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.
"Even if you were to mount on your own in New York City a small production of your musical, it would get lost in the shuffle," says Dobrish, a co-founder of the Midtown Direct Rep company in New Jersey who has helmed four shows at the festival in recent years. "NYMF already has a curating body. So if you've made it to NYMF, presumably somebody who knows what they're doing has selected the show and said, 'This show has merit.'"
That's happily what happened to "Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid," which makes its world premiere at the festival. The show explores the gunslinger through the lens of America's love of fame, and stars Corey Boardman as the title character. Boardman eagerly returns to the festival after having been in a show a few years ago that was invited to South Korea.
"There's nothing like being able to originate a part," says Boardman, who, as an added bonus this year, has been trained in gun spinning. "I'm praying I don't drop my gun on stage and lose my cool factor for the entire show," he adds, laughing.
While the festival has carved out a spot over the past eight years in the busy New York calendar, change is coming. This will be the last festival in the fall: Hurwitz is moving the festival to July, when empty theaters are more plentiful and his shows don't have to compete with the start of Broadway's season.
"I'm really excited about that change," he says. "I think it's going to move our event to the next level and give it a greater profile and allow us to be more impactful for the artists who are taking part."
Hurwitz's office during a recent visit was a buzz of excitement. He and his five-person team have secured five main theaters — including The Theater at St. Clements, The Signature Theatre's Peter Norton Space and New World Stages — sharing productions. Some shows have only one cast member (Ennio Marchetto's origami show, for example), while the Jane Austen musical has a 20-person cast and a band. Organizing all this is not easy.
"The schedule itself is like a huge Sudoku," says Hurwitz.
One playwright and musician who credits the festival with nurturing his career is Marcus Hummon, a Grammy Award-winner who lives in Nashville, Tenn. "Tut," his show with director and choreographer Abdel Salaam, interweaves the story of the pharaoh with Howard Carter, the man credited with discovering King Tutankhamun's tomb. It's Hummon's third entry at the festival and is billed as an "entirely unique oratorio-dance hybrid."
"I consider myself to be an example of what makes the NYMF really so great," Hummon says by phone from Tennessee. "It's designed for those of us ... who maybe can't move to New York, but are very, very involved in musical theater. It gives us a chance at a showcase."
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