Love and Happiness in the Fall
For two weeks in October since 2009, I’ve documented the annual festival of new musicals for NAMT. When this year rolled around, the added dimension of the fest’s 30th Anniversary Gala - #NAMTFEST30 - brought the realization that I’ve been the official photographer for a full one-third of all of them. A bit daunting of a thought that’s been, and it proved motivation to take stock.
For some background, each year the National Alliance for Musical Theatre receives about approximately 250 submissions for eight slots in its fest. The selected pieces get about 10 days of rehearsal with restrictions on the lengths of each, the amount of props that can be used (none), costuming (none) and length of the performances (50 minutes each)
During my tenure as the NAMT photographer, I’ve worked with three different and wonderful festival directors -- Kathy Evans, Branden Huldeen and Ciera Iveson -- all of whom were present. While each has brought their own individual stamp, the good news is that there is great focus on maintaining consistency and continuity. Every year builds and fosters the sense of tradition, and, as such, there is a very tight formula the festival dances to. For me, after ten years, the familiarity I’ve gained with the parameters makes the job much easier and that much more enjoyable. Agreed, as Chaucer said, familiarity can breed contempt, but, “Ladies and Gentlemen!” such is not the case with this Festival. Each year gathers its own infinitely surprising crop of 8 new musicals that never fail to entertain. Indeed, many go onto great success. For example, in 2013, I photographed an unknown couple from Canada, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who had entered their effort about a silver-lined side story of the tragic 911 events. It was entitled COME FROM AWAY. Today, that entry is a Broadway smash and Sankoff & Hein were back at NAMT to perform at the Gala.
Documenting the fest means that so many ‘familiar’ faces become friends from around the globe. They arrive every year either to participate or simply to enjoy. There are people like the incredible songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drew from London who have had three shows at the Festival over the years, and who, as they are in NY rehearsing their own upcoming Broadway show, dropped in to perform at this year’s Gala VIP reception -- and somehow in the midst of all their activity they found time to mentor a team new to the festival. Rhys Jennings and Darren Clark also of the UK brought their fun, raucous and sexy yet thought-provoking THE WICKER HUSBAND ( @WickerMusical )-- a blend of English folk music and storytelling in service to a serious consideration of ‘the other.’
Additionally, even as I dash from rehearsal-to-rehearsal and show-to-show, the phenomenal energy of all the effort around me keeps me going without a thought. The shows always incorporate top theatrical talent in support of either novice or accomplished creative talents with an incredible amount of hard work, discipline and dedication. One extra key reason for looking forward to the Fest each year is that there is a tremendous abundance of love and happiness that resonates through the entire two weeks of rehearsals & performances.
While many shows are dedicated to the application of high craft for the sheer joy of entertainment, the Festival is devoted to a tradition of diversity, inclusion, open-mindedness, and the exploration of the full gamut of societal issues, not to mention inventiveness and imagination. Therefore, at least 50% of the shows work on a serious and challenging level both thematically and musically.
As a for instance, XY is a musical by Oliver Houser developed with Hunter Bird concerning the challenges and stigmatization faced by someone born with sexual anatomy that does not fit ‘normal’ gender definitions. What is discovered is still something that relates to timeless universal themes of dealing with our pasts no matter who we are thus stressing the sometimes forgotten fact: we are all human. The play was developed with the participation of InterACT, an advocacy group for intersex children, members of which were present and who I had the pleasure of meeting.
Regardless, whether participating or watching, everyone lifts the entire effort and all involved off the ground providing a unique spirit.
My tenth year, therefore, was elevated yet higher. Many thanx to all of the composers, writers, directors, actors and musicians, stage managers, tech crew members for the incredible and inspiring work; and thanx to New World Stages for the great facility within which to work. One key point: words cannot say enough for the great NAMT team. It’s always awesome to work with you.
For one last bit of perspective -- if I seem to be exaggerating the positive benefits of this event, let me just point out that during the ten days of my involvement this year, all festival participants walked by or were only a block away from the post office in Manhattan where it was revealed in the news one of the many pipe bombs sent by a Trump supporter was discovered; and I ended one day heading home to check the list of victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh to see if there would be anyone I knew having a past connection with the community of Squirrel Hill. These are terrible and dark times for our country and it’s efforts like those at the NAMT Fest that provide a much-needed counterbalance of peace, love and happiness.