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Broadway Bullet: Kris Stewart, Exec. Dir. NYMF

You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet Volume 125 .   Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

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BROADWAY BULLET: Well, I'm sitting here in the hallway outside of our studio because we have a lot of interns talking with NYMF about getting our massive coverage for NYMF going, and I'm sitting here with the illustrious, omnipresent executive director, Kris Stewart.  How are you doing?

Kris Stewart: I'm glad to be omnipresent, it's a good thing to be. (laughter)

BB: Well, we want to let everyone know that there is a great interview about all things festival-related in our very first episode ever from last year.

KRIS: Yeah.

BB: So people can still check that out. 

KRIS: There was great coverage last year; we had a lot of shows come through Broadway Bullet last year, so that was very good. 

BB: So I thought a lot of what we'd talk about this year are some of your favorite highlight moments from festivals in your past, and some things that come into your head.

KRIS: Yeah.  I have some funny ones.  We're going into, I believe, our fourth festival now, and thinking back to the first year of the festival, it was such a fly-by-the seat-of our-pants kind of thing, and we really didn't know if it was going to happen for a second time.  I think that summer was also the first summer of SPF [Summer Play Festival], and there was a lot of festival activity in Manhattan, and a lot of us were sort of trying this for the first time.  And I think I never would have expected it to have grown as much as it has.  It was really filling a gap because I really feel like it's a part of the community now, and a lot of people think that we have been around a lot longer than we have.  I remember that first year, the two things that stick most in my memory was probably the first performance of [title of show] because it was so much about the festival, but it also sort of suited the spirit of what we were doing, which was kind of irreverant, you know?  It was sort of a "f you" -- are we allowed to say that on Broadway Bullet?

BB: Yeah. (laughter) 

KRIS: Because a lot of what we were doing was sort of saying that musical theater isn't a club, it's something that we should all belong to, and it   could be kind of youthful and vibrant and different, and it doesn't need to be the way it's been for the past fifty years; we can do different things with this.  And that show so matched the spirit of what we wanted to do.  The other one is, I think, the first performance of The Great American Trailer Park Musical -- and also, you know what, Altar Boyz was amazing in the first year, and you had these crowds spilling out of the 47th Street theater onto the street because the whole show had sold out weeks in advance of the festival, but people weren't used to pre-booking for festivals.  They weren't used to this idea that they couldn't just turn up and get a ticket.  So we would have 100, 200 people arriving, but then another couple of hundred just thinking they could turn up and get a ticket.  So that's 400 people out on the street, with no lobby space at the 47th Street Theater -- cars honking, trying to get past, and people annoyed, trying to walk their dogs.  It was like, "God, look at this!"  But I also remember The Great American Trailer Park, that was the first show of the festival that year, I think, where watching it, it seemed like you were watching a hit show.  It seemed like -- I imagine it was like seeing a film at Sundance once, that no one really knew was out there, and then suddenly burst out into existence.  And Trailer Park had been kicking around for a while, but hadn't ever had this meeting of talent, of the level of performers that were in it, and you really felt like you were able to see something that other people weren't able to see.  You really felt like, "Oh my God, this show, it's been an incredible opportunity to be a part of this."

BB: The one thing that I think strikes me about this festival is that there is such a mix of some real, seasoned pros in all areas: the directors, the producers, the actors --

KRIS: Yeah, yep.

BB: -- the writers, mixed with some people who this is really the first thing that they've ever done.  It seems to make a really exciting blend.

KRIS: It's funny because we sort of brag about different things, depending what time it is.  And about this time of year, we're always saying, "Look at all of the Broadway stars that are going to be in the festival this year! We've got Stephanie D'Abruzzo in Austentatious!  We've got Kate Shindle and Megan Lawrence in Sympathy Jones!  We've got Lea Delaria in Roller Derby!"  But really, that's because we like to keep people excited to sell all of the tickets. (laughter)  "There are stars everywhere, you know, more stars than there are in heaven!"  But ultimately, we don't really exist to give Stephanie D'Abruzzo a badly-paying job -- I mean, she'll never be out of work, great talent will always find things to do -- so it's not so much about that as much as it is the opportunity for Broadway people to work with people who are unknown -- the people who it is their first show that they've had produced, or their first experience in New York.  Like the chance to be in the same room as people with twenty years of Broadway experience, I think is a really great thing because it refreshes everyone.  I mean, people who are new to it learn from that experience, but I also think that if you're an actor, you need to go back to that again, you can't just keep doing tours of My Fair Lady, which are fabulous, but you're stepping into someone else's shoes doing that; it's really nice to put on a pair of shoes of your own.  The chance to do new work is really rare, and you need to have the opportunity to return to that, to stay sharp at your craft.  So, I think the opportunity to be in the room is a really important thing for everyone. 

BB: And you get some pretty established producers helping out and working on some of these things as well, don't you?

KRIS: Yeah, I think a lot of the great support the industry provides is just in supporting the event.  If you're someone like a Barry Weissler, you can't develop thirty-four shows, it's just not physically possible.  And you certainly don't want to have 400 musicals turning up in the mail because, what do you do with that?  It just becomes a big pile in the corner.  So, I think what we offer for those guys is another level of filter.  We're certainly not saying the thirty-four shows we produce are the only thirty-four that we could have done; there are a lot of shows that come to us each year that maybe weren't right for us at the moment but probably will be right for us to do in the future with another draft or a bit of a polish.  I think for commercial producers, instead of spending 250 grand, developing one show and finding out afterwards whether it works or not, they look at us as a non-profit organization they can support because we're really doing a lot of that research and development work that an individual producer just can't do.  And there's no one else that really can do that if you're not someone who can do what we have the ability to do, which is: by putting up thirty-four shows a year, we're not necessarily saying that one of these shows is going to be a hit, and let's put all of our eggs in that basket, and ride it to Broadway; we're sort of saying that these thirty-four shows need to be seen.  And a lot of these shows need to be seen for different reasons.  Sometimes, we just think it's a great talent.  We think this is someone who -- their next show or their fifth show from now is going to be amazing, this is the show where you need to discover them.  Some shows are ready to transfer; some shows there's never going to be a commercial outlet for, and there shouldn't be. It's about exploring the art form.  But there are very few kind of non-profits that can do this kind of new-work stuff, that can take a gamble on these things, because we spread the risk across thirty-four shows.  One of the things I was most proud of last year was The Screams of Kitty Genovese, which one of the writers of that, David Simpatico -- who has subsequently become a really great friend -- submitted that to us in the past, and the first time, we just thought that it was fantastic, but it was such a risky kind of piece, we were like, "We still need to sell tickets."  We don't have the same commercial charges that a commercial producer does, but we have some -- we still have to pay the bills each night. (laughter)  And honestly, in our first year, we kind of chickened out from doing it.  And then last year, we were at the point of like, "What the hell?  Let's just do it, it's a really great show."  And it was one of the great successes last year.  And I don't know where David goes with that show, but subsequently, he has written the book for the stage version of High School Musical, you know, he's writing all of these Disney shows.  And I think what's great for someone like him -- I mean he probably would've gotten gigs anyway, this didn't necessarily have anything to do with that -- but I think it's really useful for an artist like him -- as well as writing commercial projects, he has other things that he wants to do, as well, and I think we allow that for him.  We allow that opportunity for something that's much riskier; it's not like the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Company is going to be able to do The Screams of Kitty Genovese.  If we don't do it in this environment, it just can't be done, but it really should be done.

BB: Now you're taking over a lot of theaters during this festival.  What are some of the venues that you're invading?

KRIS: Oh, taking over sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it? (laughter)  This year -- we sort of use different venues each year.  Our focus is staying in midtown because we think it's important to be a part of the theatre district.  We think it's important because that's where the writers are, where the commercial industry is, where one of our partners is, where a lot of other shows are, where the audience knows to go.

BB: It makes it easy to run around and catch multiple shows in a day.

KRIS: And it does.  And I love the Fringe each year, but every year, I'll start going to something, and I'll quickly have to pull out my Blackberry to do a Google map search because I have no idea where the theater is.  And that's part of the joy of the Fringe, but we're kind of serving a different need.  And one of the things I think that's important for us is being in midtown and that kind of ease for producers to hop between different shows and things, and audiences can do that, and everyone, is a great thing.  So this year, we're at the Acorn, Theater Row, we're at the St. Clement's, the Julia Miles -- the Women's Project Theater, which is a lovely space we're using for the first time -- TBG, the Barry Ground space on 36th Street.  Where else are we this year?  We're at the 45th Street Theater -- which used to be the old Primary Stages space, which is a really nice small space -- the Sage, which is on the corner of 7th Avenue and 47th Street.  So, we try to be in -- the spaces need to be sort of like 199 seats and smaller for part of the deal we have with the unions and things.  One of the things that allows NYMF to happen is we, on behalf of all of the shows, go to the unions, and have a signed letter, and one of the things is that we have to be in venues of a certain size, and there's a cap on the number of performances we can do.  The actors -- if the show transfers -- go with the show, things like that.  So we are allowed to be in these midtown venues, but they have to be 199 seats and smaller.  And then it's a choice for us each year of the venues.  We need venues that are available, but probably most important, we need venues you can actually do musicals in.  In a lot of smaller, midtown spaces, you can fit four people and a sink on it, but once you add a band and an ensemble, and this and that -- a small play can have three people in it, but even a small musical with three cast members, a band member or two, and a couple of people backstage is pretty big, and a big musical can be enormous.  So part of the challenge, for us, is finding the right venues for it.

BB: One thing that's come up a lot over the past year is seeing the shrinking number of producers willing to see Off Broadway as a viable commercial outlet.  And seeing as so many of the shows I've seen at NYMF in the past are great shows, I think they do deserve a commercial run, but they definitely aren't Broadway shows.  What do you think needs to be done, or how can this work again so that smaller shows -- for instance, just in the past, a great show that I think was a great off-Broadway show was Ruthless.  And then there have been plenty of shows like that that wouldn't have come to the attention of America and all over the country if they hadn't had a commercial run here. 

KRIS: Yeah.

BB: So what needs to be done to get the off-Broadway musical scene healthy again?

KRIS: That's a very hard question because all of these thing are out of our control.  And Altar Boyz was a great hit for us, it hit its 1,000th performance, but it was kind of like the last commercially successful off-Broadway musical.

BB: And even they make no bones about the fact that it's been running three years, and they still haven't recouped the whole investment on that.

KRIS: Yeah, and a show shouldn't run three years and not recoup.  I don't really know what the answer is.  It's a changing face of this city, as well.  I think the biggest challenge of putting a musical on is the cost of real estate and the cost of media, because we exist in an island, and it's the media capital of the world, and it's very noisy, and it's very hard.  There was a time, fifteen years -- I mean you're talking Ruthless, what was that, the early nineties?  So we're now talking more than fifteen years ago.  So, it's a long time ago.

BB: I mean there've been others since then.

KRIS: Of course, but just in the case you're talking about -- and look, I think everything's dying until the next big hit.  It's like two years ago, movies were dead, and then suddenly you have movies people want to see.  That's what part of the challenge is: putting on shows people actually want to see. (laughs) But even the biggest challenge, I think, for an off-Broadway musical is partly the size of the cost of labor, but not even so much that; partly the cost of venues, but not even so much that; it's mainly the cost of media and marketing.  It's very expensive to reach people now, and it's very challenging to do that, and I don't know what the solution necessarily is.  There's part of me that thinks that we are also reaching the stage of that kind of meeting point of non-profit and commercial enterprises that Roundabout and MTC Broadway producers have; they have a non-profit base that supports them to put their product into Broadway houses.  And we certainly see that a lot of what's happening Off Broadway is musical theater, and that's because of non-profit producers Off Broadway that do it.  And perhaps, we are sort of reaching a time where that's going to expand to help fill that gap.  We may never see a time where a show will consistently run for two or three years Off Broadway as a musical like that, but maybe we'll see a cycle where the 199-seat space at New World Stages becomes a year-round non-profit musical producer, and shows can transfer from NYMF to extended three-month runs somewhere, where it's not necessarily about it being that everyone needs to cash out and make it an enormous success, but as some other middle ground that we can find.

BB: Yeah, because I'm a fan of Broadway and despite the fact that some of the quirkier shows have been having success on Broadway recently, nothing quite makes my skin crawl as hearing somebody say -- without mentioning specific names -- "Oh, okay, now because of financial needs, we need to figure out how to make this show work on Broadway."  And all I'm thinking is, This show doesn't work on Broadway, you're just going to ruin it!

KRIS: Well, it's kind of, like, what does make this show work on Broadway?  And there's different  kinds of answers to the question because partly, it's about defining what is the poignant difference of the show.  There are certain shows that are clearly Broadway shows because the show has a certain brand and a certain scale, and you can open it with a kind of impact.  And there are shows where an audience is going to need to discover them, and you need a different model for that if you want to run it somewhere else, transferring it.  I don't think there's such thing as: this is a Broadway show and this isn't a Broadway show; that just seems small-minded kind of thinking because there are shows that can reach 15,000 people a week, and shows that can reach 5,000 people a week, or 7,000 people a week.  But as much as we need ABC News, and we need FOX, or Spike, or whatever else, we need to be able to fill other gaps for other audiences because this kind of mass broadcast, there's-a-product-that serves-everyone thing isn't true.  I certainly think that there is always going to be a gap for alternative, and there's going to be a gap for alternative in 600, 700-seat venues.  I kind of think we just push -- look, the actual change that's kind of happened is the off-Broadway musical is now an on-Broadway musical in a playhouse on Broadway.  And this season not withstanding. it's gonna be hard -- I would imagine it's going to continue to be hard to have a lot of commercial plays running on Broadway because a lot of that audience sees MTC, Roundabout, and a number of other non-profits in the city to see that kind of content.  There'll always be some plays on Broadway, but all of those playhouses, I think, will just be inhabited by smaller, edgier commercial musicals now, as a way of satisfying that audience.

BB: Xanadu is certainly a prime example, as well as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

KRIS: Yeah, and more will continue to come in.  I think Spring Awakening is kind of an example of that, I think Rent was one of the first examples of that.  You're finding something that suits a different kind of theatergoer.  It's a person that -- and it doesn't mean it's like a smarter or dumber theatergoer, or a New Yorker versus a tourist, because I think one of the things that is the genius of what the League [of Theatrical Producers] has done on Broadway over the last ten years is kind of -- for better or worse, made a Broadway experience a commodity.  The tourists want a Broadway experience while they're here, but there's only a certain number of shows they've heard of.  And some of them will come here, and look down the list and go "Really?  These are my only options?  I think I'd rather have this," which has been Spelling Bee, which has been Rent, which is, "I really want to see a Broadway show, but I want to see something that's a little bit kind of edgier and exciting and youthful."  And not every show on Broadway needs to be like that, but I think there always needs to be that option, because there'll always be a percentage of the theatergoing audience that come here that wants that.  So if you can be the person that's giving them that on Broadway, I think you have a fighting chance. 

BB: Now this has been fascinating.  Before we wrap up, is there any points that you wanted to bring up that we didn't get to?

KRIS: The funny thing about the festival this year is I do, like, less and less of a hard sell about it.  I remember the first year, there were other interviews like, "I have all of these talking points that I have to get across to sell things in the festival!"  I think people kind of know what we do now, and I think if you like musicals, and you are in New York, you've probably heard of the festival.  You may not want to see every show that we do (laughs), but there's probably two or three shows every year because we try and do a range of things that are exciting.  And I think that one of the things we're most excited by this year is just the diversity of shows.  People have this idea that what we do is this, "NYMF does all of these kind of youthful, edgy shows." Or, "They do these kind of irreverent musical comedies that are all…" Sure, but there's a lot of shows this year that are classic musicals, that are like, people are doing something new with them, but it's people who just love musicals.  You know, they're not trying to change the world with them, they're just trying to express a story they want to express in a classic musical comedy form, or in a classical Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical, a narrative musical.  And I think if people dig musical theater, that there's stuff that's going to be for them at NYMF.  The other thing I think is going to be cool about the festival this year is, and I may even come back and tell you, we've got this project that we're launching that's going to be called "The Gorilla Musicals Project," where we are commissioning in a partnership with -- someone who I can't announce yet -- we commissioned the writing of these short, little three-minute musicals that are going to interrupt things during the musicals; these spontaneous things that are happening across the festival that are going to be like little Easter eggs that some people are going to see and some people aren't.  And some people are going to get the chance to see it, and feel like they saw this unique thing that happened for one time only.  That's going to be kind of cool.  I'm looking forward to that.  The other thing that's gonna be really cool this year is we are trying to do some really big opening and closing night parties.  And the opening is going to be next door to Hairspray.  It's this really big club that used to be called Temple -- now it's about to be called Touch, it's re-launching -- and that's on the first night of the festival.  And on the last night of the festival, at the Arena on 41st Street, we're doing a big party and they're free.  It's going to be free drinks, it's gonna be for people that love musical theatre that love having a free drink -- and that's everyone I know at least.  It's going to be really great opening and closing things, and we want to see as many people as possible there.  We're really looking forward to seeing people there that have had fun at NYMF join us at these.  All of the performers will be there, all of the artists will be there, and hopefully a lot of audience members will be there, and we can have a drink together, and talk about what's happening.

BB: Yeah, and I really want to drill in, too, that for people that are like avid goers, and want to catch a lot of shows, they really should get in on the memberships.

KRIS: Yeah.

BB: They're a great deal, they actually don't come out to be much more than what a ticket price would be.

KRIS: It gets you a whole bunch of other things as well.

BB: And it gets you a whole bunch of other things, and you can book early, and a lot of the shows do sell out.

KRIS: Yeah, and I think if there's a particular show you want to see, and you want to see it on a Friday or Saturday night, you won't be able to see that performance unless you get a membership.  I think if there are particular shows you want to see, and there's a Friday or Saturday night performance, then I think you should grab a membership because those shows all sell out, and you know, you get other benefits and things like that, so it's a really great thing to do.  Cool.

BB: Well, thanks for joining us again, and if you're enchanted, check out his interview again in the very first episode, still available.

KS: Ooh, I sounded so young! (laughter)

BB: Thanks for coming by.

KS: Thanks a lot. 

 

Photos: 1.) NYMF logo, 2.) Kris Stewart and Kerry Butler, 3.) original cast of the off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz, 4.) Kris Stewart

You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet Volume 125 .   Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

 or MP3 Feed with XML

 



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