By Tulis McCall
Jim Morgan, Producing Artistic Director at the York Theatre (not the spelling please) is a family guy. His family is the team he has nurtured at the York since his arrival there in 1974, five years after its inception. It did not take long for him to discover that he and Janet Hayes Walker, the Founding Artistic Director of the York, shared a similar taste in theatre. They also shared a vision of a warm friendly family feeling for the staff, the artists, the audience and the community.
One thing led to another and soon Morgan was involved in running the theatre. Together he and Walker weathered storms as well as successes of all shapes and sizes and oversaw the theatre’s transformation into a theatre that produced musicals exclusively, both new musical works as well as musical gems from the past. As Morgan says they produce the old and the new; the classic and the emerging. Walker passed on in 1997 and Morgan assumed the mantle of Producing Artistic Director.
When the Covid Pandemic hit, it caught The York Theatre mid-stride. Productions and readings in the pipeline and a gala planned to celebrate their 50th (count ‘em) anniversary. It was Morgan’s job to fall back, punt, and bring his team with him. In that way the York was in sync with every theatre from Broadway to Off-Off Broadway, to movie houses, cabarets and clubs. The signs read c-l-o-s-e-d wherever you looked.
But the ADDITIONAL challenge is the one that puts the York in a league of its own. On January 4th of this year a water main at 53rd and Lexington burst, sending boat loads of water gushing into St. Peters Church, home to the York for the past 30 years. The water leaked through the floor and stairwells several levels down to the York where it flooded the stage, the offices, the storage space, dressing rooms and shops where the sets and costumes were built. The seats and risers in the audience were spared, but everything stored beneath them was not. Roughly 2.5 feet of water everywhere. Again, again it was Morgan, with support from Executive Director Evans Haile and General Manager Aaron Simms, who has had to lead the company and support team out of the depths of a catastrophe into recovery mode and eventually back to the path toward hope. They had two weeks to get everything they could salvage out before mold set in.
New storage space was found. They hired a company to freeze dry the soggy scripts and save them. The unsalvageable was tossed.
This is a video https://fb.watch/4y-wFAfinO/ of the before and the after.
And now – they are in the “Hurry up and wait mode,” while the theatre, the insurance company, the church and the property owner all convene to see what damage is covered and what is not. Slicing up the pie.
There is no question in Morgan’s mind that they will survive. There are only the pesky details to explore, like when and where and how. Those details. If they stay, the entire theatre will have to be rebuilt, and this is contingent upon the church repairs. If they move – where will they land and how will that affect their relationship with their members and their community?
While they wait to see which way the pendulum will swing –– the York has maintained its presence on the Internet and expanded its offerings on its YouTube Channel https://www.youtube.com/user/yorktheatre/videos. It is a way to continue celebrating 50 years of producing. “In The Pipeline” is a series that features authors and composers with new works as well as a snippet or two of a few songs. “Show (+ Tell!)” is a series that brings together cast and creatives for shows that were produced years ago at the York. Some of these people have not seen each other in decades and the reunions have been both poignant and hilarious. Recent shows (21 so far) include the 1999 production of Duke Ellington-John Latouche 1946 musical Beggars Opera (based on the opera of the same name penned in 1728 that was also the source material for Threepenny Opera), the 2016 production of A Taste Of Things to Come as well as their 1989 production of Sweeny Todd, which moved to Circle In The Square.
On a lighter note there have been occasional cooking shows – A Taste of York and a theatre trivia In Philly, Boston, or Baltimo’, featuring Broadway reminiscences by Josh Ellis and Peter Filichia, hosted by 13-year-old theater maven (and mensch) Charles Kirsch.
In addition to maintaining their YouTube presence, they are also fundraising, and the community has responded magnificently. Here is a link to the GoFundMe campaign. Morgan has gotten letters from hundreds of people who think of York as a vibrant and welcoming part of their lives – even if they no longer live here. They believe that the theatre is not only important to them personally, but that it is important to New York City.
What makes the York unique is that they do both old and new musicals. Morgan doesn’t consider the York’s productions of older musicals revivals because often the writers were and are available to reexamine their work and make adjustments.
“You can write for the future while learning from the past. You can learn from the brilliant and the less than brilliant moments. Writers get a chance to revisit their past shows and improve them. Audiences get a chance to appreciate them anew.”
The York mounts musicals through a reading series, or a limited Musicals in Mufti presentation, or a full main stage production. Main Stage productions generally depend on outside funding: friends, foundations, corporations (The Clay Math Foundation funded the production of Fermat’s Last Tango for instance). Successful Main Stage productions include “Closer Than Ever” originally opened Off Broadway in 1989 and was produced at the York in 2012 where it ran for 5 months. On the emerging side, Robert Creighton’s “Cagney” was produced in 2015 and moved to the Westside Theatre where it ran for over a year.
There are staff members who have been hired during the pandemic and remain screen only for the time being. Jim cannot wait to meet them in person. And he cannot wait for them to meet the members in person and safely. As one audience member wrote when he sent a donation “When I come off that elevator I feel like I am home. I am welcomed. I don’t get that everywhere.”
So while the future is uncertain, the family affair is carrying on with style and grace. There is a heart behind everything at the York.
SUNDAY, APRIL 18 AT 7PM!
The York Theatre Company, in association with Tom D’Angora, Michael D’Angora and Tim Guinee, present an All-Singing, All-Talking, All-Virtual presentation of the off-Broadway hit THE MUSICAL OF MUSICALS (THE MUSICAL!): Sometimes One Musical Star Just Isn’t Enough!
With music by Eric Rockwell, lyrics by Joanne Bogart and book by Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell, this special benefit performance is directed byTom D’Angora and Michael D’Angora, with music direction and arrangements by Deniz Cordell and original director Pamela Hunt serving as artistic supervisor. This event will raise funds to help The York recover and rebuild after the devastating damage from a water main break on January 4, 2021.
This all-star event will feature appearances by Tony Award winners MatthewBroderick, Betty Buckley, André De Shields, Jane Krakowski, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Chita Rivera and Lillias White; Oscar and Tony Award winner Mercedes Ruehl; Drama Desk Award winners Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Jose Llana and Isaac Mizrahi; Olivier Award winner Lesli Margherita; Emmy Award winner Debra Messing; Tony Award nominees Andrea McArdle, Brad Oscar and Ethan Slater; Emmy Award nominees Giancarlo Esposito, Martha Plimpton and Randy Rainbow; and Lucille Lortel Award winner Soara-Joye Ross. They are joined by Christy Altomare, Colleen Ballinger, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Telly Leung, Kelvin Moon Loh, Christine Pedi, Jelani Remy, Jackie Sanders, Michael West and Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Bogart and Rockwell’s The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) is structured in five acts, each of which is a mini-musical parodying (and paying homage to) the style of a legendary musical theater writers: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander & Ebb. Each act is based on the same classic melodrama plot: “I can’t pay the rent … You must pay the rent … I can’t pay the rent … Then I’LL pay the rent!”The Musical of Musicals, which The York helped develop and create, received its off-Broadway premiere there in 2003 with an extended run. It was transferred by Melanie Herman and The York to New World Stages in 2005 for a 500-performance commercial run. The original cast album is on JAY Records.