*Content Warning: This article discusses and describes new musicals that deal with such topics as police violence against the Black community*
The future of Broadway is effervescently bright as indicated by the works presented at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre’s 32nd Annual Festival of New Musicals. Each year the festival presents excerpts from eight musicals that are in development, giving composers, lyricists, and book-writers the opportunity to have their new works seen by producers, theater companies, and the public. For the creators of the new musicals, it is a chance to have their piece picked up for further development and for the audience, a chance to experience new directions that the genre is taking.
This year, I was thrilled to see so many new shows presenting musical styles that have been, unfortunately, largely unheard as of yet on the Broadway stage as well as topics, characters, and stories that are wide-ranging, relevant, and deeply moving. Honest and emotional stories about the Filipino immigrant experience, the life-threatening racism in the U.S. law enforcement systems, the adversity faced by young Black entrepreneurs, the untold horrors of white Puritans accusing black women in the Salem Witch Trials, and more told via gospel, rap, rock, folk, and electronic musical styles. Each musical was beautifully unique, and I was blown away by each presentation.
Additionally, presenters for the 32nd Annual Festival had to contend with a new platform for presentation in the times of Covid-19. Traditionally, the festival is a several-day-long event, where the pieces are shown in a theater with social/networking activities scattered throughout the day to give the writers and the public a chance to interact. This year, the festival was held on the virtual platform Hopin, which provided a remarkably comparable experience for the social aspects of the festival, featuring virtual networking events and Q&As with the writers with the ability to ask questions directly via the chat. Further, the virtual platform provided an opportunity for the teams to get creative with how their work was presented, and I was thoroughly impressed with the variety of video presentations I saw.
The festival began with a presentation of On This Side of the World, with music and lyrics by Paulo K. Tiról. A perfect way to begin the event, On This Side of the World is a tapestry of Filipino immigrant experiences with an opening number that is laden with hope and anticipation. With energetic performances by the cast of six singing gorgeous harmonies and telling honest stories about the frustrations and joys unique to each individual who has immigrated to the US from the Philippines, the piece left me feeling excited about everything to come.
The next presentation was Hart Island. It was thought-provoking, emotional, and deeply moving from start to finish. The story is centered on two characters with a connection to Hart Island: Marielena (Gizel Jiménez), a recent Puerto Rican immigrant whose miscarried son is buried on the island, and Charles (Rodney Hicks), the incarcerated man who buried him there. The musical discusses important and emotional themes such as the loss of a child via miscarriage and police brutality, and the ‘American Sin,’ the systematic way in which white people in the US have criminalized and oppressed Black folks throughout the entire history of this country and continue to today. The performers did an incredible job with the material, and the medium of film for the presentation provided a close up of their expressive faces. I definitely believe these are essential stories to be told on stage, and I hope to see the continued development of this piece.
Another show that caught my eye in particular with a stellar mix of video editing, music production, and engaging storytelling was the new musical Co-Founders with Book & Lyrics by Beau Lewis, Adesha Adefela, and Ryan Nicole, and Music by Jodie Ellis, Brian Watters, and Budo. The creation of Co-Founders began in freestyle rap sessions in Oakland, where artists rapped about their real-life experiences as creators and entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. The story centers around a black coder from Oakland (Amber Iman) and a white college dropout (Gerard Canonico) who team up to create a startup together. The virtual presentation of “Co-Founder” begins with the audience positioned in “the back seat” of an Uber, driven by Dhameer (Austin Dean Ashford). Ashford looks over his shoulder asking, “are you new to the Bay Area?” As his relative (Ryan Nicole Austin) jumps in the car with him, the two rap together, explaining how things go in the startup world. The video editing is phenomenal and the mix of split-screen, green screens, electronic music, and rap, truly transported me out of my living room and into the fast-paced, technology-driven world of Silicon Valley. I was so impressed by this presentation, and I cannot wait to see how the piece continues to develop for the stage.
Another show that particularly captured my attention musically was Obeah Opera with book, music, and lyrics by Nicole Brooks. The largely unacknowledged story of Black women during the Salem Witch Trials, Obeah Opera is a beautiful and riveting musical experience. The sung-through piece was characterized by the striking a cappella arrangements for female voices that drew from Resistance music of the Caribbean, Africa, and the Diaspora. Ranging from the high energy spiritual experience that opened the presentation to the mysterious and ominous choral number in which accusations of witchcraft were whispered throughout the town, the music excited me at every turn. With such layered and evocative vocal writing telling such a fascinating story, this is certainly a piece I would love to experience live.
Every work presented at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre’s 32nd Annual Festival of New Musicals was phenomenal. In addition to the four shows I have already described, the festival also featured Cowboy Bob – a high-energy folk/rock musical co-created by Molly Beach Murphy, Jeanna Phillips, and Annie Tippe with killer performances by Ashley Pérez Flanagan and Grace McLean; Eastbound – a touching, bi-lingual story about family, illness, and what it means to live life to the fullest with book and music by Cheeyang Ng and book and lyrics by Khiyon Hursey; Lizard Boy – an intriguing superhero origin story with book, music, and lyrics by Justin Huertas performed by three delectable performer/musicians, Huertas, Kirsten deLohhr Helland, and William A. Williams; and The Consoling Mechanism – a fascinating “speculative fiction” musical with book, music, and lyrics by Josh Franklin in which a young woman copes with the loss of her mother and the paralysis of her legs with the help of new technology and a boy.
I sincerely hope that each of the eight incredible new pieces presented continues in their development and I look forward to seeing each musical live in the future.
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.