One of the things I looked forward to when we switched our second residence from London to New York was the New York Music Theatre Festival. It sounded like a great idea -- bringing simple workshop productions of new musicals before an interested audience of aficionados. So, in 2012, I went to as many shows as I could. The best, about James Joyce and Nora Barnacle (now there's a commercial idea!), was OK, but a bit listless. The rest were mediocre to worse. It wasn't the music that killed these shows. The scores were pleasant, if unmemorable. The lyrics competent, if not on the Sondheim level. The weakness lay in the books. It was as if telling a coherent story and developing characters were afterthoughts. The lead-ins to the songs were formulaic at best. One also saw in these simple productions with short rehearsal times how important the director has become as a shaping force in musical theatre. The songs seemed rehearsed; the book scenes less so. There was little in the way of pacing. After seeing half a dozen of these depressing ventures, I gave up on the New York Music Theatre Festival. This year I went back and, from what I can tell from 210 AMLENT AVENUE, things haven't changed much.
Karl Hinze's music is pleasant, though the major ballad in Act One sounded too much like "Send in the Clowns." The rhymes in his lyrics were unforced and the lyrics were witty at times. The guy has talent and skill. If only he had something interesting to write about. Becky Goldberg's book couldn't be more trite and cliche-ridden. Moreover it doesn't make a lot of sense. Judah, a poet, comes back to the Hamptons to visit an old friend of his parents. The widow he visits was once a Broadway star who married rich and left the theatre. She has now decided to return to the theatre as a producer. Judah's girlfriend is an aspiring actress. Judah is smitten with the poor young woman who works as a governess-amanuensis to the ex-diva. There's also a young lawyer who is smitten with her. The big reveal is that the ex-diva mothered a child with Judah's father. This sounded more like a story line from a soap opera than the makings of a musical. The characters are cliches at best. There's a couple from next door to sing about the Hamptons. The pleasant score couldn't save this from being a total bore.
I don't know how much rehearsal time this production had, but Samantha Saltzman's direction was incompetent. There were times in the book scenes when the show seemed to grind to a halt, particularly in the dinner table scenes, which didn't have much reason for existence in the first place. For the most part, the performers did the best they could under the circumstances. Jen Brissman's dialogue was inaudible ("Sing out, Louise!!!"), but that may have been a blessing. Everyone else tried their best to make something out of the cliches they had to mouth.
I left at the intermission. Life is too short......
The writers of exercises like this should look at what is on a few blocks away. A strong book is as crucial to a good musical as a good score. Go see HAMILTON, FUN HOME, even THE KING AND I! Without interesting characters and situations, the lyricist doesn't have much to work with. Without a good story to tell, why write a musical?
210 AMLENT AVENUE. New YOrk Musical THeatre Festival at the Signature Theatre. July 9, 2015.