New York City, NY

This Dynamic Nonprofit Is Helping To Create Gender Parity In Musical Theater On Broadway

Jeryl Brunner

On March 20, 2020 when the pandemic caused Broadway shows to shut down, thousands of theater workers were suddenly out of work, including musicians in the orchestras and bands of Broadway’s musicals.

(From left Georgia Stitt and Kate Baldwin)

The population of music makers on Broadway is expansive. And yet, the music departments of Broadway shows has also vastly underrepresented by women. for years. They make up just 22% of those musicians.

Award-winning composer / music director Georgia Stitt is trying to change that. In 2017, Stitt started Maestra Music, a not-for-profit providing support, visibility, and community for the female, non-binary, and TGNC music makers in the theater industry.

Some of their 1000 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 many more, all of whom can 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, The gala will held on a new virtual venue powered by Broadway Unlocked. Directed and co-produced by Tony Award-nominee Kate Baldwin, the concert will include exclusive performances from Broadway stars like Ashley Park, Nikki M. James, Brandon Victor Dixon, Shoshana Bean, Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney.

Stitt and Baldwin shared more about Maestra, their hopes for Broadway when it returns, and what audiences can expect from their #Amplify2021 concert.  

Is it still true that there has only been one female orchestrator to have worked on Broadway in the last decade? And can you share how Maestra is 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. Specifically I’m thinking of Catherine Jayes on “The Color Purple,” Sara Bareilles on “Waitress” Katie Kresek on “Moulin Rouge” and AnnMarie Milazzo and Haley Bennett on “Once On This Island,”, and 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. If you ask me why that is, I would say, honestly, 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’s 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.

What inspired you to create Maestra?

Georgia Stitt: The inspiration story for the organization is actually pretty galvanizing. I was working as the music director for the Off-Broadway production of “Sweet Charity” in 2016 and our director, Leigh Silverman, asked us to hire an all-female band, paying attention to the racial diversity of the players. Trying to find those women was hard, and it forced me to look outside the core group of guys I had defaulted to hiring in the past. Once I got through the hiring process, I found I was the keeper of this rather valuable spreadsheet of women musicians, and so I hired a web designer to build a Directory. That directory now has over 1000 member profiles in it. They are all women, non-binary, and TGNC musicians who are ready to work. Figuring out how to support and showcase them has become the purpose of the organization. We officially became a 501(c)3 in 2019 and the organization has grown exponentially. Especially in this unbelievably hard last year, Maestra has been leaning in to community-building and education to make sure that when we are all able to come back to work, our members are skilled and ready.

Why is an organization like this necessary, and what are some of the things you’re doing to create more parity for women in theater?

Georgia Stitt: I wish our organization weren’t necessary. I have spoken recently about how the goal of a non-profit, in many ways, should be to put yourselves out of business. But until we get to the point where women are participating in roles of creativity and leadership at the same rates as their male counterparts, we’ve got plenty of work to do. At the center of the organization is our series of Virtual Technical Workshops, which we offer for free, and our robust mentorship program.

We’re sponsoring a statistics project using data from both the Musicians Union and the Dramatists Guild, and we’ve built two historical timelines on our website. We have a number of smaller groups that allow women in our community to be connected with each other and to share resources and information. Right before the industry shutdown, we were hearing stories about Maestra members out on the road who were connecting with Maestra members in the local towns where their tour had stopped, and I started to understand just how powerful this global network was becoming.

What are some of the ways audience members and producers can help Maestra’s mission? 

Georgia Stitt: The idea of visibility is an important one. Producers can commit to hiring more women musicians so we’re working together to combat this idea that only old white guys can conduct an orchestra. And when you try to hire a woman and she’s not available, you don’t then say, “Oh well, I tried.” You keep looking. You can also program a different kind of season, seeking out women writers and directors, or you can 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. And audience members have to know that they have an enormous amount of power. If you’ve never seen a woman conductor, mention it to your local theater, your local orchestra. Let them know that it matters to you. And then, start to check your own biases. If I ask you to name your ten favorite composers, are there any women on that list? Find the artists you like, follow them on social media, support their work, and make sure when your local theaters are planning future seasons, they know what you’re interested in seeing.

How has Covid-19 changed your programming and mission?

Georgia Stitt: A year ago in March 2020 we were less than two weeks away from our Maestra Launch Party when the industry shut down, and within a period of just a few days COVID required us to cancel. Instead of launching, we threw ourselves into moving our Technical Workshop Series online, and instead of charging for admission to those classes, we made them free, because everyone in our community was losing work and running scared. Hundreds of people started showing up each week, almost no matter what the topic was, and 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; allowing them to teach and learn among a community of fellow musicians, and we learned that even a $10 fee to participate could be the kind of barrier to access that kept some people out. 

You have so many incredible guests performing at your gala, #Amplify2021? What can viewers expect to experience? 

Georgia Still: I’m so excited about this event. And yes, we do have so many wonderful guests! We’ve partnered with Broadway Unlocked to create a virtual venue. The way it works is this: you'll enter the venue at 7 pm ET (4 pm PT) and you can check out the bar, the piano bar, the chat rooms, the gallery, the lobby or the green room. And then at 8 pm, 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.

Directed by Tony Award-nominee Kate Baldwin and hosted by Tony Award nominee Brooks Ashmanskas and Drama Desk Award winner Andrea Burns, the evening will include performances from Ashley Park, Nikki M. James, Brandon Victor Dixon, Tanya Birl, Kenita Miller, Shelley Thomas, Eva Noblezada, and Reeve Carney, along with appearances from Anais Mitchell (Tony Award-winning creator of Hadestown), Kirsten Childs (OBIE Award-winning creator of Bubbly Black Girl), Helen Park (Lortel Award-winning creator of KPOP), Rona Siddiqui (Larson Award-winning creator of Salaam Medina: Tales of a Halfghan), Britt Bonney, Kristy Norter, Dionne McClain-Freeney, Meg Zervoulis, Kat Sherrell, Nicole Rebolledo, Maestra founder Georgia Stitt (that's me), and a special appearance by Bernadette Peters.

Then... if you want to stick around, the after-party will include VIP rooms for people who donate $50, $250, or $500, and those rooms will be hosted by a slew of Broadway stars. You can join a room with Gavin Creel & Celia Keenan-Bolger; “Chers” Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks & Micaela Diamond; Chaplin co-stars Jenn Colella & Rob McClure; Book of Mormon original stars Nikki M. James & Michael James Scott; Mean Girls Ashley Park & Erika Henningsen; and The Prom stars Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla. AND, if you buy a top ticket, Maestra will mail a bottle of wine to your house from our wine sponsor, Oceano Wines.

What are you excited about for the future of Maestra and theater in general when Broadway returns?

Georgia Stitt: If we’ve done our job right, then 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, and they’re going to 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. And we’ll lead them, first, to our Directories. There are also a number of other organizations that have sprung up in the last year or so that can only help us all get closer to our goals. You may also want to look at The Broadway Sinfonietta, Girls Who Conduct, She is the Music, SoundGirls, or the Luna Composition Lab, for example.

But I gotta tell you, though, the thing I’m the most excited about is getting to hear these musicians play together. The big halls, the small clubs, the jam sessions — I miss it all. 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.

What advice would you offer women who want to make music in the musical theater industry? And what resources do you offer? 

Georgia Stitt: The best advice I have ever heard to women writers came from Danai Gurira in her speech at The Lilly Awards, and the main point she made was, “Go where you are loved.” Stop trying to prove to everyone that you’re worthy of accolades, and go hang out with the people who already know it. 

In terms of resources, Maestra has a wealth of them on our website, including an entire Resources page. But the most important resource we have is our network. That network shows up as our Directory, as the voices we amplify on our social media pages, as the women in our regional groups, as the folks who show up for our technical workshops, as our mentors and mentees, and, hopefully on March 29th, as our audience of friends, colleagues, supporters, and fans at Amplify.

Kate, how did you become involved in Maestra?

Kate Baldwin: Georgia Stitt has been my collaborator, music director and favorite composer for years. We have traveled the country together with my evening of songs, playing various venues throughout the US, we've recorded songs together and developed her musicals together. 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. I offered to help as a volunteer--really, it was a no-brainer as Georgia is a dear friend and is doing such important work.  I already knew so many of the impressive women in the organization and I've only grown more and more impressed as a result of working alongside them.

What has your experience been working with female musicians in your career. And why is it important we see more equity in this arena? 

Kate Baldwin: I have had two female music directors on Broadway and one off Broadway. I was in 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 have hitherto 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. Maestra's extensive directory with detailed profiles of its members seeks to introduce those who are looking to hire to those who would like to be hired.

What will audience experience watching #Amplify2021?

Kate Baldwin: Viewers can expect to hear stories from our members as well as 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.

What are some some Maestra programs that the money raised by #Amplify2021 will help support?

Kate 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 support our Mentorship Program, which pairs an experienced mentor with a newer mentee, who meet monthly to work together virtually. It will also fund Maestra chapters in other cities around the globe, the Maestra Care program, Maestra Moms and pay for our part time administrative assistant. Funding for more statistical research and DEI training will also come out of what is raised .

What do you miss most about Broadway and performing? 

Kate 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, always first and foremost, it’s about the people I work with. 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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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

New York City, NY

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