“Un-Block The Music’s” postings have been slow for the last couple of weeks, because I have been on the road talking to amazing artists, writers, producers, and seeing shows of all kinds. This story is about a nearly-50-year-old company, York Theatre in Manhattan. Its slogan is “Where Musicals Come to Life.” That includes new musicals as well as those that might deserve a second chance at life. James Morgan, producing artistic director, has been with the company since 1974, and is just as passionate as he was then, maybe even more so as the vision continues to evolve and “come to life”.
James says, York’s slogan originates from the song, “Come To Life,” from the musical Colette Collage, written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, a duo very close to the heart of this theater having received its Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement. And, kicking off the Theatre’s 50th Year, there will be a one-night gala benefit concert of their musical I Do, I Do on April 8. Tom will actually be part of the show which is the story of a marriage over 50 years. It was originally on Broadway and directed by Gower Champion and starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston. Tom has created this new version of the musical which stars: Samantha Bruce, Daniel J. Edwards, Janet Metz, Peter Saide, Gerry McIntyre, Brad Oscar, Lewis Cleale, Lynne Wintersteller and Nancy Ford! Here is the link for more info and to buy tickets https://yorktheatre.org/on-stage/events-parties/i-do-i-do-spring-2019
The real story and question here is….how do you even survive long enough to celebrate 50 years in NYC where the competitive environment is…well…competitive!!!! James gave “Un-Block The Music” a brief history. James’ aunt and uncle knew Janet Hayes Walker from church. James, with a background in set design, began to get despondent about his career choice within a few months of college graduation, so his aunt said, “’there is this dear little theater group at the church. Maybe you would like to meet with the woman who runs it.’ I thought ‘ugh,..community theater,’ but I said, ‘sure!’ I went to meet Janet, and it turned out that it wasn’t community theater. It was a group of actors that worked together in regional theater who wanted to be seen in New York shows they had control over.”
Janet had been in several Broadway shows, including the original productions of Damn Yankees, Plain and Fancy, The Golden Apple, The Music Man, Camelot and Anyone Can Whistle. Then, got her Master’s Degree in directing at Hunter College in New York and started directing these shows. Despite Janet’s background in music, York was not producing musicals at first. Musicals were (and still are) James’ passion. He eventually convinced her to present one a year. “We did a lot of Sondheim shows before he was the Icon that he is today. We did the first revival of Anyone Can Whistle and eventually we did the first revivals of Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.”
Eventually, James suggested trying one season of just musicals. Janet agreed, but sadly passed away before the end of that season. “Doug Cohen wrote one of the shows we did that year, and the next year, he asked me, ‘do you realize the significance of the show titles you did that year?’” They were No Way to Treat a Lady, The Last Sweet Day and The Show Goes On. And, the show does go on.
One of the many interesting projects at York is “Musicals In Mufti,” which just happened and “Un-Block The Music” sadly missed, but will not miss next time! “Mufti is an Arab word picked up by the British Army to mean ‘in civilian clothes’. We use it to mean, very simply done, concert versions. Basically, the cast brings clothes from home for costumes. It’s amazing what people have in their closets!” James laughs.
Un-Block The Music has so much to write about here! So, many new shows and composers to discover. I am attending a reading of The Rivals in mid-April, and I hope to stay close to new musicals, such as this, as they develop and the music is “Unblocked”!!!
One last note for now, is that York will be presenting Enter Laughing May 7 through June 9. It was originally on Broadway in 1976. York brought it back the first time in 2008, and now they are bringing it back as its mainstage. Entering Laughing is an example of a show York did in mufti.
You hear sad stories all of the time about musicals that didn’t do well on Broadway, but it is not always because the material was not worthwhile, James explains. So many factors enter in, “like it just had the wrong star, the wrong director, or it debuted during a newspaper strike! Sometimes a show doesn’t belong on Broadway, it’s too big for the production. At York, you can hear the material and it is not overpowered.”
York’s goal is to get musicals showcased and to find all of the hidden jewels of theatre. Go to https://yorktheatre.org/ to get information on all of the upcoming projects, and stay tuned to “Un-Block The Music” of updates as well!