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Finding Your Own Pride

Julianne B. Merrill on the importance of queer community in life and work

By Maggie Sheridan

As a child, I was always a character – precocious, outspoken, and very lively. From a young age I was drawn to theatre and music as an outlet to channel my extroverted nature into something creative. I couldn’t get enough of the stage, couldn’t get enough of exploring sound on different instruments, and I let my passion for performing arts bleed into my daily life.

As a young teen, I began to come to terms with my queer identity, particularly because I noticed that there was something different about myself as compared to my peers. The clothes my girl friends wore, the things they liked, the boys they had crushes on — nothing about their experience resonated with me. The connection I had to my female peers had become complicated, and for years I did my best to minimize these complications. 

Throughout my teen years, I struggled to maintain relationships with the girls in my life, fearing my sexuality would be discovered. I was terrified to be perceived as “different”, as “wrong”, as “socially undesirable”. 

During this time, I turned to my consistent creative outlets of theatre and music as a shield. I buried myself in this work to distract myself from my inability truly to connect with my peers based on what I considered to be a defect that stopped me from living my life the “right way”. I sought roles in productions that would de-emphasize my difference and paint me as “normal”: either straight or completely devoid of any identity that mattered. I was doing what I loved, but not doing it truthfully.

Even when I eventually came out as queer to some close female friends, I kept a lot of specifics to myself to minimize my peers’ discomfort. At its core, my aversion to being open with them came from a fear of rocking the boat, of disturbing my straight friends’ heteronormative worldview. I had come out, as it were, but I was still not being fully truthful about myself.

As I started college at a notoriously LGBTQ+-friendly institution, I found a community of people like me. There was a breadth of young queer people for me to connect with, to finally feel like myself with. But as I entered theatrical spaces as a creative team member, as a leader, I still felt a bit out of my element. 

While I began to come out of my shell as a queer person, the art form that had long been my protection felt foreign to me. I was a completely new artist, a completely new being, and these discoveries began to bleed into my work. I was increasingly drawn to working on queer theatre, telling stories that connected directly to my truth – something I had never done before as a theatre student in largely heteronormative spaces.

My realization of the importance of queer theatre in my own story as an artist is still fresh, and as I prepare to leave the queer community at my university next May, I’m feeling daunted. I’m wondering whether I’ll have such a strong network of LGBTQIA+ artists in the real world, and whether or not I’ll be able to tell stories truthful to myself outside of the college bubble. 

When I joined Maestra as an intern, I heard about the organization’s Affinity Group for LGBTQIA+ artists: Maestra Pride. I was immediately inspired to look into this group, connect with other queer Maestras, and reach out for guidance and advice on entering the theatre industry. 

To share more on the inception, intention, and inspiration behind Maestra’s newest Affinity Group, I reached out to Maestra Pride moderator, music director, pianist, and electronic music designer Julianne B. Merrill to discuss the importance of queer community, queer theatre, and the Maestra Pride initiative. 

The following excerpts, condensed for clarity, are taken from our conversation.

How has your queer identity impacted your experience in the theatre world, particularly as a music director?

I grew up Mormon and I was raised with classical music; the expectation for me then was to become a concert pianist…I didn’t really know musical theatre or that I was gay growing up. 

The expectation for the girls in church was to go to school and meet someone and get married and be a mother, so the idea of having a career was never really encouraged. Either I was going to be a concert pianist or the local piano teacher. And, uh, neither of those were possibilities in my mind. I didn’t want either one of those. 

I went to DePauw University in Indiana on a scholarship, still didn’t know anything about MT. Then, in my sophomore or junior year, I was asked to play Rocky Horror.


I was like “sure!” I had no idea what I was in for. [I was a] Mormon girl from Indianapolis, had never played musical theatre before, had never played with drums and bass before, also had never heard of Rocky Horror before. So that was an awakening of many sorts. 

There were all musical awakenings [for me], like the structure of a chorus-verse-bridge, open fifth rock chords, and, of course, on top of that was… the show! 

It was my first musical theatre pit band experience and then there’s this show which had like the most genderqueer, expressive craziness onstage that I could have witnessed. The nature of the show was so sexually-explicit and freeing and [centers] being yourself and being authentic, and I realized “I want to do more.” I had found this new space that I just wanted more of.

After college, I worked in summer stock, and I met some queer people [in that environment]. After that was over they were like, “So when are you moving to New York?” And I decided then to quit my job as an accompanist at a high school and move to New York. 

What I’ve loved about the theatre community [in New York] is that it’s all been new to me; I didn’t grow up with it, I’ve [just] never been a huge musical theatre buff. It was more about the people and the community that totally accepted me for who I was. No matter if my hair was long or short, or if I was able to say that I was gay or not, no one ever really batted an eye!

As your career has continued, what projects do you find yourself drawn to? 

A really pivotal show for me was A Man of No Importance with the Gallery Players in 2012. The show is written by Ahrens and Flaherty and Terrence McNally. It’s this beautiful story about a bus conductor in Dublin, Ireland who realizes that he’s gay. And he’s in the Catholic church. 

This was really the first time that I’d encountered a story where someone was dealing with their upbringing, their heritage, their spirituality, how they’re perceived. And you can tell that this character is a good person, but he’s just in a setting where people don’t understand how to accept him. And he eventually finds his way by finding a home in the theatre. It has a great song in it called “Love Who You Love”. This was the first musical I’d worked on that had a queer storyline that really resonated with me.

[Julianne asked us to share the following lyrics of “Love Who You Love”:]

People can be hard sometimes
And their words can cut so deep.
Choose the one you choose, love,
and don’t lose a moment’s sleep.”

During the pandemic, I had a serious sit-down with myself and [asked]: why is it so important that I survive this pandemic [as an artist] so that I can [remain in New York] and work in theatre, as opposed to figuring something else out? 

What really became apparent to me is that representation matters and people need to see people that look, feel, act like them in a visible platform so that they can see that these people exist, and that they’re happy. I decided that part of my purpose is to be visible to be a visible, out lesbian who’s married and wants to have kids and has a career. 

I decided that part of my purpose is to be visible – to be a visible, out lesbian who’s married and wants to have kids and has a career. 

-Julianne b. merrill

Also in that same vein, I realized that I wanted to work on stories that promoted identity and authenticity. For me, it’s not just about queerness, but living an honest and authentic life. For example,  [A] Strange Loop, a story about being honest and finding identity, and it’s not always happy but at least it’s real! These types of stories and projects are the ones that I gravitate [towards].

What inspired you to create a LGBTQIA+ Affinity Group within Maestra?

Maestra Pride came from a realization that there was a community within Maestra that might have more specific needs than the organization as a whole was able to focus on. I approached Georgia and said that I would be interested in starting an LGBTQIA+ Affinity Group that would be a space for queer Maestra members to talk about things we wouldn’t talk about in a larger meeting. I feel that we sometimes censor ourselves or are going through things that non-LGBTQIA+ Maestra members may not understand, like issues regarding family and identity in the workplace. 

Back in June 2021, I started putting together focus groups of Maestra members that I knew identified as LGBTQIA+ and we just talked about… what’s going on in our lives! And particularly why it might be nice to have a specific group where we can talk about our lives and identities and the things we face. 

And it was in these focus groups that I [realized] we have a mental health crisis on our hands. Many people in these groups opened up about their depression and anxiety. This industry is not easy, living in New York is not easy. So I hope that Maestra Pride can provide some respite for those people and create a community that is focused on what it means to be queer, and where you can talk about anything

A year later I was able to put together the mission and values statement together and now we have a private Facebook group. I’ve seen that there are enough people that are interested in a group like this, so now I’m looking to see what people want. 

What are your goals for Maestra Pride?

I really want to offer workshops that are about identity and authenticity, balancing a professional life with a personal life, particularly from the queer perspective. I would love to have more of a social community where people can get together, maybe it’s a happy hour or a Zoom session where people can talk. I’d also love to create some sort of speed dating for lyricists and composers so people can more easily find collaborators. 

I’d also like to partner with Maestra Care and other [programs] within Maestra to create LGBTQIA+ specific resources in this community.

Beyond Maestra, what are your personal goals? What do you want to accomplish, and what do you hope the theatre and music industries can accomplish?

I want to continue to work on pieces that promote identity and authenticity, as well as allow an audience to have a cathartic and enjoyable experience. I’m hopeful that in the industry we continue to tell new stories from underrepresented writers from all around the world. 

My own goals are to keep music directing and really staying visible. I want to incorporate livestreaming and other technology into my work so that, you know, the kids in Iowa could see a show [that promotes self-love and acceptance]. I want to keep working on projects that feel meaningful.

In conversation with Julianne, I learned countless things about the industry, expression, and theatre as an art form. But something greater resonated with me – something that transcends the bounds of industry – and that is finding a community. No matter your job, no matter your appearance, no matter your background, religion, or anything else, Julianne’s story highlights the importance of acceptance with open arms. Only when this acceptance is felt, when this community is found, can a queer artist flourish in the fullest sense.

Julianne touched on something else here as well, the ability to pay it forward. So many of Julianne’s personal projects and goals have the common thread of perpetuating visibility and truthful expression because of the importance of representation. To see queer artists, queer storytellers on a grand scale on Broadway or in other media can open minds across the world and inspire a young queer person who may not know that there’s a place for them. If queer people continue to live truthfully and tell their own stories – not just for themselves, but for all the people who may hear them – the world at large will benefit from that truth and representation.

If you are interested in getting involved with Maestra Pride, please join the private Maestra Pride Facebook group and reach out to Kat Sherrell and Julia Thornton, the program heads for our Regional and Affinity Groups, with any questions. To see more of Julianne in-action, rewatch videos for Amplify 2022 (where she music directed and performed on piano), rent her “Mainstage Deep-Dive: Part 1 and Part 2” Virtual Technical Workshops on Maestra Replay, and go see her keyboard programming and occasional conducting in A Strange Loop on Broadway. To stay up-to-date on her projects, you can check out her personal website and follow her on Instagram.

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