NAMT Festival: Not Just For Unknowns Anymore

I love the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) yearly industry-only festival of new musicals. While I didn't have the chance to fully enjoy it this year, I appreciate and applaud the opportunity the festival affords writers and producers. To me it has always been about giving shows that haven't had a big shot, a shot. That is why I was a little surprised to find Bloodsong of Love on this year's lineup.

I have been a longtime fan of the songs of Bloodsong of Love writer Joe Iconis. I'm happy when his work is heard by a larger audience. I just don't think Bloodsong should have received a slot at the NAMT festival. I had a similar feeling when Lizzie Borden made the cut last year, but that somehow seemed less egregious an error. While I personally went to see Lizzie Borden and cheer on lead Jenny Fellner when it played at the Living Theater in 2009, it somehow seemed like less of an event than Bloodsong at Ars Nova. Maybe it was Lizzie's downtown location. Perhaps it was that Lizzie was reviewed by The Times' Neil Genzlinger, whereas Charles Isherwood, a more prominent Times critic, took on Bloodsong. Or perhaps it is that when I saw Bloodsong I was sitting next to major commercial producers. I don't know. It just might be that this year I'm in a crankier mood. Regardless, I believe something is wrong with these NAMT selections.

I asked Branden Huldeen, New Works Director for NAMT and Producing Director of the Festival, about what the festival's eligibility criteria was. He explained for a show to be eligible for inclusion in the NAMT festival it must not have had a long tour, major off-Broadway or Broadway staging. The process is as follows: a writer submits a script of a musical without a name or title. The script points to certain tracks on a CD sampler. This package is reviewed by a committee. There are of course people at NAMT who know what the work is/who wrote it, but the selection committee is in the dark.

This is all well and good, I just get lost at the definition of "major." Huldeen told me that if a show was in the gray area -- a circumstance that has allegedly never arisen -- he would discuss it with the committee. He said he didn't believe Bloodsong of Love to be in the gray area as only a couple of people on the committee had ever heard of it. Now, this was a show that just last year got reviewed in many major outlets and was nominated for three Drama Desk Awards, so I'm a little worried about who is on this committee, but I'll move on.

Mr. Huldeen stated, by way of example, that The Shaggs would be a gray area show that would require a committee discussion. This I find questionable. The Shaggs had a prominent run this summer at Playwrights Horizons -- it had its chance to be heard. When I pressed Mr. Huldeen on this, he explained that really eligibility was based on whether NAMT "could help the show." He then quickly added that Broadway shows would definitely be out.

The problem with this reasoning is that I venture to bet more people saw The Shaggs off-Broadway than saw Glory Days on Broadway. So why could NAMT help The Shaggs and not Glory Days?

I urge the people at NAMT to remember that one of the objectives of festival is to "discover new work and new voices." If they want to change the mission to "help shows we can help" then that is a broader group. I'm not necessarily against a help-related mission statement, it's very "we are the world," but then they have to open their doors to the whole world.