Alzheimer’s, homophobia, transphobia, immigration, the 1960s, and emojis: These were some of the subjects in the 15th annual New York Musical Festival, or NYMF, which presented 30 musicals – a mix of full productions, concerts and readings – over the last four weeks.
Since 2004, NYMF has featured more than 400 musicals that were each in their relatively early gestation periods. One of these was a show about a family dealing with mental illness, which was entitled Feeling Electric, but was re-titled Next to Normal by the time it went to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
Three other NYMF musicals went on to Broadway; others have hit the regional circuit: 23 have been nominated for Helen Hayes Awards, nine of which won.
Implicit in these statistics, of course, is how difficult it is to create a successful musical – shows that work on every level, story, lyrics, music, production – and that find their audience.
But even if the festival in any given year won’t necessarily give you an early glimpse at a future hit, it offers musicals that work wonderfully on some levels, and that you might not otherwise get to see. Here are some highlights from the 2018 NYMF. I extract from my reviews what I thought worked about each show and link to the reviews themselves, which also pointed out what I thought needed work.
Emojiland was set inside a smart phone that is about to undergo a software update, which presents the inhabitants with a “textistential” crisis. The residents are all emojis, and the impersonation of icons ranging from Smiley Face (who’s depressed inside) to Pile of Poo (who gets an improbably show-stopping number) is what largely made this musical so entertaining. It helped that the performers were pros, such as Broadway veterans Josh Lamon (Groundhog Day) and Lesli Margherita (Matilda) as the Prince and Princess emojis. Standouts also included the couple who wrote the book, music and lyrics, Keith Harrison as Nerd Face and Laura Nicole Harrison as Smiley Face.
It’s worth noting that even in this deliberately silly enterprise, there were nods to political relevance: the Prince and Princess insist on the building of a (fire)wall to prevent the entry of new alien emojis.
Indeed, most of the dozen full productions in this year’s festival focused on serious issues. If Sand Were Stone presented how a woman (Trish Lindstr?m) deteriorates from Alzheimer’s over a span of two years, and its effect on her husband and daughter.
The cleverly named Interstate is nearly a primer on the challenges of being transgender in America. It features a road trip taken by a musical duo with a similar biography to the two creators of the musical, who also toured the country as a musical duo — Kit Yan, a Chinese-born trans man and spoken word poet, and Melissa Li, an Asian-American lesbian who is a composer and guitarist. Alternating with the road trip is the story of a fan of the duo, a 16-year-old South Asian living in Kentucky (Sushma Saha) who comes out as a trans man and goes through a psychological and social transition in front of us. The 15 Yan/Li songs are a pleasing mix of lyrical pop songs and hard-charging rock, with lyrics that are variously clever, graceful or blunt.
Three NYMF musicals this year each revisited the 1960s, based to a greater or lesser degree on actual historical events.
Pedro Pan told the story of one Cuban child, Pedro (Gregory Diaz IV), and his adjustment to life after emigrating from Cuba without his parents to New York City, as a way to illustrate the historical event known as Operacion Pedro Pan (Operation Peter Pan). Between 1960 and 1962, more than 14,000 children from Cuba moved to the United States without their parents. Written by Rebecca Aparicio and Stephen Anthony Elkins, the 75-minute musical was performed in a mix of English and un-translated Spanish and featured eight largely Latin-tinged songs. The production was rendered lively thanks to Sidney Erik Wright’s choreography, and a terrific ten-member cast.
Sonata 1962 takes us back to an era when suburban housewives baked with Crisco, watched Jackie Kennedy give a White House tour on a black and white set, shopped at the Green Stamp store in town, and believed the family doctor that their daughter’s lesbianism was a mental illness, but one that could be cured. A talented music student on full scholarship, Laura (Christina Maxwell) is sent home after police catch her with her new girlfriend in a woman’s bar. The mother gives permission to the family doctor to drug her daughter into unconsciousness and then subject her to electro-convulsive therapy, ECT. But neither the mother nor the doctor are depicted as monsters; they are both well-meaning. Written by Patricia Loughrey and Thomas Hodges, the musical reflects a relative subtlety and intelligence that avoids the easy satire or polemic with which the subject of homophobia is often depicted on stage.
The musical 68: A New American Musical focused on the turmoil surrounding the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. There were moments in the show, written by Jamie Leo and Paul Leschen, that got at the era in a winning way. One of the most memorable is the song “Power-less” in which Lonnie (portrayed by Uton Onyejekwe), a black man dressed in the black militant uniform of the day – black leather jacket and black beret – explains why he is supporting Hubert Humphrey for president. Even those who don’t get the humor in the incongruity will appreciate the stirring Soul sound of the song. Leschen’s score is largely a pleasing pastiche of a range of 60’s era music, especially some mighty pretty folk-rock songs.
Four of the festival musicals tied for the most awards, five apiece, given out at the 2018 NYMF Awards of Excellence during the closing night, including Emojiland, Interstate, Pedro Pan and a show called Between the Sea and the Sky. A half-dozen more received at least one award.
The real-life reward of a future life for any of the musicals in the 2018 New York Musical Festival is not likely to be as evenly distributed.