By Justin Sanders
When Broadway went dark last year, the curtain came down on the livelihoods of nearly 100,000 workers. But it wasn’t just job loss suffered by people like Georgia Stitt – it was their sense of self.
“The loss of income is one thing that is hard to reconcile,” the composer, lyricist, music director, pianist, and music producer told CreativeFuture, “but the loss of a musical identity was a shock, and it remains shocking.”
A skilled pianist from an early age, Stitt started composing her own music in high school. In college, she worked as an accompanist for a summer stock theater company, where she had to learn to play a new musical every week. “I realized that these theatrical scores were complex pieces of music in their own right and that somebody had written them,” she said. “Also, they were fun to work on and theater people were also fun.”
Stitt set her sights on a career in musical theater. She earned an MFA in musical theater writing from New York University and upon graduation found quick work as a music director for regional theater productions. Today, she is a staple of New York’s musical theater scene, with numerous original productions under her belt (Snow Child, Big Red Sun) as well as multiple albums (including the pandemic release, A Quiet Revolution) and countless credits as a producer, arranger, conductor, and music supervisor for projects ranging from Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors to the Anna Kendrick film, The Last Five Years.
During the pandemic, Stitt has stayed busy through her advocacy work with the Dramatists Guild and through running her nonprofit Maestra – which provides support, visibility, and community for women who make the music in the musical theater industry. But paid projects have, naturally, been few and far between for even artists as accomplished as her, and it was a relief when she was able to resume work as music director on the Netflix movie 13: The Musical, which went back into production in January. Without it, she readily admits, “my family would be in very scary shape financially.”
JUSTIN SANDERS: When we first spoke, in January, you were in the process of auditioning people over Zoom for 13. Then, at the end of April, Deadline announced that 13 had “found its stars”. And then on May 24, it was announced that Debra Messing joined the cast. This is all good news, of course, but seeing as it’s now been months since you and the production team began the process, it seems like casting a feature adaptation of a Broadway musical is pretty complicated?
GEORGIA STITT: Ha – you’ve been keeping tabs! Yes, to say it’s complicated is an understatement. In addition to finding the people who can sing and dance and act who are also the right ages and types who are willing to travel to another country during a global pandemic, which will require them to quarantine before they can start working, you’re also balancing the opinions and preferences of the creative team, the producers, the director, and the network. That said – everything is right on schedule, and we have found the most perfect and talented cast!
JS: That’s great to hear the production is moving forward because I know that career-wise, things have not been especially easy for theater artists during the pandemic.
GS: That’s right. There are many people in theater struggling right now but my particular situation involved the release of an album I had recorded (A Quiet Revolution), which was planned for late March 2020. When the pandemic set in and the musical theater industry shut down entirely, the album release and everything else involving its promotion shifted to an online format, and all the concerts that I had lined up around it disappeared. And then all the other live performances, in every other aspect of my work, just fell away one after the other – and have been gone ever since.
There have been one-off things involving teaching and other supplemental gigs over the last year or so, but without this Netflix movie, my family would be in very scary shape financially.
JS: Do you miss performing live?
Desperately. My identity is a musician, a person who performs music. I’m not a performer like actors and singers are performers. I don’t perform in Broadway shows, for instance – but part of the way that musicians communicate is being in the same space with each other and breathing the same air and collectively making choices about pacing or rhythm or tone. And none of that can happen over Zoom. The loss of income is one thing that is hard to reconcile, but the loss of a musical identity was a shock, and it remains shocking.
JS: How have you coped with this void in your life?
GS: I’m very lucky that my husband is also a musician, and our kids are also musicians, so we make music in our house. We get out our guitars or we play piano duets, or we listen to music and dance around. There is music-making on that level, but the thing I miss the most is working one-on-one with a singer while playing the piano – making interpretive choices together.
It can be scary because I feel like these are skills that wither if you don’t tend to them. We were probably eight weeks into the lockdown when I realized that I hadn’t really been playing the piano. I didn’t have a habit of practicing before the pandemic because I would play so much over the course of the day, for work, that I didn’t need to. I actually had to get out some of my high school repertoire last year and start playing it again just to keep my muscles from deteriorating and my brain from forgetting it.
JS: Speaking of high school, were you a musical theater kid growing up?
GS: No, I was a classical music kid and, because I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, I was also a marching band kid. I played both piano and clarinet. Then one summer, after my sophomore year, I went away to a five-week classical music camp where I had the option to study composing for the first time. By the end of those five weeks, I had written a piece for my roommate, a duet for the two of us to play together. We performed it at the camp’s parents’ weekend and I got a lot of applause, and I was like, “Oh, this is fun and special.”
When I came home that summer, I told my parents that I wanted a composition teacher. I studied composing for the next two years of high school so when I graduated, I had a portfolio – and that’s what got me into college.
JS: Where did the musical theater component enter the picture?
In college, because I played the piano, I started getting work as an accompanist for little musical theater productions. My conducting teacher asked me if I wanted to go work at a summer stock theater, which was one of those “nine shows in 11 weeks” deals. You do a different show every week, which meant I would have to sit there on the piano and work intensely on a show for a week, and then they would move into performance and I would start learning the score for the next show. I realized that these theatrical scores were complex pieces of music in their own right and that somebody had written them. Also, they were fun to work on and theater people were also fun. I started wondering how one makes a life in the theater. I tried writing a musical myself and then got into grad school for musical theater writing.
JS: How did you then make the transition to becoming a working musical theater artist?
GS: I had a year off between college and grad school and during that year, I worked as a music intern for the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut – a theater that produces only musicals. I started in September and the very first show that I worked on transferred to Broadway, which meant that half of the regular music department people went to New York and the people left behind in Connecticut, including me, had to put the next show up – because the Goodspeed still had a season that they had to do.
So, eight weeks into my internship I got promoted from intern to resident assistant music director.
JS: Wow, what a stroke of luck.
GS: Hold on, it gets better. So, then the second show that I worked on, Swinging on a Star, also transferred to Broadway.
JS: What!? That’s crazy!
GS: [Laughs] It was definitely a fluke of a year. Two consecutive shows going to Broadway has never happened at the Goodspeed before or since. In any case, this time, I got to go with the production to New York and be a part of transferring a musical to a Broadway stage.
JS: And what was that like, going to Broadway for the first time, at such a young age?
GS: It was… thrilling and daunting at the same time. What I remember most about those early years is that I don’t think I comprehended how high the musical bar was for people who work at that level. I was a classically trained musician now working on a jazz show, and very, very quickly I had to tap into a whole new set of skills – improvising, reading chord charts, following a conductor, taking a solo. The guys in the band taught me a lot but I must have been quite a project for them!
In any case, by the time I got to grad school a year later, I already had this random Broadway credit and a Rolodex of contacts. And then I’ve just always been a good pianist and I can sightread, which is very important in the theater – people put music in front of me and I can play it. That is a very valuable skill, and so the summer after I graduated, I got two consecutive regional theater jobs, both from professors in my program. And I was off and running.
JS: Besides working as a music director, you were also writing your own original musicals. What were some of the early musicals you wrote out of grad school that got productions?
GS: The first one to get a full production was called Big Red Sun, about a man who is a rock musician in the ‘60s, learning about his father who died in World War II, and who was also a musician. So, you’ve got this kid who is basically Bob Dylan and his dad, who is basically Benny Goodman, and the piece traces what happened in that 20-year period to change music, and the country, so drastically. I loved working on that piece.
Another one I’m quite proud of is called Snow Child, about a couple in the 1920s who moves to the Alaskan wilderness after the loss of their child. It required the usage of bluegrass music, which was an entirely new skill I had to learn, so that was a really fun project, as well.
JS: Are these stories that you came up with yourself or were you collaborating with someone?
GS: Everything I’ve done has had at least one collaborator and most of them have been original musicals, which I think might be part of the reason why I haven’t yet had a show go all the way to Broadway. It is harder to be writing an original story that nobody is familiar with. My works have not been adaptations of movies or other recognizable titles. There haven’t been big stars attached to them. Now, my mid-career self can look back at my early career self and say, “You might have been more successful had you decided to adapt a well-known movie of the era – one that had a clear trajectory for how it could make it to Broadway.”
And yet, I would rather write the original story. The content is more interesting to me and the musical freedom is more interesting to me with original stories.
JS: Broadway is the ultimate goal for every new musical?
GS: It’s safe to say that the goal of most new musicals, even if distantly, is to get a series of productions that lead to Broadway. Broadway is where a piece gets branded. A logo gets designed for it, marketing gets put behind it, it receives a cast album, and it gets sent out into the world with the validity of the Broadway stamp of approval behind it.
JS: After the last year and a half we’ve had, how are you feeling about the state of the Broadway musical development pipeline?
GS: It’s really interesting right now. Everything has been shut down, obviously, and there are also no high school musicals, no regional theater, nothing. There has been a collapse of the whole industry. But now, Broadway is reopening in September, and I think there is going to be a resurgence in the industry when that happens. But it will be a while before that trickles down to new works by people like me because the new musicals that were already in development are still next in line.
JS: Of course, there are other revenue streams besides productions on Broadway and elsewhere. In 2018, you wrote a piece for CreativeFuture about sheet music piracy. Is this still a problem for the musical theater industry?
GS: Emphatically, yes. I serve as head of the copyright advocacy committee for the Dramatists Guild and this is one of our big topics. People think that music just exists and should be free for the taking, and now that printed sheet music is largely digital, it has never been easier for people to share it without permission.
The illegal sharing of my own sheet music is what drew me to the Guild to begin with. It was an income stream that was available to me, but I was also seeing people giving it away, emailing copies of my music or going on Facebook saying, “I have an audition tomorrow. Does anybody have the sheet music for this show?” And somebody would reply saying, “I have it!”
When you push back on things like that, people counter with, “It’s not a person that’s going to suffer – it’s a publishing company.” But either way, the theft ultimately trickles down to the devaluation of the product and of the industry itself.
Most of the Guild members are not even aware of these kinds of issues, so there is a lot of education that our committee is trying to do. What is copyright? How does it protect you? When are you in violation of it? What power do we have when infringement does happen? And, as copyright laws change to address these digital threats, how can we be part of that conversation too?
JS: Copyright education – and its importance to creative success – seems like a good segue into my final question: What advice would you have for a young person hoping to forge a career as a writer or composer of musicals?
GS: The piece of advice I always come back to – and try to keep reminding myself of – is how important it is to finish a project. Lots of people can have ideas for a musical. Lots of people can start a musical. But until you actually make the thing – until you actually have a script or a score or a demo, it doesn’t exist.
It’s easy to say that you’re working on something. It’s much harder to say, “I have made this.” I think a lot of writers get lost in thinking, “Oh I’m dreaming about this so I’m a writer.” But until you actually sit down and start to create it, you’re not – you’re just a person talking about being a writer. Your journey has barely begun.