Rona Siddiqui is an award-winning composer/lyricist and music director based in NYC. Her show Salaam Medina: Tales of a Halfghan, an autobiographical comedy about growing up bi-ethnic in America, will be receiving a workshop in the fall of 2019. Other musicals include One Good Day, The Tin, and Treasure in NYC. Rona is the recipient of this year’s Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award (just announced! Congratulations!), the ASCAP Foundation Mary Rodgers/Lorenz Hart Award, and the ASCAP Foundation/Max Dreyfus Scholarship. She has written pieces for 24 Hour Musicals, Prospect Theater Company, The Civilians, the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus, and 52nd St Project, and has performed her work at venues including The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, and New York City Center. Original scores she has written for plays include The Vagina Monologues, Middletown, and The Good Person of Szechuan. She has done orchestrations for Broadway Backwards, the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus, Broadway Records, NAMT, and Hole in the Wall Gang Camp galas. As a music director, Rona received the award for Best Music Direction in 2012 from the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Other music directing credits include A Strange Loop (Playwrights Horizons), Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I Started the Iraq War (St. Lukes Theater), and Bella: An American Tall Tale (Playwrights Horizons), for which she received an AUDELCO nomination. She received her Masters from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.
A Conversation with Rona Siddiqui
Jamie Maletz: I wanted to start right off the bat and ask you about the show you have coming up, because your bio says that Salaam Medina: Tales of a Halfghan is coming in the fall of 2019. And it is currently the fall of 2019! So when exactly is this happening?
Rona Siddiqui: I’m doing a workshop at Playwrights Horizons in November, and I’m super excited about that.
JM: That’s so cool. It sounds like you have a really good relationship with Playwrights Horizons. You’ve done a few productions with them at this point?
Rona Siddiqui: I’ve done three productions at Playwrights. I did A Strange Loop, I did Bella [An American Tall Tale], and I played on If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. And so they’re like my family there. They’re so generous, and they’re so kind, and when I mentioned off the cuff that I was hoping to have a workshop of my show in the fall, they offered to house it there, which is just…amazing.
JM: That’s wonderful. What is Salaam Medina: Tales of a Halfghan about, and how did you get the idea?
Rona Siddiqui: Salaam Medina is an autobiographical vaudevillian-style sketch show depicting what it’s like to grow up bi-ethnic in America. Kind of not knowing what your identity is. And I just felt like that kind of–I call myself a “half breed” [laughs]–like the “half breed” story isn’t always told. And every time I talk to people about it that also consider themselves bi-ethnic or bi-racial, they get super excited about it. And yeah, I think it’ll be a lot of fun. I hope it feels…honest and relatable.
JM: What’s the style of music? Does it reflect, like, two different styles of music, or…?
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah! It reflects a lot of different styles. Growing up, I was immersed in pop culture. So it’s mostly pop infused mixed with what my perception of Afghan music was, but then I also have, like…a folk song, I have a country song, it’s really…it feels sort of Muppet-y to me. Like Muppet sketch comedy.
JM: That’s so fun! So, you’re doing a workshop of this show at Playwrights Horizons in November. And you’re also fresh off of what I’m assuming was a pretty incredible music directing experience at Playwrights. You were the music director for A Strange Loop. Do you want to talk about that experience?
Rona Siddiqui: YAH. [Laughs] Yes I do! Whenever I decide to music direct something, I’m very picky about it, because I came to New York to be a writer, not a music director, but I also have to acknowledge that I need to pay my bills and survive here, and I have those skills. So a show has to hit certain criteria for me. I think it has to be somehow pushing the envelope in terms of form or structure, it has to be saying something that I’m passionate about, and I have to feel like I can learn something from the creative team and the process. And this, for sure, checked all of those boxes. Like, no doubt. And it truly was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had working on a musical. I think seeing Michael [R. Jackson] be so brutally honest made me constantly question myself and my show, and how honest am I being with what I’m trying to say? And there’s some stuff in A Strange Loop where he’s kind of just brutal about situations with his parents, which I just find remarkably brave. And then when his parents came to see the show, you know, we were all just like, [gasps] “What are they gonna say??” you know, “What are they gonna do?” But they were just so filled with pride and love, and it was just the best. I was like, “Yes. I can do this. I can tell my story super honestly.” And I think that’s what I took most from it.
JM: So it was really helpful for you, because you’re writing your own autobiographical show, to be working on an autobiographical show.
Rona Siddiqui: Totally. Great timing.
JM: You’re also an orchestrator, and one of the reasons I was excited to talk to you is because it’s so rare to meet a female orchestrator! I wanted to talk about this early in the interview, because I want to include a link to the incredible music video you made for Change the World. I have to say, I REALLY loved that song.
Rona Siddiqui: Oh, thank you!
JM: And you wrote it to inspire people to vote?
Rona Siddiqui: Yes.
JM: And you did a social media outreach to get people to send in videos of them and their kids dancing to the chorus, holding up signs that said things like, “Go vote!” I was wondering if you could talk about that project and what inspired it and the process of working on it?
Rona Siddiqui: I actually was inspired by…there was a contest. And I don’t remember who was doing the contest. But they were challenging writers to write songs to inspire people to vote, and I was just like, “Heck yeah!” And that, really, is what got me going. I wanted to write something that wasn’t partisan, but really questioned the fragility of our democracy right now. Um, I did not win said contest. But I did not care, ‘cause I had such a great time working on the song, and it felt like it got a lot of people involved. It was super fun.
JM: How long did it take you to make that video?
Rona Siddiqui: We shot all of the scenes with me in one day, and then I think I gathered all the other videos within, like, a two-week period and then had somebody edit them together.
JM: And what are those colorful tubes in the video?
Rona Siddiqui: Ah! [Laughs] Those are boomwhackers. I love percussion, and I love groove, and so when I discovered boomwhackers, I felt like this is something that I want to push the envelope with. And so I’ve used them on a number of songs where I just have, like, multiple people with these educational tools for kids, but I use them in a way that is way more intricate and percussive. In fact, I want to do an entire concert of just, like…boomwhacker orchestra, basically.
JM: Wow. That sounds incredible. I really want young female could-be orchestrators to see your path and see what you’re doing and see that it’s possible. So I wanted to ask, and this is a little bit of a broad question, but what is it like to be an orchestrator?
Rona Siddiqui: Okay. First of all, I just want to say, I don’t understand at all why this particular field is male-dominated. I mean, I don’t understand why any field is male-dominated, but I actually looked at the last five years of Broadway musicals, and there were 77, and I think there were only maybe 3 or 4 that had female orchestrators on them. And that’s just a giant question mark for me. Why is that?
JM: This comment is added by our amazing editor Sara Cooper: Maestra member Lynne Shankel was the first woman to solely orchestrate a new musical on Broadway–and that musical premiered on Broadway in 2015!
Rona Siddiqui: It’s so hard for women to break in. So I first have to thank Mary-Mitchell Campbell for giving me the opportunities that I’ve gotten, because she’s let me orchestrate on a bunch of galas and charity events and given me the chance to write for a Broadway orchestra. And so that has built up my confidence a lot to be able to do it in other venues.
JM: That’s awesome.
Rona Siddiqui: Oh my gosh. She’s my hero. [Laughs] So tackling the task, you always have an idea, you’re gonna know what your instrumentation is, and you’re gonna know stylistically what it is. So if you have those two things, then it’s just a matter of plugging everything in. I usually like to start with the rhythm. So I’ll just lay down the drums and bass, and then suddenly, it’s like the rest of it is just kind of like filling it in. It’s like making the outline and then you just start coloring.
Rona Siddiqui: And then it’s like, it takes a while to get good, as you know, because you’ve been studying it. Like, “Oh, wait…what is the range of the bassoon?” Or like, “Wait, do these two instruments…are they gonna sound good together, or not?” And sometimes you just have to try it, and get in the room, and be like, “Nope! Actually, can you play that, and you play that?” You know? But if we’re never given a chance to even do that, and make mistakes, and get in the room…what are we gonna do?
JM: Sometimes it feels like people are waiting to prove us wrong. Like, people are waiting to get us in the room and be like, “Oh, see? She doesn’t know what she’s doing, this is why we don’t like to hire women.”
Rona Siddiqui: Exactly! Exactly. When, of course, men have also made tons of mistakes, and nobody said shit, because…
JM: They were men.
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah. Exactly.
JM: So you started to answer this a little bit when you were talking about how Mary-Mitchell Campbell gave you opportunities to orchestrate for galas, but what was it like for you starting out in this industry? What has your career path been like?
Rona Siddiqui: When I graduated from NYU, I was just scrappily doing any little music directing job, vocal coaching, teaching…I was doing some mentorship programs and teaching artist work…until the bigger music directing projects started to come my way. It took a while to get there. But then, I was also having, like, an identity crisis in terms of, I did not come here to music direct. And so I would lose my balance, and I’d be hustling so hard just trying to make the money to survive that my heart would start to hurt because I wasn’t creating my own work anymore. So now I feel like I really have it in balance. If I know, “Okay, I’m going to be doing A Strange Loop from this month to this month, then I’m going to take the next three months to make sure that I’ve got Salaam Medina ready to go, and then I know after that, I have this orchestration job that’s going to happen.” So I can balance the money jobs with my writing jobs.
JM: That’s really interesting. I’ve been struggling with that too, because I just graduated, and I’ve been looking for work, and I’m looking at the number of hours required to make the kind of money required to survive, and I’m like, “When am I going to have time to write? When am I going to have the energy to write?” The amount of time and energy that you need to get your work out there in the way that you can make any sort of headway in the industry…how do you balance that?
Rona Siddiqui: It’s not easy. I was actually writing songs for a production of Measure for Measure during tech of A Strange Loop. And I was just sitting there on my keyboard, half-listening for when they needed me to play and then just half, like, scribbling out lyrics and trying to write a melody really fast. And it actually turned out to be some of the coolest stuff I’d ever written, because I wasn’t overthinking! I was just, “Oh god, I need to get these songs done!”
JM: Yeah, I guess you kind of have to be a multi-tasker in this industry. At least in the beginning. At least until you make enough of a name for yourself that you can rake in the jobs.
Rona Siddiqui: Exactly. I remember, like, the first day of classes [at The Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU], one of the professors was like, “Yeah, I can name the number of musical theater writers that make their living writing on one hand.” And I was just like, you’re talking to thirty bright-eyed, bushy-tailed hopeful people who came here to make their mark as a writer, and you’re just stomping their little dreams into the ground. And I was like, “Well, I’m gonna be that sixth! I’m gonna make you pop out that thumb of your next hand!” [Laughs]
JM: Yeah, they said something like that to us too. I think they try in that program to crush your dreams. And not in a mean way, but in a…keep you realistic way, so that you don’t walk out of there thinking that you’re gonna be the next—
Rona Siddiqui: Stephen Schwartz—
JM: Yeah, person who’s so famous that you don’t have to worry about paying the bills. So you don’t end up leaving the program and blaming them when life is hard, because for like 99.999% of us, it’s gonna be really, really hard.
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah.
JM: But anyway, to bring our discussion back to you, you have so many impressive skills, and you’ve won awards for them! As a Composer/Lyricist, you’ve won the ASCAP Foundation Mary Rodgers/Lorenz Hart Award and the ASCAP Foundation/Max Dreyfus Scholarship. As a music director, you’ve won an award for Best Music Direction from the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. And as we talked about in my interview with Britt Bonney, that’s a rare skill to win an award for! So when you’re music directing, since it’s not your primary career objective, how do you take joy from it?
Rona Siddiqui: That’s a really good question. I think being in the moment of that collaboration as a show is happening in real time with the actors and the musicians is quite joyful. It is, like, the ultimate in human connection, really. So when everything is going well, it’s amazing. But it’s also a highly, highly stressful job. Because you are the motor of the show. You are in charge of making it go correctly. And it’s a lot of pressure. I just went up to Barrington to play keys on a show. They needed an emergency keyboard player. And it was so enjoyable to not have to worry about getting out of the vamps, or worry if they skipped a line or jumped a beat. I just got to sit back and play, and that was really fun too.
JM: That’s awesome. And what was it like to win those awards? Were they just money, or did they come with ceremonies or other fun perks?
Rona Siddiqui: ASCAP always throws a really big awards ceremony where they give out a ton of awards every year. It’s such an amazing organization. So those felt really special. Stephen Schwartz actually gave me one of those awards.
JM: That’s so cool!
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah. It’s actually kind of coming full circle, because Wicked asked me to write a song for their 16th Anniversary, so I’ve written a Wicked-inspired song. So. Cool. Like, what a cool, cool, cool opportunity. So I got to go see the show, and then after I wrote the song, I had a one-on-one with Stephen Schwartz.
JM: I would die. I would be deceased.
Rona Siddiqui: He’s so brilliant. So just to have that experience with him, and to have his mentorship and his support…it’s super meaningful. I’ve been really lucky to have the mentorship of people like him and especially people like Kirsten Childs, who have supported my writing in ways I can’t even ever repay.
JM: And you’ve also been commissioned to write songs for some great organizations. The Civilians, the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus, MuseMatch, 52nd Street Project, and the web series Amateur Dicks. Would you like to talk about any of those experiences?
Rona Siddiqui: I’ve written, I think, five or six songs for The Civilians. I love doing that, because all of their work is interview-based. And so the big challenge is to take interview text and turn it into a lyric, and that is, like, super hard! When you’re given, like, a 15-page interview, and then you have to create a thesis and use that person’s words to create a song out of the thesis, with a hook. It’s just…it’s so hard, and it’s so fun.
JM: And I’ve heard of MuseMatch before but I’m not sure how it works.
Rona Siddiqui: A performer gets paired with a writer, and they go on, like, a blind date where the writer learns about the performer. And then based off of a story that they [the performer] tell you, you write a personalized song for them.
JM: Oh, that’s really fun!
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah, so “Om Shanti Om”, Alex Tripp was just starting out as a yoga instructor and was also telling tales of being frustrated in New York, and I was like, “Oh. Yeah.”
JM: It’s a great song.
Rona Siddiqui: It was so fun to write. And it was great, because she was also super involved in the process. She wasn’t just like, “Oh, I’ll just sing whatever.” She was like, “Yes, and this, and maybe this!” So together, we tweaked it to what it became, and we were both so happy with how it turned out.
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah. For the one I did, there were playwrights who wrote the lyrics, and then I set all of them to music and taught them to the kids.
JM: That’s really great. Maybe they do it differently every year, because when friends of mine did it, I think the kids wrote lyrics or stories, and then the composers set them to music.
Rona Siddiqui: Oh, cool.
JM: Yeah. And you’ve also been a featured songwriter at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Joe’s Pub, and New York City Center. Do you have a favorite gig story or behind-the-scenes memory you’d like to share?
Rona Siddiqui: I think my favorite gig story would have to be when I got to do the Kennedy Center last year. It was in November, and we were driving down in a crazy, crazy storm, and I thought I was gonna die on my way there—
JM: Oh no!
Rona Siddiqui: Because giant trucks would go by and, like, shoot snow at us, and we would be zaggin’ in the road. It was super scary. And so a lot of people who were supposed to come to the concert didn’t make it, because the weather was so bad.
JM: There were some crazy storms last winter.
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah. But that concert was one of the greatest experiences of my life, because I got to bring some of my favorite players and favorite performers down to DC, and we just got to, like…jam. And my parents came from California, and it was…it was one of the happiest nights of my life.
JM: That’s awesome. How does that work, when you ask people to travel that far with you to perform your stuff? Did you just ask them and they were happy to do it, or did you have to put them up in lodging there, or…?
Rona Siddiqui: The Kennedy Center is lovely enough to put people up if they want to spend the night, which is amazing. All of your performers. And I was like, are they sure? Because I’m gonna have, like, 12 people—I’m bringing an entourage! [Laughs]
JM: And they did it for you?
Rona Siddiqui: They did. It was amazing.
JM: That’s so great! What kind of concert was it?
Rona Siddiqui: It was just an hour of whatever I wanted to do.
JM: So they just featured you because you’re awesome. They reached out to you and said, “We love your stuff, we’d like to feature you for an hour?”
Rona Siddiqui: Yeah. Well, and again, it was sponsored by ASCAP. So again, just having the support of that organization has been life-changing for me. Also, ASCAP is who recommended me for the Wicked project. Michael Kerker at ASCAP, I don’t know if you know him—
JM: I know of him.
Rona Siddiqui: He’s another person that’s been in my corner, and that has just meant the world to me. You can’t do this alone. There’s just no way. Networking with others, how important it is…one introduction can affect your career exponentially. It’s just huge.
JM: I’ve talked with a few people about how…networking is important, but also difficult, especially because you don’t want to view it as transactional. Because it’s building relationships with people. But it’s also hard when a lot of us feel anxious, a lot of us feel awkward, a lot of us feel like it’s hard to connect in high pressure situations. And especially when theater is something we love as our art, but it’s also wrapped up with how we make our living, so sometimes these people that we want to build connections with, we also have to at some point talk about money with. So you have these people where you’re like, “I want to work with you! I want to pay you! I also want to be your friend and have coffee with you!” So it’s kind of awkward.
Rona Siddiqui: It is. And I think the way I think about it is, this is a long game. And being kind and just connecting with people in a real way is what it’s about. And if you trust enough in what you’re bringing to this business and are just a genuine person, things will eventually happen.
JM: Yeah. That’s the hope, right?
Rona Siddiqui: That’s the hope.
JM: And something we have in common: you received your Master’s from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, so of course I have to ask, what was your thesis musical about?
Rona Siddiqui: My thesis was called One Good Day. It is a romantic musical comedy. My collaborator is Liz Suggs. She’s now out in LA working on a Netflix show, Disenchantment.
JM: Oh, no way. That’s wild!
Rona Siddiqui: During our thesis presentation, the audience was laughing so hard that they were, like, crying and saying their ribs hurt. The show has had kind of a big, workshop-y life. We just did a workshop of it at Michigan State University last year for their ĭmáGen program, which was super fun, and I got to orchestrate it for that, which was great. But we have yet to have a production of it. So that’s been frustrating, because every time we do a reading or a workshop, everybody goes nuts over it, and then nothing happens. But still, we stay optimistic. Liz is actually doing a Kennedy Center concert this year, so we’ll play some songs from it then.
JM: So what’s your elevator pitch for One Good Day?
Rona Siddiqui: It’s about a woman who’s just turning 34 or 35, hasn’t found that special someone yet, and she believes that all it takes is one good day to meet that someone and change your life forever. And her sister is very much like, give up, get some cats. And we basically track her through a 24-hour period to see if this is, in fact, her one good day and her philosophy is right.
JM: That sounds really fun. And are there any new projects on the horizon for you?
Rona Siddiqui: Yes! Yes indeed. I am adapting a book with composer/lyricist Gaby Alter and bookwriter Gabriel Dean. I just finished my first song for it today. And then in spring of next year, I am orchestrating my first full-length show that’s not my own. So it’s a really big deal to me, and I’m very, very excited about it.
JM: Awesome! Okay, now for the big question: Why did you join Maestra?
Rona Siddiqui: I joined Maestra because I’m a woman who writes musicals in New York City! And that’s where the community is, so it was a no-brainer.
JM: And why do you think Maestra is important?
Rona Siddiqui: I think Maestra is so important, because having a community where you have people who understand what you’re going through and what it’s like to be a woman in this industry, where you have some that have been doing it longer than you that can mentor you, and then you have some that have not been doing it as long as you that you can help up and mentor in turn…is huge. Being able to have a space where healing and empathy can take place is…it feels safe and necessary, and I’m just so grateful that we have it.
JM: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far?
Rona Siddiqui: I think just getting to know other women…I get asked to music direct things all the time, and so now I can easily say, “Oh, you should ask this woman, or this woman…” And I can just give them the list, or direct them to the website. That’s, you know, I’m just grateful that we have it.
JM: Why should people care about the services we offer and the goals we’re working towards?
Rona Siddiqui: I mean, every room that I’ve been in, every show that I’ve worked on that has had more diversity, more different perspectives and different voices…those shows have flourished. So why would you want to limit yourself and your work? The more ways we can look at a subject, the better we can understand it. These big Broadway musicals that come in with all-male teams talking about how they’re going to take whatever movie from the eighties they’re adapting now and make it more “current” and “feminist,” and then not have a single woman on the creative team, infuriate me. It should be a priority to have our presence and our voices heard in every room.
JM: Is there anything else that you would like to share about yourself, your work, or thoughts about Maestra?
Rona Siddiqui: I just have to say how grateful I am for Georgia Stitt. I think she might not be human, ’cause I don’t understand how she writes and music directs and orchestrates and runs this organization and has a family and…I mean, it’s crazy! And then I think she posted something about all these books that she’s read, and I’m like, “Woman! When do you have time to read?” It’s just, it’s crazy! Like, who is Georgia Stitt?? I strive to be as impactful as she is in this community.
JM: Hear, hear.
Special thanks to Rona for sharing her story.
Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Anessa Marie, Elise Frawley, Erin McKeown, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, Jennifer Isaacson, and Emily Grishman.