A Spotlight on Trailblazers Rona Siddiqui and Sujin Kim-Ramsey
By Sarah Rebell
Rona Siddiqui made her Broadway debut last year as the music director (MD) for the Tony Award-winning musical A Strange Loop. She also received a Grammy nomination for her contributions to the cast album (for which she was also a co-producer). Nevertheless, Siddiqui identifies creatively as a composer, not an MD.
“My goal in life is to write,” she stated.
In 2022, Siddiqui and Sujin Kim-Ramsey both made their Broadway debuts as MDs on new musicals – and they are the first women of Asian descent to do so. But both Maestras trained as composers at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and MD as their day job while pursuing their writing.
In a business full of multi-hyphenates who wear many hats to make ends meet and build their careers, what does it mean to visibly succeed in one facet of the industry before the other?
Getting in on new work early
It was back at NYU that Siddiqui first began MDing for classmates, faculty, and program alumni, including A Strange Loop’s Michael R. Jackson. “I happened to get really lucky in that I signed up to do a workshop of a really cool piece with a really cool writer with absolutely no thought or expectation that Broadway would be where it would end up,” said Siddiqui. “So, I hopped on a train, and it happened to go all the way to Broadway.”
Kim-Ramsey has a similar story. As a student in the same graduate school program (Kim-Ramsey and Siddiqui actually overlapped for a year at NYU), she befriended fellow Korean composer Helen Park. When Park and co-songwriter Max Vernon needed an MD for the very first workshop of KPOP, they immediately reached out to Kim-Ramsey.
Over the years, she continued working on the new musical until she made her Broadway debut as the MD of KPOP and the first Korean MD on Broadway.
“I made my Broadway debut as an MD. So, people know me as an MD,” she explained. “But currently, I have been working on two other projects as a composer.”
KPOP’s cast album is scheduled to be released on May 12 (with an advance digital release on May 8). The album offers an opportunity for the relatively short lived show – and Kim-Ramsey’s work – to live on beyond the Broadway run.
“I feel like I’m so lucky,” Kim-Ramsey reflected. “The KPOP opportunity came from out of nowhere and it went to Broadway.” While the opportunity arguably didn’t exactly just drop out of the sky – Kim-Ramsey had two Masters degrees in music by the time she was invited to join the show – she believes in being ready for whatever comes your way as a musician. “That’s why I think it’s important to do your best, whatever you do, because you don’t know what opportunities will come through that work.”
MDing strengthens writing
Both Kim-Ramsey and Siddiqui tend to MD new work where they have the chance to collaborate closely with the show’s composer(s). It’s a deliberate choice on Siddiqui’s part because she believes that these experiences inspire her to try new things in her own composition choices.
“I learn a lot as a writer from that. The fun of it for me is in the creation and being part of that collaboration… I’m always gleaning and stealing and thinking about it.”
“My MDing experience helps me write music better too,” agreed Kim-Ramsey. “Because, when I work as a MD in the room, I can see how the actors express the music and how the actors work. That gives me a lot of ideas and inspiration.”
The MD-Composer relationship
The importance of writing for the voice really resonated with Siddiqui during the development process of A Strange Loop. “Every note is going to be attached to a human being who has to execute that note,” she explained. “I don’t think any of us ever thought that A Strange Loop would have this kind of life and would require whoever would play the role of Usher to have to do that eight times a week. So, that’s really important as a writer: to consider the stamina and strength that it takes to perform and how much you can actually put on a human being.”
This seemingly-symbiotic relationship between writing and MDing goes the other way as well; the two women both find that their musical composition backgrounds help them as new work MDs.
“In my opinion, MDs who also write their own music have a better understanding of the composer’s perspective and composer’s intent… [and how] to deliver them to the actors and musicians,” Kim-Ramsey said.
They also have to communicate well with the composer, in order to grasp the composer’s music goals. If they’re lucky, they get to share their own instincts and ideas for the score as well. She believes that “this combination makes the show better.”
Trust makes this relationship possible. “We’re all doing the dramaturgy together,” Siddiqui pointed out. “I don’t know that people outside of the world of creating a musical understand how arrangements serve the dramaturgy, even just in how an accompaniment flows, how dense it is, or sparse it is. So, if you are somebody who 100% understands a moment, you can craft that accompaniment and that arrangement to serve it.”
Siddiqui worked on arrangements for several songs in A Strange Loop, including “Inner White Girl.” She also did a lot of the arrangements for her former professor, Kirsten Childs (currently making her Broadway writing debut this season with Bob Fosse’s Dancin’) when she MDed the premiere of Bella at Playwrights Horizons. “I think Kirsten specifically leaves things open for that kind of interpretation and understanding,” Siddiqui said. “I feel like she trusted me to flesh those things out because she knew I understood the moments.”
“Kirsten remains my teacher,” she added. “I consider her my greatest mentor. So, it was really her making me feel comfortable enough to voice my opinions. She had seen enough of my work, and understood enough of who I am, to respect and trust that what I’m bringing to the table is thoughtful and meaningful.”
When a composer is working with a MD who identifies as a writer, it is vital that they respect each other’s craft and artistry in order to foster open communication.
“Sometimes, Helen wrote very specific phrases [in KPOP],” Kim-Ramsey said, “and, sometimes, she didn’t know how to deliver that to the actors. But I have tons of experience MDing, so whenever I saw those phrases, I knew how to deliver them.”
Since the two have been friends for years, Kim-Ramsey always felt empowered to bring her ideas to Park. But she made sure to prioritize Park’s vision, not her own.“I always asked her, ‘I have this idea but is it what you want?’ Because it was not my music. I can always bring up some ideas, but Helen has to approve them.”
The highs and lows of achievement
Siddiqui and Kim-Ramsey speak humbly and matter-of-factly about their achievements (though extremely confident in their musicianship) but they are trailblazers – the first Asian women/women of Asian descent to MD new musicals on Broadway. (Maestra Lily Ling became the first woman of Asian descent to MD on Broadway when she joined the music team of Hamilton, which had already been up and running for several years by that time.)
Throughout their careers, especially earlier on, they had to strive to overcome certain stereotypes that they encountered as non-white women in musical theatre.
Most composers in Kim-Ramsey’s class at NYU were white men; she was one of only six women accepted into her cycle of the program as a musical theatre composer. She was also one of only four composers in her class who was not a native English speaker, but she was undeterred in her desire to learn.
“I wanted to talk about music with other composers. They talked to me a lot, but not about any serious stuff. They always said, ‘Oh Sujin, you’re so cute. You’re so sweet.’ I hated that. But I was too shy to say so. I was just like, ‘Okay, thank you.’”
Eventually, Kim-Ramsey’s musical knowledge and skills became self-evident; she managed to show her classmates that there was more to her than they’d realized.
“I think we develop a Spidey sense of when we’re in the room as the token woman/brown person,” Siddiqui said. “I’ve been in those situations where every single day feels like an uphill battle, and you’re not being respected [or] valued. I’ve gone home, and cried every night, and come back, and tried to be my best self again, and gotten beaten up. All you can do is be yourself. If that is not resonating in a room, and if you can get out of that room, get out of it,” she advised. “The most joyful rooms are when you’re with people who get you and who don’t lift up the harmful, patriarchal ways that we consider ‘normal’ ways to relate in this industry.”
The balancing act of Broadway
Another challenge that Kim-Ramsey faced, particularly when working on KPOP, was being a working mom on Broadway. “You have to sacrifice yourself, to balance between your work and your family.” Kim-Ramsey maintains a disciplined writing schedule with self-imposed deadlines, but she admits, “I’m still struggling a lot in trying to balance these two things.”
Nonetheless, Kim-Ramsey loves being a wife and a mom; she is clear that the challenges are definitely worth it. And the fact that Park is also the mother of young children helped her during the toughest times with KPOP. “Helen and I always talked about our kids,” she said. “Talking about it with my coworker and friend comforted me. Like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me. You are having that struggle too.’”
Siddiqui has found a colleague who reminds her that she is not alone, too. While there are not many women music directors on Broadway – let alone women music directors who identify primarily as composers – multihyphenate composer/music director and Maestra Carmel Dean has been an inspiration in how she’s resisted the industry’s tendency to put her into boxes.
“Carmel is an incredibly brilliant music director and did numerous shows on Broadway, and also very much desired to write her own work,” Siddiqui said. “And she is now doing it very successfully. I feel like Carmel is the one that blazed that trail of showing people that we can do both of these things.”
Like Dean, Siddiqui is ready to put music directing on the back burner for now. “I identify as a composer,” Siddiqui reiterated. “The longer I don’t do that fully, the more I’m going to suffer inside.”
Moving forward from Broadway
It’s hard to know whether their Broadway MDing experiences have led to more professional development or career opportunities on the composing side of the industry. “I clearly form relationships at these theaters but, as of yet, that hasn’t manifested in any of those spaces allowing me to do my work at those places specifically,” Siddiqui acknowledged. “But I think being in those spaces has introduced me to more people than if I were just sitting in my bedroom alone writing all day long.”
Kim-Ramsey is in a similar situation. “I have a Broadway credit. That’s great. I’m very, very thankful for that.” And yet, she remains unsure of KPOP’s impact on her career. “There’s not a big change in my life,” she admitted. “But I have a Broadway credit.”
Kim-Ramsey is in the process of developing two new musicals, both of which are set to have readings this spring. Beautiful Country (co-written with Andrew Kim) explores the theme of grief and loss while Beatrice (produced by Jeremiah James and co-written by Jason Huza) tells the story of a young girl with Downs Syndrome who wants to be a ballerina. Kim-Ramsey began working on both projects prior to her Broadway debut. On April 21, she made another significant debut: she is presenting an original composition at Carnegie Hall for the very first time.
Siddiqui recently made her off-Broadway songwriting debut with Hip Hop Cinderella at the New Victory Theater. Currently, she is the co-orchestrator and music arranger for Monsoon Wedding, which begins performances at St. Ann’s Warehouse on May 6. She is also working on several songwriting commissions, including a one-act for Keen Company’s Teens, a solo show for Bryce Pinkham, and a stage adaptation of the young adult novel The Devil’s Arithmetic. Her EP from her original musical Salaam Medina is scheduled to be released later this year.
“The feeling I have, being in the rehearsal room as a writer, is nothing but joy and giddiness,” Siddiqui acknowledged, “as opposed to when I’m MD, and I’m stressed and exhausted, and all that. It’s night and day for me to go into rehearsal every day and sit there filled with joy.”