By Sarah Rebell
Kate Baldwin wants to get personal.
Not in some gossipy, tell-all way but with a searingly honest admission that shines light on other women who inspire her.
“I can’t recall doing any shows or singing any songs in any classes at school that were written by a woman,” she told me. “I never learned about Liz Swados, or Micki Grant, or Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.”
For MISS: Broadway’s Women Songwriters, which will be presented December 10-12 at 92NY, Baldwn is asking her cast to get personal, too. Singers Kennedy Kanagawa, Bryonha Marie Parham, Nicholas Rodriguez, and Emily Skeggs will be sharing their own discovery stories about women composers – or the moments when they realized their lack of exposure.
Directed by Baldwin, with music direction and arrangements by Maestra Founder Georgia Stitt (who will be leading an all-female band), the concert celebrates the often-underappreciated work of women songwriters from the 1970s to today.
Best known as a Tony-nominated Broadway leading lady, Baldwin is also a director and an active Maestra Advisory Board member. In fact, she has directed Maestra’s annual Amplify fundraising concert for the past two years. Although she has been in over 60 shows, she has only performed onstage in musicals by three women musical theater writers: bookwriter Sybille Pearson, composer Jeanine Tesori, and lyricist Betty Comden.
“It doesn’t seem right that in my 25-year career, there have only really been three female writers that I’ve gotten to be the beneficiary of,” Baldwin said. “That seems way out of whack when you think about it.”
Baldwin has clearly thought about it a lot. And one way that she seems to be addressing this apparent dearth of women songwriters is by using her platform to uplift and share their stories.
Throughout my conversation with Baldwin, she seemed to delight in extolling and drawing inspiration from women she admires: feminist role-models like Gloria Steinem, pioneering musical theater writers like Micki Grant, mentors like Victoria Clark (another performer-director), and, perhaps most of all, her longtime friend and collaborator Stitt.
The pair has been working together for nearly 20 years. In past performances, Baldwin would often perform out front, singing and bantering, while Stitt led from the piano. But for MISS, Baldwin’s not-so-secret mission is to focus on Stitt’s story.
“Listening Out Loud”
In many ways, it all started with a book called “Listening Out Loud: Becoming a Composer“, which happened to be written by Broadway songwriter and director Elizabeth Swados. “I remember reading it as a teenager and having it be a pivotal moment for me, thinking that I might want to be a composer,” Stitt shared. At the time, she didn’t quite comprehend the significant contributions of the groundbreaking woman who wrote it.
“But I looked at it recently. And I was amazed. Every time the author said, ‘a composer does this and that,’ it was ‘she does this and that.’ It was always a female pronoun, for the whole book.”
The barriers that Swados broke down led Stitt to find her way into a historically-sexist industry with the confidence to believe that there was a place for her there too. It also helped spark Stitt’s drive to make room for others by founding Maestra.
“The Maestra mission, and my own personal mission, is when a woman gets through the door, it’s her job to hold it open for the woman or nonbinary person who comes after her. In what way is seeing all of these songs, and all of these composers, and all of this representation, empowering for someone who doesn’t exactly see her place in the industry yet?”
Baldwin agrees and admires Maestra’s spirit of being “inclusive and kind to one another.” She appreciates the work that the organization is doing to mentor the next generation of women musical theater writers and musicians, noting that formal mentorship programs don’t really exist for performers yet.
“When you think of mentorship, you think of a teacher-student relationship. And that’s kind of frowned upon in the acting world. But, sometimes, there are people like Victoria Clark, whose objective really is to empower,” Baldwin said.
Clark was the person who inspired her to pursue directing, who acknowledged and encouraged her talents in that arena. To Baldwin, her directing instincts are connected to her desire to collaborate with other theater artists.
“I really, really value being in a room with other creative people. And so, I want to make the most of it and make sure everybody is heard.”
The Concert Program
The women whose work will be highlighted throughout the evening include contemporary songwriters ranging from Tony and Pulitzer Prize award winners with multiple Broadway credits (Tesori, Lisa Kron, Quiara Alegria Hudes) to up-and-coming writers on the cusp of making their Broadway debuts (Shaina Taub). There will also likely be a song from The Secret Garden: a touching tribute to its composer Lucy Simon who recently passed away.
However, many of the evening’s songs were written by the women who broke onto the scene in the 1970s, aforementioned songwriters like Carol Hall, Grant, Cryer, Ford, and Swados.
“It’s fun to get to know a writer’s catalog and watch their voices grow, watch them become braver,” Stitt noted. “Especially the women who are my great predecessors, the women of the 60s and 70s, to watch them find their feminist voices and say really female-empowered things that that no one else was saying, that no one else even knew how to say.”
She describes one particular song from Cryer and Ford’s Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road as “a real in your face kind of number [that proclaims,] ‘Don’t you dare tell us that we can’t be strong!’”
Another song that they will likely include in the concert, an educational number written by Hall, explores all the different jobs that women can have – as if it is a revelation for women to work. Stitt initially referred to the song as a “period piece,” but then she amended her statement slightly. “We don’t think that way anymore,” she said, and yet, “maybe we haven’t come as far as we think we have.”
By acknowledging how far we’ve come and how far we’ve still got to go when it comes to gender equity, Baldwin and Stitt are intentionally constructing an undercurrent of “longing” and “wistfulness” (as Baldwin put it) that grounds the celebratory energy of the evening.
“Sometimes I feel melancholy about what’s missing. That’s part of why the concert is called MISS,” Stitt explained. While “miss” can certainly be used as a term for a woman, “it’s about what the canon has missed and what we miss when we’re not represented in the material that we see.”
Both Stitt and Baldwin independently brought up the fact that whenever they curate a concert together, they always discover more songs by women than they have time to include. They have to cut material or condense multiple songs into brief mashups and medleys.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, ‘Why isn’t this song better known? Why isn’t this catalog more in the canon? How much of that is because of the gender of the author’?” Stitt wondered if this is in part due to talented women being barred access to sufficient opportunity to improve their skills in order to write strong enough songs to be included in the canon.
Stitt also acknowledges the very human – and very “female” – tendency to think that you must do everything all by yourself, especially when it comes to the musical theater industry. But she believes there is a better way. “We all set ourselves up to fail if we do it alone, but the network is right there and hopefully not invisible.”
Her collaboration with Baldwin for this concert is a perfect elucidation of how your network can help bolster you in this industry. “Things that she’s really good at are the places where I need collaboration – where I’m not as good at them, or good at all at them – and vice versa,” she explained.
For instance, Baldwin thinks very visually and has been working to add video elements to enrich the concert, including clips from writers talking about their work. Meanwhile, Stitt’s musical skills impress Baldwin and hold the show together .
“Georgia can take a song apart and make it into something completely different. [She can] reconceptualize it, and reorchestrate it, and rearrange it to suit our purposes,” Baldwin gushed. “Also, she can play! That instrument is a part of her, and her musicianship is unparalleled. She’s one of the best of the best.”
“Shipping” Baldwin and Stitt
In the spirit of the concert’s program of admired women composers, I have a confession to make: I “ship” Georgia Stitt and Kate Baldwin’s collaboration.
Please forgive this hopeless older millennial if I am misusing the term, but it seems like an apt way to describe my admiration for their extraordinary dynamic as friends, colleagues, and creative collaborators.
Back when I was an undergraduate at Vassar University, I had the opportunity to meet both women in separate contexts.
Stitt was the first woman musical theater composer that I remember being aware of – other than the inimitable Swados! When I emailed Stitt asking her for advice on how to hone my craft as a musical theater lyricist, she sent me back several writing prompts. Then, she subsequently took the time to read and critique my lyrics with on-point, respectfully-phrased feedback. I still remember how she “challenged” me to substitute a pure rhyme for a slant rhyme, rather than tearing apart my youthful rhyme scheme. That mentoring act meant the world to me as a young writer.
When Baldwin was starring in Finian’s Rainbow at Encores!, I was a college student who had somehow managed to schedule all my classes into a two-day timeframe so that I could spend the other three weekdays interning at New York City Center.
Between renditions of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”, Baldwin spied me backstage reading something for my Victorian Literature course, and we bonded over our shared appreciation of the Brontë sisters.
Her thoughtfulness and quick wit, not to mention her kindness to interns, made as much of an impression as her wonderful soprano. I invited her to come lead a musical theater workshop at my college, which became the first in a series of such workshops. The following semester, Stitt also came up to my campus to lead one of these workshops.
🎶: Kate Baldwin “How Are Things in Glocca Morra”— New York City Center (@NYCityCenter) April 22, 2020
Encores! Finian’s Rainbow 2009 pic.twitter.com/OXr5ggbHeE
Ever since then, I’ve followed both of their careers and looked up to them as examples of how to stay true to your own voice in an industry that often tries to undermine women’s autonomy. Both have managed to make significant waves in the theater community: Baldwin as a Tony-nominated leading lady and Stitt as a composer, lyricist, music director, and founder of Maestra. I was thrilled to discover that these two kickass women were good friends and frequent collaborators.
It’s been wonderful to hear Baldwin record Stitt’s original compositions, to watch Stitt accompany Baldwin on piano at various events, and to see how the two women support each other’s work.
Setting an Example
Through their collaboration, the pair embodies Maestra’s mission of empowering and uplifting women.
In media, women are often represented as cutthroat, catty, and competitive. Actresses, especially, have to fight off the long shadow cast by the enduring legacy of films like All About Eve.
“The idea that women have to compete with each other is so detrimental,” Stitt said. “There has to be room for everybody to do good work at the highest level.”
MISS is an acknowledgement of that inclusivity, presented by two women who have been cheering each other on for their entire careers. Their relationship models a way for women in the theater industry to collaborate with one another, one that comes from a place of support and encouragement.
“People see the line stretching backward from their own experience,” described Baldwin. “They can see that there were people 15 years ahead of them; there are people 30 years, and 50 years, and 60 years, and 120 years ahead of them, all trying to get their work heard and appreciated, and have somebody come and listen.”
Both women would like MISS to help illuminate that line for audience members, who will hopefully be inspired to reflect upon the women composers from previous generations, look forward towards the future of musical theater writing, and see their place in it.
“I want people to feel great about where we are,” Baldwin said. “People are paying attention and are joyfully moving into the future.”
The Cast and Pit of MISS
MD/Arranger/Orchestrator/Pianist: Georgia Stitt
Associate MD/Keyboard/Accordion: Lily Ling
Guitar (Electric and Acoustic): Ann Klein
Bass (Electric and Acoustic): Sue Williams
Drums: Mariana Ramirez
Cello: Adele Stein
Music Assistant/Copyist: Nicole d’Angelo