10/11/2011 09:38 am ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

The Business of Musicals From NYMF On

Longtime readers know my love of musicals. I greatly enjoy plays as well, but I have always believed there is something special about being able to sell a scene in which someone randomly breaks into song. So each year I head to the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) in the hopes of being wowed. But, while I watch and hopefully cheer, I am also thinking: what is the future life for this show?

Producing musicals is a tricky business. It takes a lot of money and a lot of patience. There are of course the success stories that make it all worthwhile -- David Stone and all his relatives for at least a few generations could never work a day thanks to Wicked -- but there are many more failures. Sometimes these failures have nothing to do with the quality of the property, but rather what type of property it is. (There are obviously many other factors that weigh into whether a show is a success -- I won't be addressing those in this post.)

In 2005, I remember sitting at the Theater at St. Clement's seeing the NYMF musical adaptation of But I'm a Cheerleader. I was expecting to hate it, but actually really liked it. I wasn't the only one -- it received good reviews, including a very positive New York Times notice. Yet, despite its obvious potential, I wondered where the show would go. A cute, bubbly musical about a teenage cheerleader struggling with her sexual identity in a satirical manner is not an obvious choice for Broadway. Decades ago it would have been perfect for off-Broadway, but today it would have too big a cast to be an economically feasible off-Broadway offering. And it's pretty much a non starter for the bible belt. So where was it to go? Pretty much nowhere, as I haven't heard about it since.

I liked this year's The Kid Who Would Be Pope considerably less than I had But I'm a Cheerleader, but they both are comparable in one sense: neither are obvious choices for mainstream mountings. The story of a new Catholic school student who falls in love with a nun, The Kid Who Would Be Pope is consciously ridiculous. At times entertaining, the show often squanders great opportunities. There is potential there though -- it's a creative idea supported by many catchy songs. Even in its ideal form however, the best home for it is schools. It is not a show that if perfected would have an easy road to off-Broadway or Broadway proper or even large regional theaters. (Though it is an easier pitch for those places than But I'm a Cheerleader, which, while worlds better, contains a more controversial subject matter.) I'm not saying The Kid Who Would Be Pope could never go to those places, but it's going to be a very difficult sell.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
, the other NYMF entry I saw this year, is more likely to play larger houses. The engaging musical is also better overall than most NYMF entries. It still needs work, but it captures the book's essence in an entertaining and tuneful manner. It's the type of show that could easily get a tryout at the Old Globe or the La Jolla Playhouse. It has the potential to attract audiences of all ages, from school-age children who are reading the book to adults who have supported the dozen Pride and Prejudice films. There is a market for this type of thing; that market didn't help Little Women, but it exists.

In the end, I hope NYMF keeps presenting both shows that are marketable on paper and those that are not. I also hope however that those behind the trickier shows realize that their property may never have a future life. I often talk to creatives that believe if there show is well-received, they're set. That is of course not the case.