Growing up in Las Vegas, Ilana Atkins started studying piano at six but eventually hit a wall with classical music.
“The music didn’t speak to me,” she said. “As I got older, the most consistent response I got was, ‘Oh girl, you’re light skinned and you play the piano, you could be the next Alicia Keys.'”
“I was like, ‘are those my only options? I’m either doing pop music or I’m sitting in a practice room for the rest of my life?'”
In her teens, Atkins found her way to musical theater and in 2019, she was the associate conductor of the Broadway revival of the musical Once on this Island. This past weekend found her in the Zoom where it happened — at the inaugural event of Musicians United for Social Equity. The group aims to make live theater’s pits, podiums and rehearsals rooms more inclusive and more diverse, particularly in the fields of arranging, orchestrating and conducting musical scores.
“If we can help other people get past the barrier of, ‘oh I’m a girl, they’re never going to hire me,’ or ‘I’m a Black or brown artist, they’re never going to hire me,'” Atkins said, the change will benefit “both those individual musicians and the industry as a whole.” (Atkins, like the others quoted in this story, is a founding member of the organization.)
Moderating the MUSE event was Alex Lacamoire, the arranger, orchestrator and music supervisor, whose credits include Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton and In The Heights. He cited the advocacy groups We See You, White American Theater and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which have pressured the industry to scrutinize itself and the ranks of every component of how shows are created, from development through production. “It is imperative that we come back to work with a different mindset, whenever our medium is restarted,” he said.
The musicians said the shutdown brought on by the pandemic has had a silver lining in giving them time to form their group. Video conferencing systems like Zoom, which gained widespread acceptance this year, facilitates mentoring young musicians.
“We’ve all moved online and so access is a different thing now,” said Mary-Mitchell Campbell, a musical director and arranger who worked on The Prom and Mean Girls. “It’s kind of strange to look at everybody in a box, but we have access. We have the ability to have these conversations and this is what we’re moving towards, finding ways to connect.”
Kenny Seymour, the musical director of Memphis and Ain’t Too Proud, recalled that his mentor Harold Wheeler, an acclaimed orchestrator, was invaluable when he transitioned to theater from working as a touring musician. “Harold, amongst others, would answer those questions that I just couldn’t learn in school.”
MUSE plans to create online workshops to teach skills for working in theater. And it followed the lead of Maestra, a partner organization that composer and musical director Georgia Stitt created for women musicians, by starting a directory of musicians of color.
“No one should ever be able to say, ‘I didn’t know where the Black or brown or people of color musicians were,” said Zane Mark, an orchestrator and arranger who co-wrote the music to the late 1990s hit Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. “That can never be an excuse anymore.”
Stephen Oremus — an arranger, conductor and orchestrator whose resumé includes Avenue Q, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots and Frozen — hopes to develop a MUSE fellowship to assist music assistants of color. He said that many of the music assistants he’s worked with later rose in the business.
“We have the opportunity in our little corner of Broadway, in our music departments, to set an example for other departments in the industry,” Oremus said.
“The way this industry works is, you build a professional reputation, you work with people who end up loving working with you and they give you more work or recommend you to someone else,” he said. “We can get people in the room to build those relationships.”