Tales of the Yorkside
Author: Jim Morgan and Charles Wright
Reflections on a Time for Singing
Jim Morgan, Producing Artistic Director of the York Theatre Company, is discussing Musicals in Mufti with Charles Wright, who has written program notes for 81 shows in the series. The beginning of their conversation is below and subsequent installments will appear here on a regular basis between now and the gala mufti concert, which is scheduled for March 16, 2015.
Charles Wright: Here we are at the York, on the eve of the 100th Mufti … so our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to discuss series and try to put this milestone in context.
Jim Morgan: 100 Musicals in Mufti. Who’da thunkit?
CW: Perhaps the first question to answer is what is a “musical in mufti?”
JM: It’s a very simply-staged, book-in-hand concert presentation of a noteworthy musical from the past.
CW: And one hundred productions over twenty years. 1994 to now. Those two decades have been challenging for theaters – tight funding, competition from new media …
JM: Challenging, to say the least. And in that time, The York Theatre Company also went through some very tough times: we survived a couple of difficult financial periods, we changed our mission to all musicals, and our founder, the brilliant and beloved Janet Hayes Walker, passed away; that’s when I moved into her position. Not only is this our 45th Season, with our 100th Musicals in Mufti production, it’s the 10th year of our NEO program for new writers—and it’s my 40th year with the company. A lotta milestones. Exciting and scary, at least to me! But we’re here, and continuing to do wonderful work. We just keep rollin’ along.
CW: Before 1994, I had encountered the word “mufti”, but I would’ve been hard pressed to say exactly what it means or to guess its origin. Who came up with that name for the series?
JM: The name was coined by Charles Dodsley Walker, Janet’s husband. He was very involved in running York; he was the treasurer; at the same time he was organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, our original home; he also created and conducted the Canterbury Choral Society (still does!), and was head of the music department at the Chapin School. Charlie, happily, is still on our board.
CW: Janet was your mentor, wasn’t she?
JM: She was a mentor to me and many other people; she gave me a chance for my work to be seen in New York City. Within six months of moving here after college from Florida, I was designing posters and sets for York, and it became my artistic home. She was an amazingly talented person who believed in giving people a leg up in this really challenging business. She and I became very close, and eventually, I helped her make artistic decisions.
CW: But the Mufti name…?
JM: In 1993, we had a meeting at their apartment – Janet, Charlie and I – about Janet’s idea of creating a concert series of musicals which deserve “a second look.” This was before that kind of thing was so popular; before the Roundabout, various concert series, and especially before Encores! I had the same reaction you had, Charles: I knew the word “mufti” but didn’t really know what it meant. Charlie Walker, as a former Navy guy, was well acquainted with the term which had to do with being in or out of uniform. Janet, just being well read, immediately leapt at the term. I liked the alliteration – Musicals in Mufti – also, the sophistication. And the fact that it defined the simplicity of the series – “in street clothes, without the trappings of a full production.”
CW: Didn’t Encores! start the same year?
JM: Yes, but that was pure happenstance; the actual inspiration for the Muftis was a series of two musicals – I think it was two — that B.T. McNicholl did in concert at the Masur Theater in Asphalt Green on the Upper East Side. Janet was running that venue at the time. BT’s series was aptly called “Musicals in Concert.” Prior to that, another inspiration was Richard Grayson’s 1970s series, “Broadway In Concert at Town Hall.” Dick presented She Loves Me and Knickerbocker Holiday but never quite got around to presenting The Golden Apple, which had also been announced.
CW: So, in March, 1994, the York launched Musicals in Mufti with three performances of The Grass Harp and raised the profile of that word “mufti” … at least in the Tri-State region.
JM: You’re correct, I think, that we’ve done more to publicize the meaning of the word than maybe anyone in the history of the world – or maybe we’re second only to the world’s Armed Forces. You will note that we continue to make very clear what the word means, in both printed material and pre-show speeches.
CW: At some point, I want to talk about your pre-show speeches.
JM: Oh those–
CW: We’ll get to that. But I didn’t mean to interrupt –
JM: I was just going to say that we emphasize the meaning of “mufti” just in case anyone’s confused about the name of the series. There are still many people who think it’s an acronym or a dirty word.
CW: Any comments about how the Muftis and Encores differ?
JW: The two series are quite distinct … not the same thing at all. The shows we do are different; the way we do them is different … and the purpose of them is different. Encores presents more mainstream shows, with a full orchestra and production values that in many cases could move directly to Broadway. They do a lot of wonderful restoration work on the score and they also adapt the book for their purposes. We don’t have an orchestra; we sometimes use just a piano or sometimes a small combo; we don’t adapt the books unless the authors are alive and want to do that (many times we’ve had writers do major work on shows to get them where they wanted them to be in the first place). But most of all, our shows are in no way full productions and are not meant to be. They are sort of a simple sketch of what the show was, or might have been, or perhaps should’ve been. We don’t aspire to do anything more than that. And the shows we do are much more out of the ordinary and less mainstream then Encores, even though I notice they’ve done a number of shows that we have done at this point. Generally ours are less well known and much more in danger of being forgotten. They are aimed at a smaller audience and we can do that because we are in a smaller house. We truly relish the chance for these shows to be heard and seen again in front of a loving audience.
CW: So what would you say that audiences have to look forward to in this particular series?
JM: Oh, lots! In addition to all the hoopla of hitting number 100 with the third production, three of the shows, at least, are new versions which have never been seen in New York – and in one case has never been seen anywhere (My Favorite Year). We have some incredible casting coups to announce –- including John Tartaglia, Kerry Butler and Walter Charles for Big, and more. We have wonderful directors, including Michael Unger for Big, Michael Montel directing his 20th mufti (another milestone) for A Time for Singing, Stafford Arima for Saturday Night and Dan Knechtges for My Favorite Year. There’ll be many more surprises announced as we get closer to each show, so everyone should get tickets early because they’re going to be very hard to come by as the season progresses.
CW: I’m very excited. The 90-odd Muftis so far have set a high bar … the four upcoming projects are intriguing, to say the least …
JM: All of us at the York are kvelling!