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Curtain up! New York Musical Theatre Festival opens for 3-week run

"Oprahfication," a one-woman musical homage to America's most famous television host. Photo Credit: New York Musical Theatre Festival

The curtain rises Mondayon the New York Musical Theatre Festival -- three weeks and 43 innovative shows and readings that touch on everything from magic to the Mexican Revolution in more than 200 performances.

"The festival is a really huge deal for New York because it's the place where everyone goes to find shows that will be a big deal in the future," said Jennifer Tepper, director of programming at 54 Below, a Broadway supper club, concert and cabaret venue.

Investors, producers, and non-profit theater directors as well as diehard theater buffs attend to place their bets on what contains the seeds of a success, she explained. Tepper was assistant director for "(title of show)," on Broadway, a production that debuted at the festival in 2004. "Next to Normal," which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and "Chaplin" also passed through the festival, which is now in its 11th year, under different titles.

Even if shows don't wind up on Broadway, they often find a life afterward off-Broadway, in regional theaters or on tours, Tepper noted.

The festival -- expected to attract more than 25,000 attendees -- helps sate a growing global hunger for "musical theater content," added Dan Markley, executive director and producer of NYMF.

The festival gives ordinary New York theater fans a cheap chance (no ticket is more than $25) to glimpse a "sonogram" of a show in its early development, explained Aaron Ricciardi, an Upper West Sider, playwright and lyricist for "The Travels," an unusual musical about a woman's struggle to achieve autonomy in a future dictatorship that is in NYMF this year. Being selected is not just an honor, but a valuable chance to get feedback and improve your work, he explained: "They pair you with a dramaturg for free. A volunteer dramaturg" to punch up your script.

Rachel Dunham, an Australian playwright, lyricist and star of "Oprahfication," a one-woman musical homage to America's most famous television host hopes her one-woman show will be seen as fodder for a "full-fledged musical with a cast of thousands -- just to give me a break off the stage, really." Her show was developed in Australia, but being chosen by NYMF in NYC, the "mecca" of musical theater, confers an international credibility on her production, she said.

"There is a surprising amount of politically themed material," in this year's offerings, which may help gain converts of folks who tend to cringe when they hear the words "musical theater," noted Markley.

Indeed: "Clinton" follows two Bill Clintons and Hillary trying to save the presidency. "Madame Infamy" finds common threads in the sagas of Marie Antoinette and Sally Hemmings. "Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade," tells the story of the Irish American activist who led a march of children from Pennsylvania to President Theodore Roosevelt's Long Island home in 1903 in an attempt to get him to outlaw child labor. They were not successful: "He said it was a state rights issue," said Michelle Tattenbaum, the director of the play, who lives in Prospect Heights.

Musical theater is typecast as escapist entertainment, but it is grappling with important social issues with increasing frequency, said Tattenbaum, who described our current state of affairs as a "second gilded age."

"There's this incredible pessimism in the culture right now because we think the rich have and control everything. But the crazy thing about this play is: Children don't work in factories anymore. They did achieve their goal -- just not in 1903. The message of the show is you have to keep fighting for change you believe in."

The festival employs more than 1,000 people, but many, Tattenbaum, acknowledged, toil as a labor of love. "It's not a living wage, which is funny, when you're doing a show about textile workers not getting paid a living wage," but, she added happily, "at least we're making art about it!"


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