For female musical theater composers, this season has been a mixed bag. Of eight original Broadway scores, just one, Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, was written by a woman. Yet with its standing-room-only audiences and 14 Tony Award nominations, the folk opera appears to be a hit, a sign that non-traditional work — by a man or woman — can defy conventional wisdom of what belongs on Broadway.
Georgia Stitt, a composer, lyricist and music director, created Maestra, an advocacy and support group for female composers and musicians working in theater.
Stitt is scheduled to appear Sunday at the Minetta Lane for the Lilly Awards, which highlights the work of women in American theater. She recently spoke by phone from her Upper West Side apartment. The conversation was edited and condensed.
Q: Why is Maestra’s focus composing rather than lyric or book writing?
Stitt: I started Maestra as a group for composers. It’s very rare that you’re in an industry situation where anyone knows how to talk intelligently about the music. Theater reviews never talk about the dramaturgical work composers are doing. I happen to be married to a composer [Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music and lyrics to Bridges of Madison County] and we talk like that all the time. And when we speak to other musicians, that’s what we talk about. And I thought, I, would like to have that sort of group with my women friends who do this. Not just composers, but music directors, the rehearsal pianist, cellists, copyists, orchestrators, the whole music staff. We talk about how you use music to tell a story.
I was a music student, not a theater student. I went to classical music camps. I played in classical music competitions. And it was in college and in summer stock that I made my way to the theater. I was a music head at first. It’s a different identity.
Q: I was surprised by how few women composers there have been on Broadway. [The timeline doesn’t include musicals by male composers and female lyricists, such as Sweet Charity (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields) or Ragtime (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.]
Stitt: I think the reason it’s shocking is because we often throw composers and lyricists into the same category. The numbers get much bigger when you include the lyricist. The thing that really sent me reeling is the dearth of women [composers] in the golden era of musical theater.
There is Kay Swift, who wrote Fine and Dandy, which is credited as the first hit musical written entirely by a woman. It was 1930. There’s nothing for 20 years. Then there’s Mary Rodgers [Once Upon a Mattress and others]. Not to diminish what she did, but she was the daughter of Richard Rodgers. She had access to this industry in a way that other composers don’t. From 1930 to the early 1970s, there’s pretty much only Mary Rodgers.
Q: Do you see many more women in the field? The BMI Workshop [the high-profile incubator of composers and lyricists] says its incoming classes are now at least 50 percent women.
Stitt: I’m not sure whether there are more women or if they’re just gaining visibility. But I’ve heard many stories from my Maestra composers and from faculty members about these cultural things that happen. Girls saying, ‘I want to be a conductor’ and they’re told, ‘No, you want to be a piano teacher’ — or, ‘You want to be a music teacher.’ Many times when I’ve conducted an orchestra at the Broadway level, somebody in the audience makes some crack. ‘Oh my gosh, a lady conductor! That’s rare.’
We’re looking at how we can change attitudes, so if women want to study conducting, they’re encouraged to do so. Or if women want to study composing, they’re not told, ‘Oh, be a singer-songwriter.’ So the idea that you can actually handle the score for a Broadway musical or run a music department on a Broadway show is not something that shocks people.
Q: The Broadway audience is two-thirds female and recently a number of musicals by women have done well, including Beautiful, Kinky Boots, and Fun Home. Do women have an advantage in writing women-driven storylines and/or characters?
Stitt: It’s surprising to me that it’s not obvious. It’s so important to see women writing women characters. But if we say that men can’t write women, we’re creating a corollary where women can’t write men. That’s not helpful to us either.
There are historically great iconic women written by men, in shows like Hello, Dolly! and Gypsy, but no one would argue they’re written from a woman’s point of view. When Kelli O’Hara did The Bridges of Madison County, she said in an interview with The Interval that it was the first time she had ever spoken words on a stage that were written by a woman, by Marsha Norman. She was shocked at the depth of the character and the things that she said and was allowed to feel.
Q: Nearly half of the musicals composed by women in the past century are in the last 20 years. Is that progress?
Stitt: Yes. In the last 10 years, the world is much more aware of the issues of gender parity. And in the last five, there’s been pushback against an all-male or an all-white creative team. I think in some cases it’s the fear of public shaming that sends people looking for women. The majority of jobs that I’ve gotten or been asked to submit for are because someone in the conversation said, ‘We need some diversity on the creative team.’ And I’m a white lady. I’m not even really the diversity factor. But given the statistics I’m up against, I think, ‘Whatever gets me in the door.’
Q: Is the biggest challenge that most women composers lack a commercial track record?
Stitt: There’s a theory in both the corporate world and in theater that you want to hire someone that reminds you of a younger you or a younger Stephen Sondheim or a younger ‘Who’s going to be the next one that already was.’ And part of what we’re doing with the music directors training program at Maestra is trying to encourage successful male music directors to hire female assistants. Many of them do but for the ones that don’t, we’re asking, ‘Why haven’t you?’ And the answer sometimes is ‘I don’t know any.’ Part of our directory is making those women available and making them easy to research.
Q: There are more working women producers, more diversity among artistic directors and more influential female directors. Are you optimistic?
Stitt: I’m optimistic in the same way that I’m optimistic about my career. I’m at the peak of fighting for it. If you keep doing the work, eventually things are going to change on some level. And I think even the fact that we’re having this conversation is significant. To be blunt, it’s been a thing women have been talking about for a long time. But the minute that it’s not just a women’s issue, it’s actually an industrywide issue. That’s when it has gravitas. So it’s significant to me that the men are paying attention.
Stitt’s credits include Snow Child, (music co-written with Bob Banghart, and lyrics), which premiered last year at Washington’s Arena Stage; and Samantha Spade — Ace Detective, written with Lisa Diana Shapiro, which premiered at the TADA! Youth Theater in 2014. Maestra’s timeline was compiled by Shoshana Greenberg.
Editor: Alice Scovell