Since I moved to New York City and joined Local 802 in the late 90s, I have made my living in the musical theatre as a pianist, pit musician, associate conductor, conductor, music director, music supervisor, transcriber, arranger, vocal coach, copyist, orchestrator, record producer, and ultimately, a composer. At every step of the way up this professional ladder, there have been lots of people supporting me and showing me the ropes, and most of them were men. I did have many women friends in the industry, to be sure, but I can only think of a few times in my life when they were my professional superiors.
In the summer of 2016, my friend and colleague Mary-Mitchell Campbell asked me to join her on an Off Broadway production of “Sweet Charity” starring Sutton Foster and directed by Leigh Silverman. Mary-Mitchell would orchestrate and supervise, and I would music direct. Leigh asked us to hire an all-female band. It was part of the dramaturgy of the show that the women in the band should feel like they were an extension of the girls in Charity’s dressing room. Mary-Mitchell and I were surprised how hard it was for us to find the players we needed. Many of the go-to women we’d usually hire for gigs like this were already booked elsewhere, and the contractors we asked to help us seemed to know the same women we did. Their lists weren’t very deep, and it took us months to find the five fantastic women (and their subs) who we eventually hired.
On New Year’s Eve as 2016 turned into 2017, I premiered an original choral piece at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. After the concert, I was greeted by a young female composer who told me she was overwhelmed to see a living female composer programmed on such a large concert, and she realized she couldn’t think of any other female composer modeling the career she was trying to build. A few days later, I got an e-mail from another young female composer who told me that her graduate school musical theatre curriculum didn’t include any women writers. When she confronted the administration about the omission, they asked her to suggest which composers she would like added to the syllabus. She didn’t know who to recommend, and they suggested she reach out to me.
Fresh off the “Sweet Charity” experience, my head was spinning. I knew I was surrounded by women who did what I did for a living, but why were they invisible? I got those two women together for lunch and we talked about this strange business of being a female composer for the theatre. More than anything, I came to realize that these women felt lonely, without access to their own community and without the visibility and support that allows a composer to step forward in her career. I made a list of all the female composers I knew in New York who were actively writing musicals and operas, and I came up with about 40 names. When I mentioned to Kara Unterberg at The New York SongSpace that I wanted to throw a party for all these women, she offered to host and cater it. That party happened in February 2017, and I then became obsessed with building this community. Who were the women composers graduating from the musical theatre writing programs, attending the writers’ retreats, getting the commissions and winning the industry awards? As I began to find them, I added their names to an ever-growing list. Women recommended other women, as they had when we were searching for our “Sweet Charity” pit musicians. In March, Kara and I had another party, and we did so again in April. After three months of throwing basically the same party, I started structuring the gatherings to include a guest speaker — always a woman prominent in her field, always speaking on a topic that would hold the interest of a room full of composers. We named ourselves MAESTRA because any time I type that word into my computer, it auto-corrects to “maestro.” Even in my computer, we seemed to be invisible.
I hired a web designer to help me turn my list of names into a Web site with a searchable Directory, and in January of 2019, Maestra Music, Inc. obtained 501(c)3 status. Our growing group was meeting once a month in midtown Manhattan until early 2020, when the theatre industry shut down and everything abruptly moved online. In that time of radical transformation, Maestra focused on building community to support the huge number of theatre musicians who were out of work. Our online Directory grew to comprise over 1300 members from musical communities around the world, and since the beginning of the pandemic our free virtual technical workshops, which we offer weekly, have been viewed by over 10,000 people in 47 states and 60 countries. We have built a robust mentorship program and our team participates in regular DEIA training to create anti-racist and gender-affirming practices and spaces. (Take a look also at GetToWork.org, a program in which we are one of 19 community partners across the theatre industry.) We are doing data research and forging new relationships with the lyricists, bookwriters, directors, players, contractors, nonprofit leaders, unions, and producers in our industry.
If Maestra has piqued your interest, please follow @MaestraMusicOrg on social media to learn more about our efforts. I hope if you’re a woman or nonbinary musician working in the theatre that you’ll take a moment to join our Directory. And if you’re looking for ways to hire more women and nonbinary people of all races and you’re not sure where to find them, I hope you’ll use the many resources on our Web site at www.maestramusic.org. MAESTRA provides support, visibility, and community to the women and nonbinary people who make the music in the musical theatre industry. It’s time for them to be heard.
Finally, Maestra is having an online concert and community event called Amplify on March 28, 2022, and it will be free to view online. Musicians will be covered by a union contract.
MAESTRA MUSIC, INC. provides support, visibility, and community to the women and nonbinary people who make the music in the musical theatre industry. Our membership is made up of composers, music directors, orchestrators, arrangers, copyists, rehearsal pianists and other musicians who are an underrepresented minority in musical theatre. The organization’s initiatives include monthly educational seminars, mentorship programs, technical skills workshops, networking events, and online resources and partnerships that aim to promote equality of opportunity and to address the many historical disadvantages and practices that have limited women and nonbinary composers and musicians in the musical theatre. This article first appeared in Allegro in March 2019 and was updated for this year.