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January 1, 2024IM -
Asked if she was aware of a gender bias early on in her aspiring Broadway career, Georgia Stitt of Local 802 (New York City) pauses a moment to consider. “I don’t think I had experienced it yet at that level,” says Stitt. “I remember specifically saying to someone in college that I wanted to be a composer. And they asked me, really, do women do that?”
This was at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, in her native Tennessee. “I was one of two composition majors, both women, so of course I wasn’t aware of anything like gender bias. That only came later, when I started working professionally and found myself as the only woman in the room,” she says.
Today, Stitt is a busy pianist, composer, arranger, lyricist, producer, and music director. She has earned the respect of all her colleagues through decades of hard work, but over the course of her career, she says that gender bias was almost always an elephant in the room—subliminal, largely unacknowledged, but unarguably present. “Sometimes someone would come into the pit and ask where the music director was. Or they would express some surprise that I could run a rehearsal,” says Stitt.
Ironically, Stitt is the first one to point out that all her mentors in the industry were men. “They were inspiring,” she assures, “but I didn’t have any women to look up to who were doing what I wanted to do.”
Stitt grew up in the small town of Covington, north of Memphis. Her father was a music lover and would listen to classical music “as loud as the stereo would play it,” she recalls with an obvious smile in her voice. “Dad liked to feel things in a really big way. He would lie on the floor when I played piano so that he could feel the vibrations around him. We musicians know that when you’re playing music you’re also feeling it. Dad was the same, and he encouraged my playing and becoming a professional musician.”
Starting off as a piano major and clarinet minor in high school, Stitt also attended the Summer Music Festival at the Sewanee Music Center in Tennessee where, on a whim, she signed up for an elective on composition. “I wrote a piece for my violist roommate. I discovered I was good at it. Also, it was fun. I got to create music that my friends could play.”
This led to a composition teacher when she was in 12th grade, followed by undergraduate studies in theory and composition at Vanderbilt. She moved to New York City shortly after graduation.
A master’s in musical theater writing at NYU was next—but first, Stitt took a year off to intern with Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, based in the historic Goodspeed Opera House. “It was typical intern stuff,” she says, “running errands and making coffee. But they knew I could play piano and run a rehearsal, so I had the opportunity to do some of that.”
Then, came a stroke of good fortune: the first show Stitt worked on transferred to Broadway. “So, I got Broadway credits right off the bat,” she says. “And since the staff was in New York managing the show, I picked up more experience and responsibility at Goodspeed.”
Stitt also worked as a pianist all the way through grad school. “I was a strong pianist when I got to New York, and I could work well with singers,” she says. “The pathway to being a music director was clear. The path to being a composer was not as obvious.” Indeed, for the first part of her career, composition was a side activity. “Also, when playing someone else’s music all day, you don’t feel like going home and working on your own.”
Her pivotal moment came in 2007 with an album of her original songs. “I got a Broadway singer to sing each track. Ultimately, the record sold enough to make back what it cost me to produce. But it changed the way I was perceived in the industry. For me, making that CD was a ‘coming of age.’ I write full musicals, for sure, but they take so long to get to the finish line. You can work on an album of songs in a shorter time,” she says.
Directing a show and composing obviously require radically different skill sets. “On a show, you’re like the CEO of a music department,” Stitt explains. “Even if you’re not making the decisions, you’re responsible for making sure they get implemented. On a bigger show, you’re supervising the whole team and the singers, and training or supervising understudies. There’s a strong administrative element.” Also required: teaching, listening, and interpersonal skills, and the ability to speak directly and succinctly.
“The most successful music directors can do all this and also make great music,” she adds. Sometimes the job also requires playing. Stitt says it’s important to keep those skills honed. “Like many professions, the further you get from the thing that brought you into it, the less you are confident that you can do it. Playing is important. I love to be able to play even when I’m leading.”
Stitt has gone on to produce and arrange music and contribute songs for other artists’ albums, conducted and arranged music for concerts and television, and has been music director of numerous successful shows including the recent 13: The Musical, which was released on Netflix in 2022. On Broadway, she was the assistant conductor for Little Shop of Horrors. But it was a 2005 revival of Sweet Charity that laid the groundwork for a new venture.
It’s here that Stitt circles back to that elephant in the room. “Like many people, I just existed in this workspace that was mostly dominated by men, but I had figured out how to navigate it.”
The stats speak for themselves: in the summer of 2021, Local 802 surveyed its membership and found that only 29% of membership was female. Of that figure, the number of female-identifying musicians who worked specifically on Broadway was 22%. In addition, three out of four Broadway orchestras were entirely male, and only 4% of the orchestrator jobs on Broadway were held by women. Perhaps most shocking, in the last eight years, out of 98 available Broadway drum chairs, just two went to women.
In 2017, amid a busy, multifaceted career, she decided it was time to do something about that. As the music director for Sweet Charity, Stitt was tasked with hiring an all-female on-stage band. “We looked for six women musicians, including myself, to do this off-Broadway show—and we couldn’t find them.” Stitt’s (mostly male) contacts had nobody to offer except those who were already booked on other shows. “I called them directly, and it turned out they all had big lists of women to call. I put all their names and contact info in a spreadsheet available publicly.”
Word spread quickly. Stitt’s website Maestra (www.maestramusic.org) now includes a database of 2,000 women and nonbinary people. Maestra, of which Stitt is founder and president, is dedicated to supporting the vastly underrepresented group of women and nonbinary musicians working in musical theater. The organization’s initiatives include monthly educational seminars, mentorship programs, skills workshops, networking events, and online resources and partnerships addressing historical practices that have limited opportunities for women and nonbinary composers and musicians in the musical theater industry.
“Everything we do at Maestra falls into three buckets: support, visibility, and community,” says Stitt. “Our goal is for the industry to see that these people exist—and also for them to see each other, so that they don’t have to forge this path alone.”
She concedes that a successful career in theater music involves myriad skills and abilities. “You can’t just have someone raise their hand and say, ‘I’m a musician and I’m a woman,’ and then toss them into a job. But if you haven’t been allowed in that space to begin with, how do you get those opportunities?”
Stitt stresses that you can be “pro” one group without being “anti” another. “There is nothing about Maestra that is anti-male. I have had male mentors and coworkers. Without taking anything away from them, though, there are also women who deserve those same opportunities,” she says.
With that in mind, Maestra’s biggest push at present is mentorship. “We currently have 65 pairings between applicants and mentors to match aspirations with skills,” she says. “It’s a six-month program.” First Takes, another initiative, allows orchestrators, players, and conductors to play each other’s music for the first time. “They all get the experience of how the process works, and participants meet people they may want to collaborate with in the future.”
An annual event called Amplify showcases music by historically significant women composers, alongside music by up-and-coming composers. “The first year we ran Amplify, it was a low-key event,” she says. But as it grew, I realized that, if the whole goal is to showcase women, we couldn’t undermine them by not paying them union scale.”
Stitt says Maestra worked with the AFM to create a not-for-profit model for single engagement contracts that incentivizes hirers to engage union musicians. “We are closely aligned with the AFM, and also the Dramatists Guild. I’m a member of both.” Stitt herself joined the AFM back in school in Tennessee. “It’s crucial to make sure people see a path to union membership, and clearly understand why they should join.”
To that end, Maestra also hosts monthly meetings where members can attend virtually or in person. “In November,” says Stitt, “two people from Local 802 spoke to our membership about why to join the AFM, and where to go if you’re in trouble. It turned into a really lively conversation.”
These days, when not leading the charge with Maestra or spending time with her composer/lyricist husband and their two daughters, Stitt is leaning heavily into composing. Most recently, she added to her string of honors a 2023 “Go Write a Musical” Lilly Award, which came with a cash stipend. “That stipend will allow me to take care of my own music,” she says. “Now, I feel a real drive to finish what’s in my computer. Music has to be out there to exist. It can’t just live in my hard drive.”