Having an arts festival in New York has always struck me as a daunting, if not foolhardy, notion. A festival? Really? In Manhattan? Then what do you call the rest of the nonstop culture in this city?
I've finally gotten over my disbelief that New Yorkers would find time between summer escapes to attend the challenging, often esoteric international offerings from the giant Lincoln Center Festival, which has been thriving since 1996.
But look at all the other bundles of events that constitute festival packages around town -- and have for a long time. Tomorrow is both the start of the glossy Lincoln Center Festival and the scruffier New York Musical Theatre Festival, which begins its 11th year of developing new musicals with a new executive director, Dan Markley.
The Midtown International Theatre Festival, now 14 years old, overlaps for a while with the eighth annual Summer Shorts Festival from July 18 to Aug. 30, which also shares two weeks in August with the massive 18th annual New York International Fringe Festival.
Asked why so many groups come together here in the name of official festivities, Markley sensibly points out that more theaters are available for short-term bookings in the slow months. Besides, he tells me, "There's only one New York City. Why not take advantage of it however we can?"
Here is a brief overview. Visit individual websites for program specifics, locations and prices.
LINCOLN CENTER FESTIVAL July 7-Aug. 16
This summer institution has an unusual shape this year, with less theater than usual and a hefty chunk of dance and opera, including the Bolshoi Ballet, Opera, Chorus and Orchestra. Also, for the first time in my memory, the festival is not contained in the month of July. Owing, perhaps, to the tour schedule of the Sydney Theatre Company, codirected by Cate Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton, the new production of Jean Genet's "The Maids," starring Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, doesn't happen until Aug. 6-16.
The fest starts out with Kabuki, specifically the return of Japan's Heisei Nakamura-za with a new adaptation of a classic revenge drama that translates "The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree." Also, there will be a Japanese Artisan Village on the Lincoln Center plaza through July 13. The mighty Bolshoi Ballet will bring three full-length evenings -- "Don Quixote," "Swan Lake" and that muscular 1968 spectacle, "Spartacus." The Bolshoi Opera will present two concert performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride." Over at the huge Park Avenue Armory, the Houston Grand Opera offers the New York premiere of "The Passenger," a little-known 1968 Holocaust opera by Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. And Rosas, the Brussels dance company founded 30 years ago by the innovative Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, returns to the festival for the first time in 15 years.
Phone: 212-721-6500 or visit lincolncenterfestival.com
NEW YORK MUSICAL THEATRE FESTIVAL July 7-27
Although co-founder Isaac Robert Hurwitz has moved to a position with Twentieth Century Fox's new Broadway arm, Markley says things are moving along "like a well-oiled machine." As customary, 24 shows will each have five performances of what's considered a full production -- that is, with sets, lights and costumes. Ten shows will have what he calls "developmental readings," and there will be such special events as a songwriting workshop and a July 19 exploration of musicals on television that celebrates the late composer Mary Rodgers.
It doesn't seem fair to single out one project, but there is understandable high-profile buzz around a recent-history musical called "Clinton" (with two actors playing different sides of Bill), another named "Oprahfication," not to mention "Wikimusical" and "Zombie Strippers." Since the festival has premiered more than 350 new musicals and helped give birth to "Chaplin," "[title of show]" and the Pulitzer-winning "Next to Normal," producers are expected to be shopping.
"Everyone is looking for the next thing," Markley says. "At heart, however, we are a writers' service organization."
Phone: 212-352-3101 or visit nymf.org
MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL July 14-Aug. 10
This is the festival that "celebrates the diversity of New York City and beyond," according to its website. There are more than 40 shows this summer, all offering what is comfortably described as low-tech productions. They range from the apparent lightheartedness of "Champagne Lady," Rick Burd's family play about Thanksgiving in a North Dakota trailer park, and the serious substance of Ingrid Griffith's autobiographical solo, "Demerara Gold," in which she plays 18 characters in the journey of a Guyanese girl in America.
Phone: 866-811-4111 or visit midtownfestival.org
SUMMER SHORTS July 18-Aug. 30
The festival of new American one-act plays, sponsored by the adventurous 59 E. 59th Street Theaters, includes work by new playwrights and such veterans as Neil LaBute, Albert Innaurato and Warren Leight.
Phone: 212-279-4200 or visit 59e59.org
NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL FRINGE FESTIVAL Aug. 8-24
This is the mad-happy series, which claims to be the largest multi-arts festival in North America, and why should we doubt it? More than 200 companies will perform over 16 days in 20 downtown venues. You try to keep track.