Musical theater's field of dreams

Special to The Times

NEW YORK -- Starting a musical theater festival from scratch with 31 shows was a "maverick act, a leap of faith," says Kris Stewart, co-founder and executive director of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. "There seemed to be so many writers and directors who were crying out for this opportunity, and such a gap we were stepping into."

At the time, Stewart had been in New York just 18 months, as executive director of the National Music Theatre Network, which sponsored readings of new works. More experienced hands were urging him to go slow, to launch with two or three shows. "It was kind of high stakes," says Stewart, 32, who was abetted by Isaac Robert Hurwitz, 29, now the festival's executive producer. "But it was something I could always walk away from. As an Australian, if it [fails], I could always go home."

Stewart, awaiting his English muffin at a local diner, chortles at the memory. That was three years ago, and on Sept. 17, the New York Musical Theatre Festival opens its fourth season with its 100th show, a two-hander titled "The Angle of the Sun," about a woman artist's life and loves.

The show's composer, Larry Pressgrove, is one of the festival's success stories: He was the musical director and arranger of "[title of show]," a musical about, well, writing a musical. It premiered at the festival in 2004 and is slated for a Broadway run, as is another festival alum, "Nerds://?A Musical Software Satire." The irreverent "Altar Boyz," still playing off-Broadway, also premiered at NYMF (pronounced "nymph").

"The festival itself in four years is very quickly becoming like Sundance," says Jana Robbins, a New York-based actress, cabaret singer and theatrical producer. "And it's getting such exposure that people at a very, very high level are submitting their shows."

At this year's festival, Robbins is "mentoring" the Richard Rodgers Award-winning "Unlock'd," a loose adaptation of Alexander Pope's 18th century mock epic poem, "The Rape of the Lock," with music by Derek Gregor and book and lyrics by Sam Carner.

Robbins, who produced the Broadway musical "Little Women" and lobbied for two years to get "Unlock'd" invited to NYMF, would like to take her pet project to Broadway too, possibly after a regional theater production. "This show is 'Midsummer Night's Dream' meets 'Wicked,' " she says hopefully.

The festival is a field of similar dreams. In three weeks, NYMF, which bills itself as the largest musical theater event in the country, will present 34 fully staged musicals, along with readings, concerts, panels, parties and other special events.

Sixteen of the shows -- including three ("The Beastly Bombing," "Roller Derby" and "The Brain From Planet X") from Los Angeles -- were invited by the festival. The other 18, including another local production, "Little Egypt," were selected in a blind submission process from a pool of about 400.

"I think we worried in the first year or two that we'd run out of musicals, and I think we've learned there's no actual end to that bucket," says Stewart.

"We've always said that we don't have an in-house style," says Hurwitz. "We're looking for variety. But we're also looking for things that are contemporary and perhaps that innovate the form."

The influences of Stephen Sondheim and pop-rock idioms are pervasive, but swing, country, blues, gospel, zydeco, operetta -- nearly every imaginable musical style -- all seem to be represented.

Gregor says his score for "Unlock'd" blends classical and baroque music, appropriate to the time period, with a contemporary pop-rock sound. An earlier collaboration fused klezmer with a contemporary sound. "That's a formula that works for Sam and me," says Gregor, 30, who met Carner, 28, at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, a major source of festival talent.

The storylines of this year's shows, which range from tragic romance to pure camp, are impossible to pigeonhole. "Musical theater is a very big-tent kind of art form," says Stewart. "There probably really isn't any subject matter that can't be treated" -- from the courtship tangles of Jane Austen ("Emma" and "Austentatious") to psychological impairment ("The Yellow Wood" and "The Boy in the Bathroom").

Tony Award-winning actor B.D. Wong ("M. Butterfly") is producing and directing "The Yellow Wood," an impressionistic chronicle about a biracial Korean American boy with attention-deficit disorder that takes place on the day he decides to forgo his Ritalin. The work, with book and lyrics by Michelle Elliott and music and lyrics by Danny Larsen (again, Tisch alums), has won both Richard Rodgers and Daryl Roth Awards.

"It was the only piece that I'd read in a long time that was truly, completely imaginative, not based on an adaptation of anything," says Wong, who describes the music as "sophisticated contemporary." "It theatricalizes the state of a teenage boy's distracted, anxious brain. It breaks a lot of rules. At the same time, it's completely not alienating."

Then there's the taboo-shattering "The Beastly Bombing: A Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love," which completed its Los Angeles run in June and was named best musical of the year by L.A. Weekly. Julien Nitzberg, the show's director and librettist, describes himself as a "punk guitarist turned documentarian turned TV writer." Nitzberg says that he had been mulling a "buddy comedy" about terrorists since the mid-1990s but found no takers among his Hollywood friends.

About five years ago, he saw a London production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" and decided to turn his idea into an operetta. With composer Roger Neill, he penned a political satire about two white supremacists and two Al Qaeda terrorists distracted from plotting by love and Ecstasy (the drug).

Although terrorists are frightening, "when you combine them with 19th century music, it automatically becomes comical because the two contrast so weirdly," says Nitzberg. "We thought it was this incredibly edgy show. But some nights we had everyone in their 60s -- and we had two blind people with seeing-eye dogs."

Nitzberg says he is hoping for a New York run in the spring, most likely off-Broadway. But for other festival shows, a commercial afterlife remains a distant, wistful aspiration.

"There's always the pipe dream -- that we get picked and we go, I suppose, off-Broadway -- wouldn't that be nice," says Joshua William Gelb, the 24-year-old Tisch grad who wrote the nonlinear book for "Tully (In No Particular Order)," based on the erotic poetry of Catullus. "But I think more than anything it's about getting the work exposed and having people hear what you do, what you have to say."

Gelb and his collaborator Stephanie Johnstone (music and lyrics) may be helped by a casting gimmick: Austin Miller and Kate Rockwell, both finalists from the reality television show "Grease: You're the One That I Want," have featured parts.

Miller, who says he's seeking to reshape his doo-wop image, says that his character, Claude Beautée, is "not a vapid pretty-boy sweetie, and that was what was exciting about it." He describes Johnstone's music as "difficult" and "Sondheim-y."

"It's dark and esoteric and all those things, but it's quick and punchy, and I think that we have an opportunity, Kate and I, to impart a little spectacle in the show," says Miller, who lost to Max Crumm for the lead in the Broadway revival of "Grease." "And maybe the marriage of art and spectacle will, you know. . . . "

We do.

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