An Interview with Georgia Stitt
Written by Victoria Myers
August 14th, 2014
“When you think about the parts that are written for women in musical theatre, so many more of them require them to be in sequin bikinis than to have a backbone and a point of view,” says Georgia Stitt, a composer and lyricist who is working to change that. Her musical Mosaic premiered off-Broadway in 2010, and her in-development musicals like Big Red Sun and The Water have won numerous distinctions. She has three albums to her credit: This Ordinary Thursday, Alphabet City Cycle (lyrics by Marcy Heisler), and My Lifelong Love (we’ll wait while you go buy them). She’s also done all things musical on screens big and small—from wearing a habit and music directing the nuns in The Sound of Music Live to being music supervisor on the film adaptation of The Last Five Years. But it’s not only through her own work that she’s helping to break the glass curtain—she’s also a big supporter of other women and serves on the Board of The Lilly Awards. She definitely has a point of view and a backbone, and that has us singing her praises.
(i.) Musical Language
Composing seems fascinating because it’s almost like speaking another language that everyone can understand, but that very few people can speak. What’s it like telling a story musically?
There is the instinctual part of telling a story musically, which is the improvisatory part of trying to capture a feeling—trying to understand what’s going on in a scene or with a character or with a journey—and trying to summarize that or support that with a feeling in the music. So there’s that, which I think is usually my first impulse—sitting down, usually at a piano, and improvising the way a scene makes me feel or the way I think the character feels. And then the bulk of it is really craft. It’s the stuff you learn in college. I often say it’s the math of it—figuring out harmonies and rhythms and structures. And that is like doing a jigsaw puzzle or geometry proof. It really is just trying to solve puzzles and make pieces fit, but to do that without compromising the feeling.
What is your relationship like with music? Do you see colors? Do you automatically imbue it with character?
I don’t have the color thing. I know a lot of people in our world who do. I have a really strong relative pitch, which means [music] sounds different to me if you’re playing it in G or in G flat— they have different sounds, and one is moodier and one is brighter than the other. My choice of key would definitely be part of trying to capture an emotion. But then also thinking things like, “How is this going to sound on the guitar?,” “How’s this going to sound on the piano?,” “How is this going to sound with the brass section?” So, understanding the tools of that. I tend to hear things structurally. I tend to hear things in sections, and how things move from one section to the next, more than bursts of color or energy.
Juxtaposition is such an evocative concept when it comes to music and lyrics. What’s it like playing with that? It seems like it offers a lot of possibilities.
When I was in college, one of the very first assignments my music composition teacher gave me was poetry setting. We spent weeks and weeks and weeks on just setting Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman poems, and figuring out how the language that already exists tells you what the music needs to be. So things like, is there already a rhythm in the words, are you going to choose to go along with that or are you going to try and mess with that, are you going to try and break it up in some way, are you going to put line breaks in different places than they already are? When the poetry is fixed, there are a lot of things that you already have in place that you can play with. And then things like, what is the most important word in this line, how can I make sure when you’re hearing it that it’s still the most important word? Is it the highest note? Is it the longest note? Does it have the hardest accent? How do I make the listener hear the text in the way that I hear it and the way that I think it should be heard? So those are the immediate decisions, I think, that come from pre-existing poetry. Then when you’re doing it yourself—when you’re writing your own music and lyrics—it’s like working backwards. Sometimes I write a poem first, or a lyric first, and I go through that same process with myself, but you can change it if you’re like, “But I really wanted this accent to land,” and you can just change the words. But if you’re setting Shakespeare, you can’t just change the words. And sometimes it’s setting the music first. You have a musical idea, and then it’s making sure the lyrics land on the beats you want them to land, and then by the time you get to the big long note it has an open vowel—it has a note that’s going to allow the singer to feel like he or she soars.
What’s a cultural experience that has led you to artistic growth?
I’ve had experiences where I’ve heard something and thought, “That’s so square, that’s so in the box.” And I don’t want my writing to be like that, so I’m going to open up the shape of the box. Because the result of most of my work is starting with that box and then going, “Okay, that’s not enough, that’s not good enough,” and then asking, what is surprising? What is interesting? What is different? And what is going to make the listener go, “Oh, that went somewhere other than where I expected it to go”? And so I’m inspired when I see someone else who has done that successfully.
You’re from the south, which has a certain mythology in American culture. Do you see any of that reflected in your writing?
I do. I grew up in Memphis and I have really easy access to the blues—and I don’t know where that comes from, since I’m not a person who really has that in my background. I grew up going to church, so that kind of Protestant diatonic church sound is very easy for me to access. If I sit down to improvise, those are the first two things that come out—things that sound church-y and things that sound gospel-y. I’m surprised that I haven’t written more about the South. I was in a sorority at Vanderbilt and I haven’t written about that. I haven’t figured out how to do it in a way where it doesn’t feel like I’m poking fun at it. I probably have that story in me still. When I go back to the South, there’s a lot that I resist about it and think that I’m glad I got out of here, but there’s also a lot that feels familiar to me. It feels like where I grew up and it feels like my roots. And I think I’m just now starting to come around to that. One of the pieces that I’m working on right now is set in the South and I said, “I want to figure out how to write about these people so you understand them and you relate to them; and they happen to be Southern and they happen to be religious, but we’re not making fun of them.” Certainly there have been lots of Southern playwrights that do that, but not so many musicals.
Do you see any themes in your work?
There are a lot of themes in my work. When I’m writing my own songs, just stand alone songs, I think I write about things that are familiar to me. About relationships and about motherhood and about time—those are the big ones. But when I’m writing for characters, I’m drawn to them if I feel like I relate to them in some way, but it depends on what the character’s needs are.
You’ve also worked on some big Hollywood productions. Do you feel your theatre background helped you with that?
Absolutely. The reason I was hired for them was because of my theatre background. The first TV show that I was offered was Grease: You’re the One That I Want, which was a reality TV show contest. I was hired [as vocal coach] on that because I lived in LA and Kathleen Marshall, who was the director of the show, insisted that they hire a music person who had some Broadway background. She didn’t want just an LA person who had never been on Broadway. She needed an ally because she said, “Whoever wins this contest actually has to do the Broadway show.” So I think it was sort of the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and having worked with Kathleen before. You never know exactly why you get a job, but I think that’s how that happened. And the music supervisor on that show was a man named Nigel Wright who is, among other things, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music supervisor in the UK, and he was one of Simon Cowell’s collaborators. So he was a great TV person to be allied with, and he has hired me for many other things since then. They all stem out of the same relationships and the same areas of expertise—it’s vocal coaching and musical directing as a result of having worked in both Broadway and TV.
You’ve done some projects recently that utilize both your theatre background and your TV experience.
I got cast in The Sound of Music [on NBC]—where I was both music director and actor (I’ve never been an actor before). But I was hired to work with the nuns. There were twenty-four nuns and David Chase, who was the music supervisor, wanted me to be there so I could be in costume if he needed me to be, but also so I could run rehearsals and that sort of thing. There was a real sense that we were making theatre—we were rehearsing in a rehearsal room, we were doing it live—but he needed someone who had done TV and knew how that part of it worked. And, right before that I did The Last Five Years movie [as music supervisor], and that was similar in that it was thinking about making theatrical choices. Richard LaGravenese was the director and writer, and really brilliant and wonderful. He’s a man of the film world but he loves theatre. So there were lots of things he’d want to do in one take because he wanted the actors to do the whole scene and experience the emotional arc. And that was great. Being able to understand both what he needed from me, for the cameras and the lights and the microphones and the pre-records, but also what the actor needed to be able to get through the emotional journey of the whole thing.
You have two daughters and a full-time career. Balancing the logistics alone must be a challenge. But being in a creative career there’s the added layer of needing time for dreaming about things and inspiration. How do you find time for that?
It is the thing that I compromise. I almost never have dreaming time—thinking time—and I probably suffer from it. It’s easier to be a writer when the kids are in school, or at camp, because I know they’re going to be gone from when I drop them off to when I pick them up. I know that’s time that I have. But the business requires you to have meetings and lunch meetings, and then your life requires you to do things like make sure there are groceries and make sure that you have babysitters lined up. I find that if I’m really, really in a place where I need the dreaming time then I can’t schedule anything. I’m like, “Today is a writing day,” and I write that on my calendar. And if someone says, “Can you meet on Tuesday?” I say, “I can’t. I’m busy that day.” And it really is just sitting there and staring at my computer or sitting at the piano. I find, sometimes, I feel guilty if I’m paying a babysitter for me to sit and think. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges of being this age, and at this point in life, and trying to do this. You can’t feel guilty about it—it’s your work. But it doesn’t feel like work unless you’re actually producing something or putting notes on the page or in rehearsal.
You graduated from the NYU MFA musical theatre writing program. In recent years, it seems like there are about an equal number of male and female graduates. Same for programs like BMI. Yet that’s not translating to equal numbers of productions. Any theories on why that might be?
I have a lot of theories about it, but I don’t know. I’m on the Board of Directors for The Lilly Awards, and we sit around and talk about these things. One of the things we’re noticing right now is that when you get to be my age, and in my generation, you have babies. And it’s not just about being a mother, but it’s about being part of a family. One of the things we noticed is that women between 25-45 don’t apply for the writer’s retreats. [For example] if I applied to the MacDowell Colony or Sundance and I got it, and they said, “You can come for three weeks in October,” then I think, “How am I going to do that? I have kids in school. How am I going to do that?” So, when I think it through, I think, I’m just not going to apply—I’ll figure out a way to write, but I’m not going to apply for that. So the women don’t necessarily get the opportunities. And I can just hear the arguments saying men are fathers and men have kids too. But the things like holidays and gymnastics class, in my experience, still tend to fall to the mothers. And there are so many examples where my theory gets blown out the window, and I know that I’m not saying anything absolute. But, if I list off the women my age who are trying to be in this business and trying to raise children at the same time, these are the conversations that we have—how are you doing it, how are you going to make that work, do you make enough to pay for your babysitter. So those are the tricky things that I feel like we are dealing with that are different from the things men deal with.
Even in terms of interviews, women get asked how they’re balancing things and men never get asked that.
You never see them get asked that. Never. And I get asked about my husband [Jason Robert Brown] all of the time and he never gets asked about me. Like, “What’s it like to be married to a composer?” I don’t know if he’s ever been asked that question. And it is always about balancing—that question. And there was a period of time, near the end of my LA period, where I was like, “I’m not going to answer that question anymore. I’m not going to talk about my kids.” And, then I thought, it’s denying a part of my identity. It’s a huge part of who I am and what I do.
Do you find there’s a connection between that difference and that perception in your work?
When I was living in LA, [actress/singer] Susan Egan and I had our babies at the same time. She was singing my music and we were building these cabaret shows. We were doing a lot of songs about motherhood, and at one point we wanted to call our show The Real Housewives of Broadway. We found when we did corporate gigs or we got booked on the Disney cruise we sold really well, but when we did cabaret gigs or nightclubs they didn’t sell as well. I realized we were becoming so specific to that [balancing motherhood] niche that we were sort of losing the gay male audience, which is a big supporter of cabaret. They didn’t think it was interesting, and the kinds of women who relate aren’t going to be able to come to a 9:30pm cabaret on a Wednesday night because they’re home with their kids. When we put videos on YouTube we were reaching women, but we couldn’t sell tickets. And that was interesting—that when you write about these issues of balancing family and career, the women who will most relate to them aren’t the ones with the time to go to the theatre every night.
You wrote a blog post about the idea of bringing all parts of one’s identity to your creative work, including being a woman. How do we make sure that women’s voices and perspectives don’t get lost or minimized in an effort to be produced?
My goal, and I really believe the goal of most people writing, is to have longevity in the business. Great if it pays your bills, and great if it allows you to meet fantastic performers and work with exciting people—but really, what you want to do is be able to keep doing it. Have a show that has someone say, “I like your work—will you do it again?” And in order to do that, I think you have to have a voice. You have to have an interesting voice. You have to say something that people think, “Oh I haven’t heard that before,” or, “I haven’t heard it articulated that way before.” Because in the absence of [an original] voice you could be anybody—you’re interchangeable with anyone who writes. The people I’m most interested in are the ones where you hear their work and it doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Earlier this summer The Kilroys came out with a list of female-authored plays for theatres to produce. Do you think something like that could be done for musical theatre? It seems the problems for women writing musicals start a little earlier.
If they came to me and said, “What do you have that’s ready to go that could be on the list?” I would say, “I don’t have anything that doesn’t need some kind of development.” So that’s interesting. I have maybe six or eight shows that maybe with a little bit of development would be primed to go. So maybe it’s about the development opportunities. I feel like in the development circles like NYMF and NAMT, there are a number of female composers. But then it is about the pieces that make it to Broadway. Or make it to production.
People seem more aware of the lack of female playwrights than composers.
I think that’s true of music, in general. You can read a review of a musical and they never mention the music. They don’t talk about the music. Once I was having a piece developed and the panelists all talked to me about the plot—and I didn’t write the plot. Most of the time, the notes I get in development are about the plot, and I didn’t write it. And that’s about people not knowing how to talk about music. And with the arts getting cut from schools, it’s not just that kids aren’t learning how to be musicians, but they’re not learning how to be audience members of music and they’re not learning how to talk about music. So I think that’s a problem. Then there’s the thing that happens, specifically in Broadway shows, where most of the time the sound is piped in from someplace you can’t see—the orchestra pit is hidden or in another room. People don’t listen to music in the same way. We’re not training them. And then when you add to that an awareness of gender…
You’re on the Board of The Lilly Awards. We think it’s really important for women to support other women. Why do you think it’s important to support other women?
I relate easily to women. I find having collaborators and colleagues and mentors who are women, it tends to go beyond just a professional relationship—it tends to be deep friendships and talking about what’s going on in your life. There’s something very nurturing. And being able to talk about what you’re struggling with and that sort of thing. I have male friends that fall into that category too, but there is something about building this network of female, professional colleagues that has been strengthening for me. There’s one female composer that I know that I’ve heard other people say, “She writes like a girl.” And I think, “What does that mean?” And I don’t know what it means. But it’s interesting because I don’t think it’s wrong. Because she does write like a girl. I was music directing when I was right out of graduate school and [the male composer] came up to me after rehearsal one day and said, “You know what I like about you? I love the way you play because you play like a man.” And I was taken aback and he was like, “No, no, no, it’s a good thing.” And I remember just mulling that over. Does it mean that I play with strength? Does it mean that my hands are large? What does it mean? I’ve spent years wondering what that meant. And I know he meant it as a compliment, but it was a pivotal moment to me to try and figure out what that means.
Doing something like a girl or woman isn’t a negative.
Exactly. It isn’t a negative. I am a girl. I am a woman. So I should play like a girl. Just owning that’s what you do and that’s not a bad thing. And instead of rejecting the “like a girl” part—what is it that girls have to say? What is it that I can say, specifically, that my husband and all of his male colleagues can’t say—because I have a different perspective, because I’ve lived a different life, because I’ve been treated differently, because I’ve seen the world differently. And what are those stories? We need all writers [of different voices] to be heard. We need no one to be diminished because they aren’t mainstream. And if all stories are being told by white men, they’re going to be told differently. It’s not just that seasons are being programmed with men, it’s also maybe audiences haven’t been taught to hear stories unless they’re told in the way they expect to hear them. So there’s something about training audiences too.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I have really strong memories of my great-grandfather, who was born in 1894, and of being a kid and having him tell me stories of what it was like for him growing up. One of the stories I remember really clearly is, where he lived, the newspapers were delivered once every two weeks, and he said that his father would put them on the hearth of the fireplace, and read one a day for two weeks until the next ones were delivered. So he got the news daily, but it was always two weeks behind. And I loved that story.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Sondheim. Leonard Bernstein. Stravinsky. I had a whole period of time where I got very into female writers, but it wasn’t until college. I was very into Anaïs Nin in college. And George Eliot and Middlemarch. And a lot of female poets. I’ve set a lot of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. But the heroes [growing up] were mostly men. I read everything I could find on Leonard Bernstein. Part of what I loved about him was that, he was such a consummate musician, he seemed to be celebrated in the classical music world and in the musical theatre world. And I think the questions about balance between work and family, he was dealing with in terms of classical music and theatre music—he was struggling to be valid in both worlds, and he sort of wasn’t allowed to be. And then I also feel like he lived so large—his romances and his passions—I just thought that he had a big life and I aspired to that. And now that I’m in my 40s I’m like, “Big lives are complicated.” I don’t know if I’d aspire to have the life that he had, but it certainly seemed very glamorous from afar.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
When I had to put my kids needs before my own.
What other areas of culture do you find most evocative?
I’m a big reader. I love reading. In LA we went to the symphony every month, which is harder to do in New York, but we go as often as we can. For me, it’s mostly words and music. And travel. I love exploring a new city or new country.
What type of literature do you like?
Everything. I love contemporary fiction. The classics. I started in college with the classics and just kept going. I’m reading Madame Bovary right now because I never got to it [in school]. I get really mad when I read something that’s supposed to be a good novel, and it’s not. I recently read a novel by a celebrated male writer, and everyone said it was so good, but I found it so tedious and, in this case, I found it so boy. I just found it such a story about testosterone, but in a way that I didn’t relate to at all. Not for me.
What are your top 5 favorite contemporary novelists?
- Ursula Hegi
- Siri Hustvedt
- Jose Saramago
- TC Boyle
- Louis de Bernieres or Jonathan Franzen
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
If you see a show is written by a woman, buy a ticket. And seek out the music that is written by women. It’s so rare to think of a classical music program—or even contemporary—where one of the composers is female. And when female composers are on the program it’s often an evening of female composers. So buy a ticket for that, but especially if it’s a woman who is programmed and no one is making a big deal about it—it just is. That’s the thing to support because you’re saying, “I see this and I’m not shying away because I don’t know what this is.” Even bigger than that, I think, it’s about supporting people in the developmental stages. But I think, for the average theatregoer, it’s about buying tickets if you see it’s a female writer or director or composer—what you’re saying to the theatre is, “I support this. These things will sell.” I think the fear is, “If I program women, no one is going to come.” That they won’t sell. That no one is interested in those stories. So the way to say we’re interested in those stories is by buying tickets. I think the work that we’re all doing to bring attention to the issues of parity is working. More people are talking about it this year than last year. And there’s something now about [companies] not wanting to be one of the organizations that doesn’t program women. The goal is to get to where we don’t have to say female composers or female directors, but just composers and directors.
You can follow Georgia on Twitter: @georgiastitt and Instagram: @georgiastitt.