In a city where creating new musicals remains a perennial challenge, the closing of the not-for-profit Musical Theatre Works (MTW) after 21 years of operation is an indication that the economic recovery has yet to fully reach some Off- and Off-Off-Broadway groups.
Interviewed by Back Stage on Fri. June 25, nine days after the MTW board voted to suspend operations—and with the company preparing to vacate its headquarters by Wed., June 30—Artistic Director Thomas Cott seemed to suggest as much.
"Certainly, like a lot of small nonprofit theatres in New York, we have been struggling to raise money during a very difficult time," Cott said. "And we know we're not the only company to face this problem. But we have been dealing with it for a long time—over two years—and unlike other theatres that are stronger, we don't have any reserve funds or any endowment or anyone to write us a huge check. In the past, we've been scrappy and done what we needed to do, like an emergency fundraising campaign. But you finally reach a point where you can't keep doing that, and we reached a point where we had to say the right thing to do is suspend operations and see if the company can come back in some other way. For now, this was the financially responsible thing to do."
Over the course of its history, Musical Theatre Works has distinguished itself as one of the premier hothouses for the development of new work, contributing to the creation of over 200 new musicals, including commissions, workshops, and readings. MTW also ran a number of development programs, from Springboard NYC, "a college-to-career 'boot camp' for aspiring artists," to songwriting workshops and a Meet-the-Artist series.
In recent years, MTW had sought—and to some degree achieved—a higher industry profile. In 2001, for example, "A Class Act," which was developed by Cott's predecessor, Lonny Price, transferred to Broadway and captured five Tony nominations. And in 2002, facing a growing deficit in the wake of the recession and Sept. 11, MTW created a benefit reunion concert of the musical "Merrily We Roll Along," generating some $200,000 for the organization.
A written statement announcing MTW's closure noted that three musicals currently coming to the fore—Michael John LaChuisa's "R Shomon," running in July at the Williamstown Theatre Festival; "It's Only Life: The Songs of John Bucchino," running in the 2004 Summer Play Festival on Theatre Row; and "Harold and Maude: The Musical," running in January 2005 at Paper Mill Playhouse—were all developed under the company's auspices.
In the same statement, MTW Executive Director Randy Ellen Lutterman openly lamented the decision of the board to shutter. "New York needs a company like Musical Theatre Works. Audiences are hungry for new musicals, but where will they come from? There aren't many producers who have devoted the money, staff, and time to develop new writers and new projects the way MTW has."
Cott told Back Stage that while many companies talk about reinventing after dissolving and never do, the chances are good that MTW, which had considerable overhead given its operation of several floors of rehearsal and performance space on Lafayette Street, could indeed resurface in a different guise. "Our board met again on Thursday [June 24] and I was delighted to hear that no one has left. Of course, we're all very saddened by this [decision], but I think everyone agrees that this is the responsible thing to do. The staff is being laid off and we're leaving our space, but the impulse behind our organization stays, and the board has not given up."
Cott did say, however, that the rent on the Lafayette Street space had little to do with the decision to shutter MTW. "I don't think I can go into financials around our decision. [But] our landlord has been great and supportive and understanding—it's not a bad landlord story at all. It's a lot of factors—there was no one thing that was a final straw, but the conglomeration of a lot of factors."