The New York Musical Festival, which launched in 2004, announced last week that it was bankrupt and has closed its doors.
As part of a brief press statement, the organisation said: “It is with a heavy heart that we face the reality of the arts funding crisis in the United States. It has caught up with NYMF.”
The vague claim of a funding crisis was a face-saving yet somewhat specious argument.
The Theatre Communications Group’s annual Theatre Facts report, issued in November 2019 for the previous year, showed that when averaging the finances of 119 target theatres of varying budget sizes, contributed income was up some 18% between 2014 and 2018. NYMF itself had survived the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 – a difficult time for all arts organisations, let alone new ones like NYMF.
The claim of a national crisis aside, there was certainly a crisis at NYMF, and the end of the festival is a loss.
It provided a showcase for many new musicals over its life, four of which reached Broadway: Chaplin, In Transit, [title of show], and perhaps most notably, Next to Normal. Many others were produced Off-Broadway and at regional companies. Its track record in spotting talent was solid.
NYMF was not the full producer of its main shows, however. It operated more along the lines of a curated fringe festival, providing venues and promotional support, with the main burden of mounting shows borne by the productions themselves.
For five or six performance runs, NYMF shows, depending on size, might cost its creators or already-attached producers some $40,000; in its early years, there was a cap on expenditure that ultimately proved unworkable.
But like any aggregate of theatre work that yields a critical mass through scale, NYMF was an opportunity to present nascent shows to the media and to potential producers and investors, and for less than the price of a full-scale workshop.
NYMF had named a new producing artistic director, West Hyler, in February 2019, and news reports have him acknowledging that he was aware of an accumulated deficit when he took on the role. As of August – following last year’s Festival – Hyler and other key staff had been working on a volunteer basis, but he and other key members of the leadership team resigned just after the turn of this year.
Hyler says he was blindsided by the board’s decision to shutter the organisation. Many artists and productions from the 2019 festival still have not been paid. (It is worth saying I was approached about my interest in leading NYMF back in 2013, however after an informal meeting with two board members, I declined to pursue the opportunity.)
There was certainly a crisis at NYMF, and the end of the festival is a loss – its track record in spotting talent was solid
There’s little to be gained from picking over the causes of NYMF’s collapse here. There is rarely a single reason that brings down a company, but rather an accumulation of factors that snowball into what can be referred to as an ‘event cascade’.
More germane is whether anything can replace NYMF and, if so, what should it look like?
Certainly artists self-produce all the time, but the funds needed to put on a strong New York showcase for a new work is prohibitive for many. Reliance on artists who have access to money to fill out a festival means that the exposure is mostly available to people of means – or at least people who know people of means – and may rule out quality work that has yet to find backing.
Without a festival marketing and PR umbrella, it’s certainly difficult for discrete workshops to get press or industry attention, particularly projects by creators who don’t have a New York network or reputation.
That said, many NYMF shows engaged their own publicists above and beyond what was provided for by the festival. Securing quality Manhattan performance space would also be challenging for individual projects.
There are an array of programmes that develop musicals in the US, but given the labour and cost intensive nature of musicals, most of these initiatives can do just a few projects each year.
If they’re outside of New York, they have little hope of gaining much attention, although they do benefit from being developed without the spotlight that New York can bring. If I seem to be equivocating on the benefits of NYMF or some successor, it’s because there are pros and cons to such an undertaking.
What’s worth saying with certainty is that there needs to be more opportunities for musicals to be developed and showcased outside the auspices of commercial or not-for-profit producers, with development that benefits the work and the artists first and foremost, rather than a financial imperative or looming production deadline.
Some musicals only come alive in performance, and because developmental opportunities are fewer than those for plays (which are often smaller and therefore cheaper), musical festivals that are merit-based and properly funded would benefit every aspect of the field.
It’s sad to see NYMF go. But perhaps it will be supplanted in New York, and around the country, by some version 2.0 that can be even wider ranging and more stable – if stability can ever be certain in the arts.
First seen at London’s Bridge Theatre, Rona Munro’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton makes its US debut with a Broadway opening at Manhattan Theatre Club on Wednesday. Laura Linney reprises her performance, once again directed by Richard Eyre.
Initially produced under the auspices of Red Bull Theater, Erica Schmidt’s production of Mac Beth, her adaptation of the Scottish play with an all-female cast of six, returns to New York at the Hunter Theater Project. It opens on Thursday for a limited run, having previously been seen in the spring and summer of 2019.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/