This Visionary Nonprofit Amplifies The Voices Of Female Musicians Who Make Up Musical Theater

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Women make up roughly 51.4% of the population. However, when it comes to a variety of fields they are vastly underrepresented. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics just 19% of software developers are women. Only 9.8% of them work in construction. They make up a mere 9.9% of the construction industry and a mere 5.2% of US aircraft pilots and flight engineers are female. 

In musical theater the odds for women aren’t much better. Only 22% of musicians in bands and orchestras in Broadway musicals are women. In the last decade just one woman, Lynne Shankel, the orchestrator for the Broadway show Allegiance was the sole orchestrator on a Broadway show. 

Georgia Stitt, a respected composer and music director is devoted to helping change this void. In 2016, when she was working as the music director for the Off-Broadway production of Sweet Charity the show’s director, Leigh Silverman, asked to hire an all-female band. 

“Trying to find those women was hard and forced me to look outside the core group of guys I had defaulted to hiring in the past,” says Stitt. Once she got through the hiring process, she realized she possessed a rather vast and valuable spreadsheet of women musicians. She then hired a web designer to build a directory. It has since grown to include more than 1000 profiles. “They are all women, non-binary, and TGNC musicians who are ready to work,” says Stitt. 

Stitt’s next mission was to figure out how to support and showcase all these talents who are not always visible.  And in 2017 Maestra Music was born. 

Maestra Music, which became an official 501(c)3 in 2019, offers support, visibility, and community for the female, non-binary, and TGNC music makers in the theater industry. Ever growing its many members include Tony and Grammy Award-winners like Hadestown creator Anais Mitchell, Frozen composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez, singer, songwriter Julie Gold, Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori and more. They can all be found in a directory that makes it easy for those doing the hiring to search for women who match their musical needs.

On March 29, Maestra will host its inaugural concert event, #Amplify2021, on the new virtual venue Broadway Unlocked. Directed and co-produced by Tony Award-nominee Kate Baldwin, the concert will include exclusive performances from a plethora of Broadway talents including Ashley Park, Nikki M. James, Brandon Victor Dixon, Eva Noblezada, Reeve Carney, Shoshana Bean and Bernadette Peters.

Viewers will be able to enter in and out of virtual rooms, connect with more Broadway stars and experience an after party. The pre show and event are free, but the post show rooms, with Broadway stars, require a donation of $50 or more.

When Stitt thinks of the future of Maestra and theater she is filled with hope. “If we have done our job right, when the theater starts to come back, people in all sectors of the industry are going to be having conversations about racial and gender equity,” she shares. “They will look to Maestra and our partner organization MUSE (Musicians United for Social Equity) for resources about to how to make the changes the industry is asking of them.”  

Yet the thing that excites her most is the day when she can hear the musicians play together in three dimension. “The big halls, the small clubs, the jam sessions—I miss it all,” she adds. “I can’t wait to sit in a Broadway theater and watch a conductor give her downbeat and hear the audience burst into applause because the show is finally starting.”

Jeryl Brunner: Is it still true that just one female orchestrator, Lynne Shankel, worked on Broadway in the last decade? And how is Maestra helping to change the landscape of inclusion?

Georgia Stitt: According to our research, the only person in the last decade to be the sole orchestrator on a Broadway show is Lynne Shankel, for Allegiance in 2015. Though there are several other women who have participated as part of an orchestration team. I’m specifically thinking of Catherine Jayes (The Color Purple), Sara Bareilles (Waitress), Katie Kresek (Moulin Rouge) and AnnMarie Milazzo and Haley Bennett (Once On This Island). Going a little further back Mary-Mitchell Campbell worked on Company in 2006 and Sarah Travis worked on Sweeney Todd in 2005. But those credits are few and far between.

Why is that? Most people don’t know so much about what orchestration is. And so when it comes time to hire an orchestrator, they reach out to someone who has done it before. But if you’ve never done it before, how do you break in, even when you’re skilled? That lack of access is part of what Maestra is trying to address.

Brunner: How can audience members and producers help Maestra’s mission? 

Stitt: The idea of visibility is an important one. Producers can commit to hiring more women musicians. And artistic directors can program a different kind of season, seeking out women writers and directors, or even take a risk on a talented voice who hasn’t already proven herself somewhere else. Men are often seen for their potential. Women are seen for their past achievements. Hire a woman because you believe she CAN do it, not just because she’s already done it. Audience members also have an enormous amount of power. If you have never seen a woman conductor, mention it to your local theater, your local orchestra. Find the women artists you like, follow them on social media, support their work.

Brunner: How has Covid-19 changed your programming and mission?

Stitt: In March 2020, we were less than two weeks away from our Maestra launch party when the industry shut down. Instead of launching, we threw ourselves into moving our Technical Workshop Series online. Hundreds of people started showing up each week, almost no matter the topic. We leaned into the community aspect of our mission statement more than ever. We began to understand how important it was for us to be filling this enormous empty space in these musicians’ lives.

Brunner: You have so many incredible guests at your upcoming gala. What can viewers expect? 

Stitt: We have partnered with Broadway Unlocked to create a virtual venue. It’s really a website but you’ll see it’s also a virtual venue. The way it works is this: you’ll enter the venue at 7 p.m. ET (4 p.m. PT). You can check out the bar, the piano bar, the chat rooms, the gallery, the lobby or the green room. At 8 p.m., we all head to the stage to watch the show together, chatting in real time and celebrating the programs and people who make up the Maestra community. It’s almost like you’re in a real theater! Then, if you want to stick around and donate, the after-party will include VIP rooms hosted by a slew of Broadway stars. 

Brunner: Why is Maestra special? 

Kate Baldwin: Georgia Stitt has been my collaborator, music director and favorite composer for years. When the pandemic closed down all live performance, I looked around for ways to get involved with organizations I care about. One of them is Maestra because it is looking to raise awareness about gender parity in the Broadway music scene. So I offered to help as a volunteer. 

Brunner: What has been your experience working with female musicians and why is it important to have more equity in this arena? 

Baldwin: I’ve had two female music directors on Broadway and one Off Broadway. I was in one musical composed by a woman and had numerous female musicians as collaborators in Broadway pits. It is important to see more equity in this arena because there are talented female players who have the skills to fill the many positions within the music department. But they have been left out. This business, like most businesses, relies on “who you know” so often and if you’re not “known” you don’t get an opportunity. 

Brunner: Can you give a preview of what people will experience at #Amplify2021?

Baldwin: Viewers will hear stories from our members along with performances from Broadway friends who are representing the work of four Maestras. Ashley Park sings a song from KPOP, with words and music by Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee Helen Park. Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney sing from Hadestown, with words and music by Tony winner Anais Mitchell. Brandon Victor Dixon will sing an original tune by Larson Award winner Rona Siddiqui. Nikki M James, Kenita Miller, Shelley Thomas, and Tanya Birl will sing from The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin by Obie Award winner Kirsten Childs.

Brunner: How will funds raised at the gala help support Maestra programs? 

Baldwin: The money raised will fund the Maestra technical workshops which are offered for free to anyone, not just members, who want to learn from them. It will fund Maestra chapters in other cities around the globe and support programs including the Mentorship Program, the Maestra Care program and Maestra Moms. It will also help fund more statistical research and DEI training.

Brunner: When Broadway returns what are you most excited about and what do you miss most about it? 

Baldwin: I’m excited to see the explosion of new work featuring new voices which will burst forth after being held back during this long year. The thing I miss most about Broadway is the community. For me, it’s about the people I work with and Maestra has provided that incredible community during this year of isolation. It has been the thing that has kept me going—the hope that we can build something that better represents who we are as a group.

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