Curtain goes down on New York Musical Festival
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Curtain goes down on New York Musical Festival
Louis Hobson, left, and Marin Mazzie in the musical "Next to Normal" in New York, on July 19, 2010. Faced with staff resignations and $174,000 in debt, the New York Musical Festival, which paved a path to exposure for the creators of new musicals, declared bankruptcy after 15 years. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Nancy Coleman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- The New York Musical Festival, which paved a path to exposure for the creators of new musicals — even landing a few shows eventually on Broadway — has shut down after 15 years.

The board of directors said in a statement Thursday that a nationwide “arts funding crisis” had caught up to the festival, which closed immediately and declared bankruptcy.

Margot Astrachan, the vice chairwoman, said Friday that she and other board members couldn’t discuss the situation because of the bankruptcy filing. But the annual festival, which featured readings, workshops and some staged productions, had been facing a shortfall recently, with several key leaders announcing their resignations at the start of 2020.

More than 400 shows have premiered at the summer festival, one of a handful of musical-focused developmental gatherings in the U.S. Known by the acronym NYMF, the festival earned attention early on when productions of “[title of show]” and “Next to Normal” snaked their way to Broadway, the latter earning a Pulitzer Prize.

Its success as a launching pad had flagged in recent years, however. (Though the musical “Emojiland,” which played the 2018 festival, is about to begin previews for a commercial off-Broadway run.) And financial problems were growing: The festival’s most recent tax filing, from 2017, showed the nonprofit with $96,000 in assets and $270,000 in liabilities.

West Hyler, artistic director, said Friday that he had no warning about the board’s decision. He understood the company was in debt when he was hired in February but said that nonprofits often carry on without fully balancing their books.

He and other staff members had been working without pay since Aug. 15 in an effort to keep the organization going. “I felt an amazing responsibility toward the next generation of artists, being a springboard for what the future of musical theater can look like in 10 years,” Hyler said.

The turning point came when he learned that the artists who had work in the 2019 program hadn’t been paid for ticket sales. He submitted his letter of resignation Wednesday, closely followed by Scott Pyne, the executive director, and George Youakim, the general manager.

D.C. Cathro was one of the book writers for “Till,” a musical that tells the story of the last summer of Emmett Till’s life and was part of the 2019 festival. He said that many artists still don’t know how much they are owed.

“We’ve been trying to get that information to sort of plan, and it hasn’t been forthcoming,” Cathro said.

Artists will have to go through the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee to be paid what they are owed, said Keith Sherman, a spokesman for the board.

Greg Becker, a Nashville, Tennessee-based songwriter whose show “Wonder Women The Musical” had been selected as a finalist for the 2020 festival, said Friday he was surprised to receive an email from Hyler saying he was stepping down but didn’t expect the whole festival to disappear.

“It’s a bummer, because New York is the big stage," Becker said. “And for my show, it’s kind of like we’ve been climbing the mountain for the last three or four years to get to NYMF, and this looked like it was going to be the year we get up there.”

Other writers, directors and composers whose work has been showcased in the festival took to social media to lament its collapse.

“NYMF was such an important first step for our show,” wrote Steve Rosen, a creator of “The Other Josh Cohen,” which ran in the festival under a different title in 2010 and played off-Broadway in 2018. “Thanks for creating a nurturing environment where so many writers and performers got an opportunity to meet, collaborate and create new work. You done good.”

He was responding to a Facebook post by Isaac Robert Hurwitz, who founded the festival and departed in 2013 to help develop stage musicals based on Twentieth Century Fox movie properties.

The festival itself became part of the story thanks to “[title of show],” a musical about the process of writing and entering a musical in the New York Musical Festival.

It was part of the inaugural lineup in 2004. For Hunter Bell, the book writer, the event marked his and composer Jeff Bowen’s entree into the New York theater scene. “[title of show]” later ran off-Broadway and had a short stint on Broadway as well.

“I hope there is a world where either it rallies or something comes in to take its place,” Bell said of the festival. “Because new musicals and original new musicals? We need all the help we can get.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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