with the rules of pronoun-case usage. The show is littered with such erroneous phrases as "...between you and I...," "It's rare for we women to be taken seriously," and "You shall accompany Martha and I..." I'm sorry, but we're talking Thomas Jefferson here, one of the greatest writers this country has ever seen. This is one guy who would know the difference between the nominative and the objective case.)
Propaganda! - Here's another trend I noticed at NYMF this year: opening numbers that don't fully set the scene. I'm sure it's easy, when you're writing a show, to lose track of what the audience knows and when, and what they need to know from the beginning so that the rest of the show makes sense. All the more reason to make the Who, What, Where, and When as clear as possible, and as soon as possible. Propaganda! - The Musical is a case in point. The opening lyric keeps repeating "This just in, on the radio," as if that's supposed to be enough to tell us where we are and what's going on. But it isn't. I kept trying to guess: Is this a TV station? A newspaper? A PR firm? The republican national headquarters? In turns out that we're witnessing the goings-on at a secret government agency that specializes in covering up scandals. Three numbers into the show, this still wasn't clear. Once clarity sets in, Propaganda! is actually quite enjoyable, often hilarious. The book, music, and lyrics are by Taylor Ferrera and Matt Webster, and the pair show great promise as comedy writers. Propaganda! gets a bit messy at times, but overall it's a hoot. There's a tongue-in-cheek meta quality to much of the dialogue, which works in fits and starts. There's some inconsistent logic regarding character traits and plot ramifications. But there are also some terrific insider musical-theater jokes that had me roaring. The songs are hit or miss, but there are some really strong showstopper-type numbers, particularly the show's chief evildoer, Agent X, played with great relish here by the wondrous Kenita Miller. Conversely, there's an 11 o'clock number that stops the show in a bad way, called "Sing Me to Sleep," which unfortunately lives up to its name. Much of the fun in the show comes from the shameless showboating from the ensemble, which was jarring at first, but eventually built to a comic crescendo that contributed greatly to the show's overall fun index. Also notable was the outstanding choreography from Jason Sparks, which gave the mincing queens (and I mean that with love) in the ensemble a chance to shine. (Also, I would strongly suggest a change of the show's title. Propaganda! doesn't really capture the spirit of the show. Might I suggest changing it to Cover Up!, while retaining the classic musical-theater exclamation point.)
Fable - My final NYMF musical of the year was Fable, a show with a bit of an identity crises. The book is by Harrison Kaufman, the music and lyrics by Christopher Anselmo. I feel I must preface my remarks by pointing out that both Anselmo and Kaufman are still in college: Anselmo at Northwestern, Kaufman at NYU. Judged from that vantage point, the work here is outstanding, if uneven. But from an audience perspective, it doesn't really matter how old the creators are. What matters is what's on stage. Well, Anselmo shows tremendous promise as a composer and lyricist. Anselmo's music is by turns soaring, jaunty, and hard-rocking, even if it does reflect just a touch too much RLNS (Really-Long-Note Syndrome). His lyrics are among the cleanest I've ever heard at NYMF: I don't recall hearing any significant slant rhyme, faulty scansion, or reversed syntax. The main liability of the show in its current form is that the high stakes evident in the score don't match the rather mundane events depicted in the book. We're basically at a graduation party in which six high-school friends reveal -- and wring their hands over -- a series of rather quotidian revelations: someone's parents are getting divorced, someone makes out with another girl's boyfriend, some says "I Love You" too soon, someone reveals that she lied about getting into Princeton, and a brother tells his sister that he didn't go to college so the family could afford to send her. Which is all fine and good, except the momentous, weighty ballads that emerge toward the end of the show don't feel justified based on such prosaic concerns. For instance, one character sings a "Get Out, and Stay Out" type number to his friends. but it's not entirely clear why he's so upset. The cast features a decidedly strong sextet of young performers, including star-to-be Dan Rosales, making his NYMF debut. (Full disclosure: Dan is one of my recent BoCo students. But trust me, you're going to hear from this amazingly talented young man very soon, of this I have no doubt.)