Inside the 12th Annual New York Musical Theatre Festival


By Jack Smart

How many American theater festivals can claim they’ve launched musicals staged in all 50 states and over 20 countries? The New York Musical Theatre Festival can.

This year’s schedule of concerts, readings, and full musical productions, running July 7–27, will mark the festival’s 12th year of ensuring “the future vitality of musical theatre,” as its mission statement says. The winner of a special Drama Desk Awardrecognizing its commitment to fostering and presenting culturally diverse musicals, NYMF has served as a launching pad for emerging artists that have gone on to win Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

Jen Bender, co-founder and returning director of programming and artist services, said this year’s crop of entries are more ambitious and more earnest than in previous seasons. “This year’s slate is full of shows really trying to say something,” she told Backstage. “Even if what they’re saying is funny, they’re not derivative of other shows. It feels like everyone is a little tired of musicals that only make fun of musicals.”

Hit shows in that vein, such as “The Book of Mormon” and “Something Rotten!,” she added, pay homage to the tradition even as they parody it. But tastes are shifting toward earnestness and naturalism, as this year’s Tony Awards results made clear. “I think audiences are hungry for more ambitious content, and ‘Fun Home’ winning proves that.”

Speaking of which, NYMF’s 2015 honorary chair is Jeanine Tesori, the Tony-winning composer of “Fun Home.” Her music and over a dozen others’ will be performed at a concert titled Women of Note, an evening celebrating women in musical theater, July 20. “To have Jeanine win a Tony then be a part of this is really exciting,” said Bender.

The festival will also hold its Next Broadway Sensation contest, an “American Idol”–style master class that gives performers who have never walked the Broadway boards a shot at greatness. Last year’s winner, Kathryn Allison, was cast in Broadway’s “Aladdin” not long after earning the title, and will perform her own cabaret-style showcase with first runner-up Paul Ianniello July 27.

But the festival’s real highlight is the slate of concerts, developmental readings, and over 20 fully staged new musicals. Asked which productions are especially buzz-worthy, Bender responded, “I love all my’s hard to pick specific shows.”

How do actors get involved with a festival whose list of alumni includes recent Tony winnersMichael Cerveris, Kelli O’Hara, and Annaleigh Ashford? “Once shows are selected by the festival, it’s up to those individual shows to put together their own creative teams,” explained Bender. That’s why it’s important for early-career actors to get involved on the ground floor of a musical’s development, she said. “If the creators believe in an actor, they get to continue with it.”

For tickets and more information on the festival’s opportunities, visit