By Sarah Rebell
There’s been a lot of talk lately about industry gatekeepers – artistic directors, producers, and casting directors of Broadway.
But people tend to overlook some of the less public, less glamorous theatrical jobs that carry a lot of the responsibility, and therefore opportunity, to create meaningful change. As positions like Broadway music coordinator become more accessible to musicians from more diverse backgrounds, these roles can become powerful tools for fostering equity instead of perpetuating the status quo. And as music coordinator Kimberlee Wertz stated, “When inclusivity is a part of the culture, it makes it easier to open doors to a wider group of people.”
The role of the Broadway music coordinator has historically been viewed as an all-male and all-white job. Prior to the 2021-2022 theater season, there have only been two recorded instances of women serving as music coordinators on Broadway shows. (Kimberlee Wertz worked as the music coordinator on A Year with Frog and Toad in 2003 and Talitha Fehr worked as the music coordinator on A Christmas Story in 2012.) But this past year has been groundbreaking in that regard; more women are currently serving as Broadway music coordinators than ever before. And the shows that won the Best Musical (A Strange Loop) and Best Score (Six) at this past Sunday’s trailblazing Tony Awards both had women serving as music coordinators.
In fact, this past season, five musicals (A Strange Loop, Funny Girl, Mr. Saturday Night, The Music Man, and Six) and one play (for colored girls…) had women serving as either the show’s sole music coordinator or co-music coordinator. Therefore, it’s worth taking a closer look at the role of the Broadway music coordinator and examining how these four women are helping the industry not only to re-conceive this vital position, but also to reimagine what is possible when it comes to equity and access in Broadway music departments.
This season marks several particularly significant firsts for music coordinators on Broadway. It is the first time that a Black woman (Tia Allen) has worked as a music coordinator for a Broadway play.
“Blessed, humbled, and honored to be the first black woman music coordinator on Broadway,” wrote Tia in an Instagram post on the opening night of for colored girls… “Cheers to breaking down more barriers and having a seat at the table.”
It is also the first time that a person of color (Tomoko Akaboshi) has worked as a music coordinator for a Broadway musical.
“I had never imagined myself as a contractor on Broadway,” said Tomoko, who is the music coordinator for A Strange Loop. As of this month, she is also the only music coordinator of color to have worked on a musical that won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
“Even though I had already been contracting in other scenes for about ten years when I got my first opportunity to contract A Strange Loop Off-Broadway, I just figured those doors were shut and not for someone like myself to open: an immigrant, a woman, a person of color. Now I want to prove that we don’t have to preserve the status quo, which is why I’m so proud to be a part of this show. Through its plot, its writer, its company, its staff, and yes, even its music coordinator, A Strange Loop unapologetically embodies the idea that the way things were isn’t the way they have to continue to be.”
What a Music Coordinator Does
Music coordinating – or contracting, as it is colloquially called – is a vital but often overlooked part of a show’s music team. Coordinators are responsible for overseeing payroll for the musicians and carrying out many important administrative duties, such as managing the musical equipment and renting rehearsal space. As contractor Kristy Norter detailed in a previous Maestra article, coordinators “advise the producers on Union rules, help them apply the Broadway CBA to their show, hire the right group of musicians for the production, and supervise the business side of the orchestra. [They are] the go-between between the producers, stage management, Local 802, and the musicians.”
“People think that it’s more glamorous or more powerful, but it’s somebody who is capable of taking care of the details. Coordinating really is the right word for it,” said Kimberlee, who is currently co-coordinating two big musical revivals (Funny Girl and The Music Man) with legendary contractor Seymour Red Press.
Kimberlee earned the distinction of being the first female music coordinator on Broadway when she made her debut on A Year with Frog and Toad back in 2003. It’s worth noting that the show also had a strong female presence on the music team. Kimberlee was one of three women in the music department, along with music director and conductor Maestra Linda Twine and copyist Maestra Emily Grishman – an atypical occurrence for the early 2000s. At that time, Kimberlee was more focused on learning the ropes – transitioning from TV to theatre – than on the fact that she was the only woman music coordinator on Broadway.
“I was more conscious of being young, and even more conscious of being new,” Kimberlee explained. She spent much of her career working as a coordinator for TV, where women music coordinators tend to get hired more frequently than theatre. “In 2003, it seemed like the theater industry was [male-dominated], but women were making inroads.”
Music coordinators tend to play an integral part in the hiring process for the show’s musicians; their recommendations to the composer and producer can often be the determining factor in who gets the gig. However, there has been a history of some people in these roles using their position to preserve the “boy’s club” culture of orchestra pits and bands.
“There was a time, years ago, when the coordinator was the gatekeeper: a show came in and they called the coordinator, and that person filled the chairs with the people they wanted, and that’s how musicians got jobs on Broadway,” Kimberlee recalled. “Now, choosing the musicians is a collaborative process.”
Thankfully, the way Broadway musicians are hired is changing for the better.
“I really would love to get rid of this idea of contractors being ‘gatekeepers.’” Tia stated. She went on to explain that “contracting is about the incredible relationships you build with musicians in your career and providing opportunities to those that want it.”
Kristy Norter, who is the music coordinator for Six and Mr. Saturday Night, likens her job to a scouting agent for sports. “You have to stay in touch with people and know that even if they weren’t the right call five years ago, they might be the right call now. As musicians, most of us are constantly changing skills and growing, and adding new things. So, my job really is to vet people.”
Kristy draws up a list of possible musicians to share with the rest of the show’s music team, but they all discuss the pros and cons of each potential hire. Together, the music team will consider factors such as who was involved in earlier workshops of the musical, who has the right stylistic sensibility for the show, and who is professional and pleasant to work with eight times a week.
She consciously searches for musicians who come from a variety of different backgrounds and who “reflect the wonderful musical community that we have in the city.”
Setting Musicians Up for Success
Kristy is dedicated to bringing in new players and providing more opportunities for access, and she aims to set newcomers up for success once they get to the theater. She is currently working on two musicals with two different levels of experience among the musicians, and she has had to adjust her approach accordingly. While the musicians on Mr. Saturday Night have all subbed on Broadway or played on national tours, half of the musicians on Six (where the band is called the “Ladies in Waiting”) are working on Broadway for the very first time.
“How we provide access seems to be tripping some people up,” observed Kristy. “It’s one thing to bring in someone new into the scene, but I really don’t like the idea of putting someone in a job they’ve never done without training them.” That’s why her process of working with the Ladies in Waiting of Six was “very hands-on.”
For instance, she was extremely involved in the management of substitute musicians who come in to play the show when the chairholder is out (a frequent necessity in this era of COVID theater). Since many of the Ladies in Waiting were new to New York, they didn’t have a huge roster of colleagues they could recommend as potential subs. So, Kristy stepped in to suggest names for the show’s list of potential subs and advise players on how to prepare for absences.
“When you hire someone, put it in writing,” she told the Ladies in Waiting. “Put the day of the week, the date, the time of the show. Don’t make any assumptions because if somebody makes a mistake and is not in the chair, you don’t want it to come back to you.”
In addition, Kristy hired an accountant to come in and give a presentation on the tax implications of a Broadway paycheck, how to save that money, and how to set some aside for retirement. “You have these professionals who have never made that much money in their life, and someone just hands them a big paycheck. If they get a hit show that runs for years, that can be life-changing money, if they know how to take care of it.”
Tomoko is also committed to empowering her musicians with industry knowledge, especially when it comes to financial matters. “I believe creating a healthy and transparent working environment for the music team is really important,” she said. “When I first started to work on Broadway, contracts and rates were not easily accessible (at least not to me). There were a lot of unspoken rules that I was unfamiliar with because of my lack of experience in this specific scene.” To increase accessibility, she worked with Strange Loop in-house contractor Chris Reza to compile a folder with information on applicable contracts, subbing protocols, and how to maintain a chair eight times a week.
“If a contractor called you to play on a show, it was better if you didn’t ask questions,” Tomoko explained. “You cannot have an equitable workplace if important contractual information is held close to the chest of a select few. The most important thing we can do is ensure everyone is on the same page from the get go, setting them up to succeed on the job.”
Overcoming Inherent Biases
Kristy is thrilled by the fact that people are “trying to bring change and equity” to the industry. However, she acknowledges that such a massive cultural shift doesn’t happen overnight. “It’s a long-term process that’s going to take time, and respect, and energy, and, honestly, money thrown at the problem to bring true equity to all of these areas in the arts.”
Even in an innovative Broadway season like this one, with more music coordinators from historically-excluded communities, the women who are breaking the metaphorical glass ceiling of the orchestra pit still have to overcome the challenge of inherent biases in the industry.
Music coordinators are leaders and advocates on behalf of the music department. They are expected to understand union contracts inside and out so that they can make sure their musicians are being treated equitably and speak out when necessary. “It’s a learning curve,” said Kimberlee. “There are a lot of things in the union contracts that you can accidentally run afoul of.”
The main contract for all Broadway musicians is called the Collective Bargaining Agreement, or the CBA. The result of negotiations between the musicians union, Local 802, and the Broadway League, the contract ensures that musicians are entitled to fair treatment, including equitable wages, healthcare contributions, and 401k plans. It’s a complex and dense document that music coordinators have to know inside and out in order to effectively protect the rights of their fellow musicians.
“I definitely dealt with some imposter syndrome as I had a lot to learn in a short period of time,” admitted Tia. “Combing through the 75-page Broadway CBA can feel extremely overwhelming.”
To make matters even more complicated, the contract provides different rules and industry standards for music in Broadway plays compared to Broadway musicals. For example, Broadway plays are not required to have a member of the music team called an In-House Contractor, or IHC. Often hired for large musical productions, an IHC handles the payroll and the day-to-day management of the musicians and subs during a long-running show.
“You don’t realize how much you need an IHC until you do not have one. I really had to rely on my band to keep me informed and updated as to what was happening at the show during times that I was not able to be there.”
Unfortunately, it’s not always enough to expertly learn the contract. Even after they have thoroughly grasped all of the industry rules and regulations, women coordinators can encounter bias and resistance from management when they try to hold everyone to those union standards.
“I’ve been treated poorly, experienced racism, discrimination, and been placed in intentionally-unfair situations in my career as a contractor,” said Tomoko. “Even if the climate has changed, it doesn’t mean that the industry is keeping pace. When people have belittled me, I have asked myself, ‘Would this person say this if I were older? Caucaisian? Male?’ And usually, the answer is ‘Definitely not.’”
Tomoko tries not to take these potentially prejudicial comments personally, but instead recognizes that encountering opposition from others is, unfortunately, sometimes part of the job. “As a coordinator, you will inevitably encounter plenty of difficult people. But it’s important to find a way to stay mentally resilient and fight back, or the change we desire will never come.”
And yet, as Tomoko acknowledged, the self-knowledge and confidence necessary to withstand hurtful, biased behavior often only comes with experience. You have to endure the frustration and indignity in order to, over time, build up a thick skin.
It also helps to have a friend who knows what you’re going through. In my conversations with Kristy and Kimberlee, they both spoke highly of one another and mentioned how much they valued each other’s experience, advice, and support.
Additionally, Tia recalled how her good friend Tomoko gave her “so much great moral support” when she was facing that imposter syndrome early on in the for colored girls… production process. “I realized there were days that I needed a hug more than I needed answers from the CBA.”
Advice for Maestras
When asked if she had any advice for Maestras who might want to become music coordinators, Kristy also emphasized the importance of experience. “I think that one of the reasons that I’m successful as a coordinator is that I’m a musician in the pits. I can impart the knowledge that I’ve learned over 25 years.”
“On top of that, I would start reading all of the contracts,” she added. “All of the collective bargaining agreements, because there’re a lot of rules and a lot of different rates.”
Tomoko encourages prospective music coordinators to create their own contracting opportunities by working on smaller projects with musicians who are at the beginning of their careers.
“Any occasion that requires you to put together a group of people, manage communication, and deal with finances is a great starting point. Launch those projects yourself, from the ground up. It’s a lot of work but you learn so much,” she recommended. “Carefully curating a group of musicians that were meant to create art together is an art in and of itself, and when everything clicks, the result is truly rewarding.”
Tia also believes in the importance of Maestras creating their own music communities, especially if they want to become music coordinators.
“My advice is get to know your colleagues, build those relationships, keep in touch, go to their shows. Build and be the musical community that you are proud to be in, [where it] is safe to create freely, and full of love.”