Writing Musical Theatre’s Future, While Looking Into the Past

A Conversation with James Morgan, Producing Artistic Director of the York Theatre Company

Three people on stage
Glory Crampton, Robert Cuccioli, and Christopher M. Williams in Rothschild & Sons. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Some theatre companies, such as Encores, specialize in reviving musicals from the past. Others like the Musical Theatre Factory, focus on developing new shows. The York Theatre Company, housed in the basement of St. Peter’s Church (adjoining Citigroup Center) in New York City, does both. The York gives past musicals a new production—and, in some cases, a second chance—through Main stage productions, as well as its Musicals in Mufti series. New writers are given venues, such as the Developmental Readings series, Tune-In Time, and the NEO benefit. Main stage presentations of new shows include such audience favorites as The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!), Souvenir, and Cagney. 

Recently, the York presented Rothschild & Sons as part of their Main stage series. The 1970 musical—formerly titled The Rothschilds—was the last collaboration between lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, the team behind Fiddler on the Roof. 

James Morgan: It fits perfectly into our mission, because it is a show from the past, with a lot of history. But this is a completely new version of it. It’s telling the story differently, and more cleanly. Sadly, Jerry Bock is not with us, but Sheldon Harnick and [librettist] Sherman Yellen are, and they have been very busy working with the director, Jeff Moss, to reshape it. It’s much more about the relationship of the father and the sons, and the mother—the basic family. It doesn’t get into all the things about wives and girlfriends and all that, it’s about the creation of the banking family. 

It’s told with a cast of eleven, in one act. There are several new songs, using existing Jerry Bock melodies, and two new songs that Sheldon composed as well as wrote lyrics for. There’s a song in it that was cut on the way to Broadway. It’s the same story, but it’s told very differently. So in many ways it’s a new show. We’re calling it a premiere, and we’re excited about that. So it very much supports our mission, again, of old and new...and this time it’s all in one show. 

An example of a show from the past is Enter Laughing. First we did it in the Mufti series celebrating [librettist] Joe Stein, and then it became a major hit for us in the main stage series. It had a really horrible reputation from its Broadway run in 1976 [as So Long, 174th Street]. People said, “Don’t bother, it’s not worth doing,” and we proved it was very much worth doing. We cast it perfectly and got a great director—Stuart Ross. We did some tinkering with the script and the structure of it. Joe Stein was alive, and he had written the book. He was very interested in going back to work on it. Stan Daniels, who wrote the songs, had just passed away when we did it. But his wife was very much around, and gave permission for little tinkerings to happen that made a major difference in how it played. And we had a stunning cast. So again, this was a show that people had written off as not being worth doing, and we proved it really was. 

We also did Anyone Can Whistle. We’ve done more Sondheim shows than anyone in town. 

Donald: One was Merrily We Roll Along in 1994.

James: [Our production] almost moved to Broadway. We did a lot to redeem it. It was our first recording. We now have nearly forty recordings of shows that we’ve done, which may be a record. 

Donald: How did the Musicals in Mufti series come about? 

James: It was [York founder] Janet Hayes Walker’s idea in 1994; she wanted to revisit shows from the past in a way that made them affordable. It just happened to be the same year that Encores started, but we are very different; we are able to do shows that they can’t; their choices have to be much more mainstream. When I came on board after Janet’s death in 1997, I pushed for us to only do musicals in the main stage series, with an emphasis on new works. I greatly admired Goodspeed; I had worked there a number of times, and their major emphasis was on old shows. I wanted to do new shows, but the Muftis allow us to do both: writing new shows for the future, while looking into the past.

I’ve never been big on having set rules about ‘a musical has to be this, or it has to be that.’ I think you take chances. Being willing to take chances opens you up to finding incredibly adventurous things that you otherwise wouldn’t experience.

Donald: Writers of new musicals can send unsolicited manuscripts to be considered for the Reading Series, a rare opportunity. Is the York open to all styles of musicals?

James: Absolutely. I’ve never been big on having set rules about “a musical has to be this, or it has to be that.” I think you take chances, as you should in any medium or endeavor. Being willing to take chances opens you up to finding incredibly adventurous things that you otherwise wouldn’t experience. And if you’re so busy saying, “well, a musical has to fit within these confines to be a real musical,” I think that’s silly. There are people who don’t agree with me, and there are occasionally pieces we do in the reading series that don’t work. But that’s why you do them; you take a chance. You put them up there, and see how it plays in front of an audience. It’s an invaluable experience for authors, to be able to go through an experience like that at very little cost. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of that we do. We do over thirty of these readings a year, and sometimes more than that. And for people who have been laboring over something at their desk or at their computer, for months and months, to be able to finally see it in front of an audience and take note of how the audience reacts to a particular line or particular section, it’s an amazing experience. 

Donald: What advice would you give to writers who are interested in submitting a show?

James: Include a very big check, and it’ll get noticed a lot sooner! [Laughs

Basically, don’t submit [your show] before it’s ready. People get all enthused: “I just heard about this reading series that York does! Oh, that would be perfect for my show! Oh, I’m going to rush it through, and send it this week!” They’ll see me in the lobby and say, “Really? You would accept my show?” I say, “Yeah—when it’s ready, send it. There’s no reason to rush.” Take your time, and get it as good as you can get it at this point. It will undoubtedly change after you see it up on its feet, but take your time. The other thing is: be patient. We’re a small staff, we get a lot of submissions; we’re one of the few places that take unsolicited submissions.

I think there’s a value to almost anything. And, you know, it’s so much one’s personal opinion. There are many reasons to do all sorts of different things. And I love the fact that we are able to take chances. We do shows that are too big for us to do. Not every show we do in the reading series is about finding something for us to do. People have said, “Oh, that’s what the reading series should be.” No. There have been a number of times I’ve done shows I thought needed to be seen in New York, and otherwise would not have been seen in the city if we didn’t do them. Shows with casts over twenty, that wouldn’t possibly be able to fit on our stage, much less afford them. But I feel, “Who else is going to do that?” I’m very proud of the record we have in giving chances to people who have written new shows.

Donald: One show from the Reading Series, which eventually received a main stage production, was The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!).

James: Yes, we’re very proud of that. One of the actors brought it to me and said, “Maybe you should do a reading of this.” I fell in love with it, just the idea of it, even in its unfinished state. We gave it several readings, where they were able to get it up on its feet and continue working on it. Part of the development that we do with new works is trying to help the writers understand what they have, and what may not be there, and finding the right people to interpret their work for them. And it just came together beautifully! We ran it for an eight-week run—a standard main stage run—and then we brought it back that summer and ran it for three months. And then, Melanie Herman moved it to New World Stages, and it ran over 550 performances! And then, it was done around the country. It’s still done around the country, and for a couple of years it was one of the most popular shows in Samuel French’s catalogue.

Donald: The York’s website describes Tune-In Time as “the Musical Theatre Olympics.” What does that entail?

James: Twenty minutes to write a song! Composers and lyricists who’ve never written together before. The audience helps choose the title of the show, and then the writers spin the genre wheel. [The genre] can be anything, from Jason Robert Brown to operetta to country/western to jazz to Sondheim. Trying to write successfully in [Sondheim’s] style, in twenty minutes, is scary! [Laughs] But it’s a lot of fun. 

One person on stage
James Morgan at an NEO Benefit. Photo courtesy of the York Theatre Company.

Donald: Would you talk about the history of the York, and your involvement?

James: Janet [Hayes Walker] studied music. She was a soprano with a Master’s in Music from New England Conservatory, and she studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. At some point, she realized that making a living as a classically trained soprano would not be the easiest thing in the world, and somehow she got involved in theatre. She ended up doing seven Broadway shows, starting with Plain and Fancy. She was in Anyone Can Whistle for its entire two-week run. That became the basis of our relationship with Stephen Sondheim, and that’s where she met Angela Lansbury [recipient of the York’s 2015 Hammerstein Award]; Angela remembers her.

York was founded by a group of actors who had worked together in regional theatre, who wanted to be seen in New York, in shows that they had some control over. Typical of Janet, when this idea was passed, she went back to school and got another master’s—in directing—from Hunter College. All the while she was in various Broadway shows and raising a family! Her husband was the organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, where we started out. She saw the parish hall sitting empty for long periods of time, and she went to the rector there and said, “What would you think of having a theatre in the parish hall?” He said, “I think that’s a great idea,” and he said, “and here’s fifty dollars to help start it!” And that’s how it began. It began in 1969, so we’re in our forty-sixth year.

I moved to New York in 1974, right out of college. I went to the University of Florida. After a few months, I was getting a little despondent about whether anything was ever going to work out career-wise. I was talking to my aunt and uncle, who went to Heavenly Rest, and I asked if they knew anyone in theatre. My aunt said, “There’s a dear little theatre group at the church. Maybe you want to meet the woman who runs it?” I wasn’t sure it was for me, but I went and met Janet. And it became, well, it influenced my whole life…that one meeting! 

York only did plays at that point. I found out about Janet’s background, and I asked, “Why aren’t you doing musicals?” She said, “Well, they’re just so difficult.” But we found we had similar tastes, and we started doing these notable shows that deserved a second look. The first one we did was She Loves Me, which at that time was not nearly as well known. It began our connection to Sheldon Harnick, which continues to this day with Rothschild & Sons.

The musicals began to get a lot of attention. We continued doing a mix of plays and musicals, and at some point I sort of began asking, “Maybe we should try an all-musical format?” Janet would pat my arm and say, “Oh no, dear! I know that’s what you would like, but I think we should just keep doing what we’re doing.”

When Janet died in 1997, I took over. David McCoy, our chairman of the board, has been incredibly supportive; he’s been there almost as long as I have. I told him I thought we should officially go to an all-musical format. And he replied, ”Well, if that’s what you think we should do, let’s do it.” A lot of small not-for-profits don’t survive the death of a charismatic founder like Janet, [who] people associate with the organization. So to have that happen, and then change the mission on top of that, was, in retrospect, pretty foolhardy. And to change it to a mission that is very expensive; creating and producing musicals is about the most expensive thing you can take on. But, for better or for worse, we did. I think it has given us a mission, and a reputation, that people respect.

Our mission is about doing the best work we can, and giving writers a place for their work to be seen and heard. And in many cases, it’s giving a chance for things to be seen in New York that otherwise wouldn’t be seen.

Donald: As you mentioned, other theatres are struggling. What do you think is the key to the York’s survival?

James: I think that we fill a niche that no one else does, by this mix of old and new [musicals]. I think we have found our audience. We need to find a bigger audience, as does every theatre, but we have found an audience that is loyal to us and believes in what we do. I think the quality of what we do—casting-wise, programming-wise, the level of people that we have found to work for us, in all sorts of areas, all sorts of positions, keeps bringing audiences back. Because they see things with us that they won’t see anywhere else. A lot of the shows I’ve chosen to do over the years are ones that I felt wouldn’t be seen in New York if we didn’t do them. 

We love it when a show moves commercially, and it looks like a show from last year will move to a commercial production. We love it when that happens, but our mission is not about moving as many shows to Broadway or Off-Broadway as we can. It’s about doing the best work we can, and giving writers a place for their work to be seen and heard. And in many cases, it’s giving a chance for things to be seen in New York that otherwise wouldn’t be seen. So I think it’s a combination of things that has kept us going. It also has to do with our incredibly dedicated chairman of the board, David, and an incredibly dedicated board. We are busy trying to build the board, but we have had wonderful people on the board who believe totally in what we have done for all these years, and they continue to do so. That’s incredibly important. We also have a wonderful staff—a small staff, but a dedicated one. We have people who love what we do and can’t wait to work for us when they get out of school, just the way I did all those years ago. 

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