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Musical theater festival pushes boundaries in NYC

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 8:15 a.m. MDT

In this theater image released by Keith Sherman and Associates, from left Danielle K. Thomas, Desiree Rodriguez, Angela Grovey and Zonya Love Johnson from the musical "This One Girl's Story," is shown. The musical, that combines R&B, jazz, gospel and hip-hop, is about four young women forced to confront evil one night in Newark, N.J.

Keith Sherman and Associates, JT Liss, Associated Press

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NEW YORK — It's the time of year in the city when the leaves fall, a chill settles over the streets and a crop of boundary-pushing musicals pop up.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival kicks off next week with 30 new works, including shows about Billy the Kid and a dancing King Tut. Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" has been retooled with songs, and there's a musical about a boy falling in love with a nun. In one show, a sole performer wears paper costumes and folds them origami-style while lip-syncing to pop songs. In another, a group of women explore the life and death of a hate-crime victim.

"It's always eclectic," says Isaac Robert Hurwitz, the executive director and producer of the annual festival. "We try to have the broadest umbrella for what musical theater can be."

Since its inception in 2004, the festival has premiered more than 250 new musicals, some of which have gone on to a further life on or off Broadway, such as "Altar Boyz," ''title of show" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Next to Normal." An estimated 40,000 people attend the 21-day festival and all tickets are $25 or less.

The festival — called by the initials NYMF — provides shows with theater space, lights, sound equipment, front-of-house staffing and marketing — all key to emerging artists trying to mount resource-heavy musicals in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

"The festival was designed to provide that platform, that link, that would enable shows to go from just being on the page or in the minds of their creators to being three-dimensionally realized," says Hurwitz.

For Hollie Howard it provides a valuable showcase for her girl group The Broadway Dolls. Their new stage production "Tour de Fierce!" mixes elements of Broadway, cabaret, fashion and performance art in a nonstop song-and-dance concert.

"It's such a great opportunity for us because we're not a typical book show like most musical theater pieces that you'll see," says Howard, who like the other dolls has numerous Broadway credits. "We're a concert, we're a revue. We take Broadway and pop and jazz and country and Andrew Sisters style and all these different types of music and we fuse them."

About 400 shows apply to join the festival each year through an open audition process and a committee of 30 readers winnows them down using a double-blind process, meaning no names are attached to entries.

Every show must be read by four different judges and 12 are chosen by a grand jury — next year it includes director John Rando ("Urinetown"), director/choreographer Christopher Gattelli ("South Pacific"), musical director/orchestrator Stephen Oremus ("The Book of Mormon") and actress Ann Harada ("Avenue Q"). The festival's 18 other offerings are invited to perform or are part of the festival's partnership with South Korea's Daegu International Musical Festival.

Hurwitz's team, with an annual budget of $1.3 million, is kept afloat by individual contributions, corporate gifts and some government funds from groups such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Ticket prices are kept low so audiences will take a risk on emerging shows.

The festival has settled on about 30 productions each year because that's both large enough so the shows can benefit from economies of scale and yet also intimate enough so Hurwitz and his team can personally nurture each show.

Playwright Jeremy Dobrish is directing two shows this year — "Date of a Lifetime" about a couple who meet while speed dating, and "This One Girl's Story," a musical that combines rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel and hip-hop centered on four young women forced to confront evil one night in Newark, N.J.

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