Here's the fourth and final installment of my capsule reviews from this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Click here to read my first, second, and third installments. My sincere thanks to the good folks at NYMF for allowing me such open and ready access to all of the NYMF shows.
It's thanks to NYMF and the other new-works projects around the country that so many people who are interested in writing new musicals are able to find the support they need to bring their ideas to the stage. Whenever someone trots out that tired old bit about musical theater being dead, or on its last legs, I think of the hundreds upon hundreds of submissions to NYMF, the National Music Theater Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center, the New York International Fringe Festival, the Festival of New Artists at the Goodspeed, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT), not to mention the numerous regional and nonprofit companies that actively seek and nurture new works. The economic model may have changed since the "golden age" of musicals, but there's still plenty of interest not only in creating musical theater, but in attending it as well.
Sure, most of these shows won't make it to Broadway, or even anywhere close to it. But if it weren't for these programs, we might never have seen such interesting and entertaining new works as Urinetown, Next to Normal, [title of show], Altar Boyz, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Gutenberg! The Musical, Yank!, Avenue Q, Nine, In the Heights, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Children of Eden, The Drowsy Chaperone, Songs for a New World, I Love You Because, and Striking 12.
I can't wait until next year's festival.
Zapata is a rather curious concoction with music and lyrics by Peter Edwards, book by Peter and Ana Edwards. The show attempts to draw a parallel between the revolutionary activities of Emiliano Zapata and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The result, while well-meaning, is strident, clumsy, and forced. It feels as though the show had been in development long before the Occupy protests, and then the authors, spying an opportunity to give the show modern resonance, tacked on a present-day prologue and epilogue. The connection seems tenuous: Zapata's story is one of violent uprising against brutal oppressors. At one point in the show, one of the characters says, "Violence is unavoidable. It's the only language these dogs understand." So, how exactly is the Occupy movement supposed to use Zapata's story as inspiration? The best that the writers can seem to come up with is the lame blandishment to "keep on fighting." The show even gives one of the characters a ludicrous "vision" of a future righteous struggle (i.e. Occupy), along with the exhortation that "our fight made it possible." Beyond the questionable nature of the message, the show itself is a bit of a mess. The story itself is compelling, but it gets mired in clunky expository dialog, manufactured drama, contrived resolutions, and plot threads that seemingly appear out of nowhere. The characters are mostly two-dimensional, and frequently make choices that have scant justification in the events as described. The lyrics are rife with cliches ("I'd rather die a thousand deaths than let my people down") and uninspired proclamations ("Children make this life worth living"). The show's music is not without merit, reflecting a stirring sense of the Mexican musical idiom, and the movement and battle sequences (choreographed by Luis Salgado) have a certain dramatic effectiveness, including the neat theatrical device of a rhythmic dancer who appears to portend significant moments of violence and death. But Zapata has quite a few rewrites ahead of it if the show is going to have any sort of commercial future.
Another NYMF show that has a rewrite or two ahead of it is The Groove Factory, with book by Chad Kessler and David James Boyd, music and lyrics by David James Boyd. The story involves a sort of Willy Wonka-inspired quest to win tickets to the big 1999 New Year's Eve party at the titular Groove Factory, a New York City dance club. The show's central character is Chazz Goodhart (groan), a young gay man who wants to escape from the trailer park and find fame and success as a club DJ. What really kills the buzz of The Groove Factory is the whiplash-inducing change of tone at the end of the show. The first 70 minutes or so seems to celebrate the drug-fueled, superficial club lifestyle, but then, as if to expiate its hedonistic sins, the show tries to shoehorn in a tragic, cautionary tale at the end. The Groove Factory wants to have its crystal meth and eat it, too. It starts as a sort of campy romp, which is not completely without humor or appeal, and there are some interesting characterizations along the way. But once we get to the club, the show degrades considerably. We then witness a tiresome parade of songs celebrating various drugs: ecstasy, methamphetamine, Special K, etc. The show then concludes with its baleful twist and some bland moralizing ("Music is the only drug I need"), followed by an artificially upbeat final number about this being the "best of times," despite the dire proceedings we've just witnessed. Let me be clear here: I'm not objecting to the apparent message of the show. I'm taking issue with the way the show is currently executed, which doesn't come near to doing its let's-get-high-on-life credo any justice.
One of the most powerful and promising shows to emerge from NYMF this year was Shelter, with book and lyrics by Brittany Bullen, music by Brittany Bullen and Newell Bullen. As the name might suggest, the show takes place in a women's homeless shelter and weaves together the stories of a number of different women, both those who populate the shelter and those who work there. At this stage in the show's development, its key assets are the passion and power of these women and their stories, and some dynamite character ballads. The story is strong and the characters are compelling, and there's a great deal of very real, very raw writing at the center of the show. Shelter definitely needs some shaping and streamlining: there are a few too many characters for the show to adequately develop, the dramatic intent of some of the songs is unclear, and the character motivations don't always make sense. There were also some significant tone problems in the NYMF version of the show, including the character of the shelter's cook, who seemed like an artificial attempt at comic relief. Also, the number that opened act two, in which a trio of two-dimensionally perky saleswomen try to recruit the shelter women into selling Avon-like cosmetics, wasn't working at all. (The authors tell me that both the cook character and the cosmetics song have been cut.) But there's a really powerful piece at the core of Shelter, and I'm very eager to see not only how the show develops, but also how the Bullens continue to develop as musical-theater artists.