Each year, one of my most rewarding experiences is to volunteer as a dramaturg for the NextLink Project at the New York Musical Festival (NYMF). For the past three years, I have supported lyricists, librettists, and composers in preparing for productions which occur each summer in the Theatre District in Manhattan
I always treasure the opportunity to work on a new musical, whether in Hamilton Dramaturgy, my international consultancy, or with an organization like NYMF (formerly the New York Musical Theatre Festival). As one of ten NextLink dramaturgs, my contribution tends toward script development rather than production dramaturgy.
The Director of Programming and Artists Services shares materials from NextLink shows with the dramaturgs and asks for our top three preferences. In 2014 and 2015, I worked under Jen Bender, and in 2016 under Rachel Sussman.
As I read through the submissions and listen to the music, I scan the participants for pieces which resonate with me. I am open to most genres when I search for collaborators, but I pay special attention to work created by women or with female protagonists. I also pay special attention to any show which presents cultural or gender diversity. I have a simple goal: finding and supporting what I consider to be a really great show of its kind, with valuable subject matter and writing.
In 2013, I was immediately attracted to Der Gelbe Stern (The Yellow Star), a one-woman show starring Alexis Fishman, an Australian singer, and actress, about the last nightclub performance by a German-Jewish performer in 1933 Berlin. It was a great story of pathos, danger, and courage, and featured an onstage band. As the daughter of a World War II veteran and a mother who grew up during wartime in Italy, I felt that its message was important. Jen assigned the show to me and I traveled to NYC to meet Alexis during the NextLink Project weekend in March, where all the dramaturgs met with their show’s creators.
Each contact with Alexis, and indeed all the writers I have worked with at NYMF, was a joy and a learning experience. Alexis had performed the show already quite a few times in Australia, and she was looking to bring it into sharper focus. She had prepared a list of questions, which I answered, and then I sent her my comments in the body of the script that NYMF provided me, by email. Because she was traveling back and forth to Australia during the rehearsal process, and I was living in Pennsylvania, we decided that day to check in by phone with each other once a month and scheduled the times and the dates. We corresponded in between our official meetings, and were quite prepared to discuss any matters when we did speak on the phone.
The NYMF dramaturgy contract asks us to meet at least three times with the show’s writers, and make three passes over the script and music, but does not dictate the process. I find that these guidelines create a working environment which respects our expertise and personalities while setting up discrete goals to create a useful and productive experience for the writers.
Within these guidelines, I can fully use my discretion to determine how this process can best help this writer and this script at this time. In fact, with Alexis Fishman and my 2015 NextLink collaborator, E.J. Stapleton, I found two very mature artists who were confident and knew their own creative processes. Therefore, from experience, I knew to make myself available, but not impose any kind of pressure onto them. They were mature, self-aware, and assertive. So, I offered my help, and they told me what they needed and when. In fact, our collaboration went so well and in a timely manner that they felt that our process was complete in two rounds of script reviews and feedback sessions, so I could report to Jen that our collaboration was fruitful and complete. In 2014, Alexis won the Outstanding Individual Performance award for her starring role in the Der Gelbe Stern.
E.J. Stapleton is a successful visual artist and children’s book writer who adapted his book The Calico Buffalo into a children’s musical that appeals to all ages. This show attracted me because it had a strong message about the value of friendship and inclusion as well as a very strong storyline and wonderful music. The production sold out and was a festival favorite.
This year, I encountered a show that appealed to my over-the-top sense of humor. The First Church of Mary, The Repentant Prostitute’s FIFTH ANNUAL Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck Dinner starred the Reverend Adamenses Huckster, a “Prosperity Preacher” down South whose ministry holds a fundraiser. This show was the easiest to settle on, because my first read of the script made me laugh out loud. Rachel assigned the show to me and I met the main writer and performer, Geoff Davin, on NextLink weekend. Dramaturging this show allowed me to exercise my comedic imagination and sense of timing. Geoff and I talked at length about the character’s motivations, and through our work together he rewrote the show’s climax.
This year, I joined the team to read submissions for the 2017 Festival. Through an online system of script excerpts and song demos, I rated the shows using specified criteria, then advised on rejecting or further reading the piece. This collective process led to participation in the annual NYMF Smackdown in early November in which the team gathered to advocate for our favorite. I am pleased that a show that I advocated for made the short list. The entries will now be passed on to leading industry professionals for the final selection.
It is much more challenging to dramaturg a musical than a straight play because there are so many more elements to consider, assess, and attempt to balance out. I examine each song in the score in terms of style, tempo, tone, melody, and length. In addition, as I read through the musical, I assess the libretto’s pacing, characterization, conflict, action, development, and resolution. I try to imagine the whole musical in three dimensions, on stage, in real time. This helps me get a feel for how an audience might respond, and helps me to assess how to collaborate with the authors to strengthen it. By imagining the dance numbers, the crowd scenes, the ballads, and the dramatic songs, I have the privilege not only of previewing the show, but helping to develop it into its best form before it is performed for an audience. It is a great joy to work through this process, and then see the successful result. Whether the audience is laughing, smiling, or simply sitting and watching with silent respect, I love to help create a musical world that tells a compelling and meaningful story in words, movement, and music.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.