Sheilah Rae is the President Emeritus of New York Theatre Barn. She is a composer, lyricist, and bookwriter whose works have been performed regionally and off-Broadway to sold-out audiences. As a songwriter, she has written numerous pop songs for both New York and Nashville recording artists, been a recording artist on RCA, performed in nightclubs, sung back-up for Barry Manilow, and written a variety of theme songs for TV. She has won songwriting awards from Billboard, Music City Song Festival, and Variety, and in 1999 she was awarded the Rising Star Galaxy Award from the NY Women’s Agenda for outstanding work in the theater. She has also been a performer on Broadway in Fiddler On the Roof, Applause, The Rothschilds, and Company. Recently she appeared in Prospect Theater Company’s Evergreen at the Times Center. She served on the production team of Rupert Holmes’ Broadway thrillers Accomplice and Solitary Confinement starring Stacy Keach. As a partner in her own music production company, she produced original music and/or lyrics for such clients as Time, People, Doritos, Beechnut Baby Food, BenGay, and more. She co-created Funny, You Don’t Look Like A Grandmother with Lois Wyse and Robert Waldman, which she also produced in Los Angeles where it ran for a year and a half. It continues to play all over the country and is published by Samuel French. Sheilah is the recipient of the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from NY Theatre Barn for her exceptional contributions to musical theatre as a writer, composer, lyricist and performer for more than 50 years, and for her continued outstanding service and vision as founder of New York Theatre Barn.
A Conversation with Sheilah Rae
Jamie Maletz: To start, you’ve done a lot of incredible things! So many, in fact, that you recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from NY Theatre Barn. Is that an award that they created for you?
Sheilah Rae: It is. They did.
JM: That’s amazing. Was there a ceremony that went with it?
Sheilah Rae: Yes. They planned it about six months in advance. I was shocked. I was one of the founders of NY Theatre Barn. The Artistic Director, Joe Barros, had said that he wanted to honor me in some way. And I’ve known Joe since he was in college at The Hartt School. The Hartt School had done a musical that I had written, and he fell in love with it, and he came up to me and said, “You know what? One day I’m going to produce this thing.” And I thought to myself, “Yeah. Sure, honey.” [Laughs] But he did! We produced it at 59E59, a gorgeous off-Broadway production in conjunction with Prospect Theater Company, and I became very involved with Joe’s vision, which was NY Theatre Barn, a company that specializes in the development and incubation of new musicals. I have loved being a part of it. When they said they were going to honor me, I was flabbergasted, but they did an incredible show of songs from various musicals I had written, and ended the show with an anthem I just composed with Debra Barsha for the 2020 election. It was kind of an all-encompassing evening, after 50 years in the business. And wonderful performers…everybody wants to work with Joe. He’s able to get the best of the best. So these singers were like, oh my God, just fantastic. Some of them had done my shows before. It was just a terrific honor. My sisters flew in. They’re all in the business in various places around the country, choreographers primarily. We’re a big dancing family. Michael Riedel (the critic from the New York Post and a long-time friend of mine) spoke. John Miller, the contractor who does a lot of the Broadway pits, we went to music school together, and he and his wife wrote this parody song about me that John sang. It was hilarious.
JM: That sounds incredible.
Sheilah Rae: It was quite a night. And we did it as a benefit for NY Theatre Barn, too. We made close to $13,000.
JM: Oh my God! That’s so great. So, the show that brought you and Joe Barros together, the one he produced off-Broadway, what was it called?
Sheilah Rae: It was called I Married Wyatt Earp. It’s a musical that I wrote with Michele Brourman, the composer, who is also a Maestra member, and I co-wrote the book with Thomas Edward West. Since then, we’ve done several productions, and we’ve changed the title to The Belle of Tombstone. It’s about Josephine Sarah Marcus, who married Wyatt Earp. She was a Jewish girl who ran away from home and joined a traveling stagecoach company of HMS Pinafore, circled the West, ended up in Tombstone, and met and fell in love with Wyatt Earp and became his third common-law wife. It’s a musical for all women. It deals with the time in Tombstone and the years that she lived in Hollywood. She was a very haughty, very proprietary kind of woman, who really guarded Wyatt Earp’s reputation. And she had a very combatant relationship with Allie Earp, the wife of one of the other Earp brothers. So it’s really about the women in Tombstone at the time of the O.K. Corral, and then what happened 45 years later in Hollywood.
JM: Who was Wyatt Earp?
Sheilah Rae: Wyatt Earp was a frontier marshal who, with his five brothers, ran gambling concessions all over the West. From Dodge and Wichita to Tombstone, anywhere there was a Gold Rush going on. And he was a fisticuffs umpire, he would judge horse racing…anywhere there was money and gambling involved, Wyatt Earp was there. But he also became one of the most famous lawmen in the West, because of everybody that was in the shootout at the O.K. Corral, he’s the guy who was left standing, didn’t get hit, didn’t take a bullet, never took a bullet in his life in all the shootouts that he was in, and was kind of a mystifying character in that way. Plus the fact that he was drop-dead gorgeous. He was about 6’4”, riveting blue eyes, handsome as could be, and he was married to this tiny little petite Jewish girl. Which, [gestures at herself] I could identify with. So. Although I’m not married to a 6’4” blue-eyed guy.
JM: That’s fascinating. I actually moved here from Arizona.
Sheilah Rae: Oh, you did?
JM: I’ve been a lot of those tiny little Western towns along Route 66. And I’ve been to Tombstone. I think I went to a haunted house there.
Sheilah Rae: That sounds right. They have the shootout at the O.K. Corral enactments every half hour, you know, with these pop-up characters.
JM: Awesome. I would love to talk more about NY Theatre Barn and how you came to start it with Joe Barros. I think that’s a really special thing that you’ve done, to create a place like that for new works.
Sheilah Rae: Joe had this vision very early on. And this kid is…at this point, he’s almost like a son to me. And he’s gifted as a choreographer and a director. He started as a dancer, like me, so we have that in common. We put together a Board, and we had a wonderful, interesting first Board of Directors. And from then on, we grew the company. And it’s still an all-volunteer company. We don’t have big bucks, and we don’t have a large budget to be able to pay our staff, although we do pay anybody who works on anything that we do on a fee-per-service basis.
JM: How long ago did you start the company?
Sheilah Rae: Twelve years ago.
JM: Twelve years. And you also serve on the Board of the Bret Adams & Paul Reisch Foundation, so in addition to producing new work, you play a role in giving it awards.
Sheilah Rae: Yes. We give three awards. We give a playwriting award, an award we’re calling the Tooth of Time Award to a playwright who has had vast experience and some success but still could use a boost, and a musical theatre award. Bret Adams was an agent here in New York, and was my agent for many, many years. He has a literary component to his office, as well as an acting component. I first met him when I was an actress in the late ’60s working on Broadway, and he would submit me for industrial shows, which were a big thing then. He was my agent since 1993. When he passed away, he left an endowment of money, which his business partner and I and his accountant administer.
JM: And these awards are given annually?
Sheilah Rae: Yes. Although this is only our second year. Because Bret’s partner Paul Reisch passed away about three years ago. So it’s the Bret Adams & Paul Reisch Foundation, and when Paul passed away, it took time to put the foundation together.
JM: So they’re new awards.
Sheilah Rae: They’re new awards. We’re not as big as the Kleban in terms of the amount of money that we give, but we give $30,000, which is not nothing.
JM: Are these awards that people can submit for?
Sheilah Rae: Yes, but you have to be invited to submit. Each member of the Board of Advisors invites two candidates to submit for the award.
JM: Got it. That’s an amazing opportunity. And you also have your own music production company where you’ve produced original music for a lot of big name clients like Time, People, Doritos…
Sheilah Rae: Well, that kind of music production company I don’t have anymore. But I did a million jingles from about 1978-1988 probably, either singing on them or writing them.
JM: How did that work? You wrote the jingles and recorded them yourself?
Sheilah Rae: We did, we had a small studio. But that was when the home studio thing exploded. And Dorothea Joyce, who was my partner in the jingle world, was also a gold record songwriter, so people knew her. We formed this company together and did all our own repping, going to the ad agencies and all that. That’s how you get that work. You have to get to know the creative directors in the ad agencies. You have a reel, they listen to your music, and they pair you with different products that they feel might be right. So that’s how I got those commercials. And it’s interesting, because my daughter’s in the business now. She’s a composer in LA. And it’s a young business. Ad agencies want young writers. They want to feel like they’re very hip and right in the center of it all.
JM: So do you have any favorite stories or interesting places that you’ve gotten to go?
Sheilah Rae: Well, Barry Manilow’s one of my very oldest friends in the business. We started out in the business together. So when I was doing the Beechnut Baby Food commercial, I called him and asked if he would come in and sing on it. And oh my God, you would think I had invited God knows who to come and sing on this thing! The clients were so excited, and the spot came out great, and it was a big spot. It ran for a long, long time. So that was one exciting thing. But you know, it was interesting being a woman in that business. Because they, for some reason, don’t think you can write a spot for Ford trucks. I mean, I would get the calls for feminine hygiene products or perfume. And the big, big money in that business is for cars. That’s what you see on TV even now. And Dorothea and I were both singers. We wanted sung spots. And the business as we were in it was changing. And eventually we both realized…she became a sound healer and I went back to work in the theater, which is really my roots.
JM: That’s really interesting. Speaking of Barry Manilow, you’ve sung backup for him. Was that often?
Sheilah Rae: Yeah, I sang with him all the time. We’re still very, very close friends. I was just at his opening and his closing on Broadway. And I’ve flown all over the place to see Harmony. We met in the craziest way. You can never know what kind of chemistry someone is going to have with you. I was working in Fiddler on Broadway at the time. And there was a show on Saturday afternoons on CBS; it was like a talent show, called “CBS Callback.” And my agent submitted me to sing for the musical director, who was Barry Manilow. I came in and I sang for Barry, and…instant love. And we’ve been friends ever since. And that’s how he met Bette Midler, ‘cause I was in Fiddler with Bette at the time, and when I was at my audition for the Continental Baths, Bette, who was already performing there regularly, asked me who my piano player was.
JM: So you can take credit for Barry Manilow meeting Bette Midler?
Sheilah Rae: That’s right. I can.
JM: That’s amazing. What is Bette Midler like?
Sheilah Rae: Well, I knew Bette when we were working in Fiddler together. And then her star was really on the rise when she started doing shows at the Continental Baths. Do you know about the Continental Baths?
JM: No. Baths like bathtub?
Sheilah Rae: Like bathhouse. The Continental Baths was a big, huge, gay bathhouse. Swimming pools and steams and saunas in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel.
JM: I had no idea about this.
Sheilah Rae: Oh my goodness. You’ll have to Google it.
JM: I will!
Sheilah Rae: All these young artists, particularly Bette, and particularly those who were embraced by the gay community, were performing there. And they would have these enormous shows, with all these guys walking around naked, swimming in the swimming pool, and the singers would be up there performing with the band in the Continental Baths. Wild. Wild times.
JM: That’s incredible. So, you mentioned to me that you’ve also written theme songs for TV.
Sheilah Rae: I have. I wrote the theme song for the teenage Miss USA America contest, called “Reach For A Star”…nothing gigantic, but it was fun.
JM: Do you miss it? The jingle/TV theme life?
Sheilah Rae: I don’t really miss it, because I’m really involved with what I’m doing now, and I’m doing a lot of pieces for the theater, and I love that. But what I do miss is that you do the work, and you do it at a very high level, and then it’s done, and you have something to show for it immediately. Whereas you work on these theater pieces for 10 years, 15 years…I started writing I Married Wyatt Earp in probably 1995, and I’m still looking for new productions of it.
JM: And you’re still rewriting.
Sheilah Rae: Right. I wrote a musical before that called Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Grandmother with a woman that I knew from advertising, Lois Wyse. And Lois was quite well known in advertising. She coined the phrase “with a name like Smuckers, it’s gotta be good.” And Lois had written this book called “Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Grandmother,” which became a New York Times Bestseller. And it’s a little tiny paperback that Crown Publishing trots out every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day and that kind of thing, and it’s sold like crazy. And so Robert Waldman (who wrote The Robber Bridegroom) and Lois and I wrote this together. It’s kind of a sketch revue, but it’s got a thread through it, about grandmothers and the various types that there are.
JM: That’s such a great idea for a musical. So, we’ve mentioned this briefly already, but you’ve performed on Broadway a lot too. What is that like?
Sheilah Rae: Well, let me just put it this way: it’s work. It’s a job. And everyone who works on Broadway expects you to function at a very high level of performance, all the time, giving your all. There’s not room for nonsense. It never gets better than college theater, let me tell you. Because you don’t have the freedom. Once you’re in a Broadway show, it’s kind of like a machine that clicks along. And the rhythm of that machine is always going the same way. But working on Fiddler was a brilliant experience, because I came in during the third year of the run on Broadway of the very original Broadway company. Many of the original Broadway people were still in the company. And Mister Robbins would come around every once in a while and check us all out, and he never yelled at me. I was so grateful. [Laughs]. It was pretty incredible. And then my next Broadway show was Applause. And I went in as the standby for Eve Harrington. So that was a pretty great job. And I stayed in that until I got married in 1970.
JM: So do you have any favorite stories or memories you can share from your time as a Broadway starlet?
Sheilah Rae: Well, I’ll tell you one thing: Donald Trump was always looming around backstage, looking for starlets to pick up.
Sheilah Rae: Oh, yeah. Those years, ’69 and ’70, he was on the prowl. Anyway. It’s interesting, also, to be in a show that sometimes gets in trouble. When I was doing The Selling of the President, it was a terrific, brilliant show, way ahead of its time. It was about what the media does in order to sell a president. And it was so far ahead of its time that the stagecraft that would need to employed to show television commercials…the theater world hadn’t caught up to it yet. They could never get all the technology to work for the show.
JM: They needed to be like Dear Evan Hansen level technology.
Sheilah Rae: Yeah. So that show did not do well, and it closed almost immediately upon opening. But it’s not because it wasn’t talented work. It really was. And I was hired in that show as part of the ensemble. That was a fascinating show, and a really interesting experience to see why it failed. But the creatives–not the writers, but the director and choreographer–they were just never on the same page. And it was interesting to experience a show that was in that kind of trouble.
JM: Do you think that the team not being on the same page was part of why the show failed?
Sheilah Rae: Absolutely. When I’m working on a production, I have on my bathroom mirror a sign that says, “What’s the story?” And every morning that I’m in production, when I get up, I look at that, and I want to be clear in my mind, what’s the story? Everybody has to be working on the same show. And sometimes they’re not. Everybody has their own vision of what it should be. Particularly once the writers are done with the project, and then you bring in all these other creatives who superimpose their vision on what the story is. And that’s when, if you’re not all on the same page and everybody’s agreed that this is the story, trouble starts.
JM: Yeah. That’s good advice. So as a writer, you’ve written how many musicals, all-told?
Sheilah Rae: Oh my goodness. I don’t even know. I’ve written a lot of one-acts, I’ve written some 10-minutes, some short musicals…probably, I would say, at least fifteen maybe?
JM: And sometimes you write the lyrics and the libretto, and sometimes just music, and sometimes all of it?
Sheilah Rae: Mostly I work as lyricist/librettist. I don’t know why that’s happened, because originally I was a songwriter. You know, I was trying to be Carole King. But it just seemed that it was harder for people to find somebody who wrote really good lyrics, and I really enjoyed that, and I enjoyed the control over the story as the librettist. And now, when I’m writing with Debra Barsha, we both do both.
JM: And your shows have been produced in LA, off-Broadway, regionally…do you have any favorite experiences you’d like to talk about?
Sheilah Rae: Well, many universities have the opportunity for you to present your piece with talented kids at the university level. And that’s the best of all, because you have freedom, you can get your show up, you have talent, and you don’t have the constrictions of a producer breathing down your throat about every dime you’re spending, because the university has money. So they can mount a beautiful show. We just did The Belle of Tombstone for the second time at The Hartt School this past spring, and it was a gorgeous production. It took my breath away. These kids were so talented and so great, and it’s just thrilling. And I’ve had a lot of university productions now, all over the country, and I love going into these colleges and working with these kids.
JM: And what about current projects? Are you working on anything now?
Sheilah Rae: Well, I just got a grant from the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. We got this grant for a project called The Helena Project, about a women who I read about in The New York Times. She was 88 years old and decided to become a ballroom dancer. She decided this so late in life because she lost her husband, her daughter had passed away from breast cancer, she loved dancing, and she was an Auschwitz survivor. She was originally from Poland, came to the United States after the war was over, recovered in Sweden…her life story is incredible. So Debra [Barsha] and I wrote a short piece for NY Theatre Barn’s choreography lab to see whether or not there was something in that article we had read that could work as a musical. And people flipped out over it. We realized we couldn’t go any further if we didn’t get her life rights. And she’s 95 years old now, and wouldn’t you know it, getting her life rights has been the most difficult negotiation of anything that I’ve ever encountered in my whole life. And finally, we had to step away from the project. So we’re going to write the musical about writing the musical! Because we can’t write the musical we had intended to write, but we can write about what we read in The New York Times, so that’s one project I’m working on. And then, I’m working on these two Ferber pieces for the Edna Ferber Estate, which is run by a wonderful woman named Julie Gilbert. We’ll be doing an evening of the Ferber pieces with NY Theatre Barn as a benefit in the spring. And I’m starting on a very crazy, sharp version of Sleeping Beauty with Debra Barsha and Deborah Savadge.
JM: And you’ve won several songwriting awards, from Billboard, Music City Song Festival, Variety, and in 1999 you won the Rising Star Galaxy Award from the NY Women’s Agenda for outstanding work in the theater.
Sheilah Rae: The Rising Star award had a huge ceremony. My mother flew in, and it was a whole thing. It was really a big honor.
JM: And in your not-for-profit work, you’ve served on the council for Songwriter’s Guild of America, you spent twelve years on the board of the Music Conservatory of Westchester, you’re a past President of the League of Professional Theatre Women, you’re now serving on their Advisory Board, and you’re a founding member of the Grammys in the Schools Program, which is a national education program about the music industry, and you’ve been a guest lecturer about music and advertising at several colleges. So you’ve done a lot of good, and you’ve done a lot of education, and it all sounds really awesome, and I was wondering if you wanted to share anything about your not-for-profit or educational experiences.
Sheilah Rae: Well, you know, I just don’t think you can exist in this business as long as I’ve been in it, which is a long time, and not feel the need in some way to give back. And I have children who were in music school. That’s how I got involved with the Music Conservatory of Westchester and then realized how important music education was. And as far as joining the League of Professional Theatre Women, I mean, I’m a writer. If I stay at home, who would I meet? I would meet no one. If I didn’t join the League of Professional Theatre Women, I would never have met some of the playwrights I’ve worked with and some of the producers I’ve worked with. We have a trip every year to London and I met a wonderful director in London, and we did I Married Wyatt Earp in London because of that connection. It’s all about who you know. And if you don’t get out there and meet the people, you’re not gonna know anybody!
JM: So how would you describe your career path?
Sheilah Rae: It’s been a zig and a zag, I would say. You have to keep reinventing yourself at every turn, because you don’t know what’s gonna be on the horizon. And you have to just keep developing skill sets all the time. I think that’s the most important thing that you can do.
JM: And why did you join Maestra?
Sheilah Rae: I joined Maestra because I realized there were a whole host of composers and conductors that I didn’t know, that I wanted to know. And I wanted the opportunity to hear what they were doing, and maybe share a bit of what I’m doing. But mostly ‘cause I’m just really nosy. [Laughs] I just wanted to hear what everybody else was doing! You know?
JM: Why do you think Maestra is important?
Sheilah Rae: Well, I know as a young songwriter starting out, there was no place to go to meet other writers that were doing what I was doing, and to get the kind of support that Maestra gives. And now Maestra’s got this whole thing where…you know, when I was a young mother with kids and trying to work, there was no kind of support the way Maestra supports each other and talks about babysitting and meet-ups in the park and stuff like that. I didn’t have any of that! If I couldn’t find a babysitter, I was stuck. And I had to feed my kids at 5:30 pm, be on the subway, and be in the theater, ‘cause my kids were little when I was still working on Broadway as a performer. It wasn’t until later when we moved to the country that I kind of stopped performing and made the full transition to being a writer.
JM: How has Maestra helped you or people you know so far?
Sheilah Rae: I don’t know that it’s helped me in the sense that it’s furthered my career, but what’s wonderful about it is that Georgia [Stitt] is so good at finding people to come in and talk to the organization. And I’ve found that enlightening. And I think she’s just really incredible at what she’s doing for young writers to help them find their way and navigate the system in New York. It’s not easy.
JM: And why should people care about the services we offer and the goals we’re working towards?
Sheilah Rae: I think that if you are in this human race, you are interested in the culture and the art of the world in which you live. So someone who’s outside of the music world, hearing what we are doing, would be excited by it because we’re adventurers. And we’re all on an adventure in some way or another just living this life. So I think that’s an important way of staying committed to the human race. And what Maestra is doing is so valuable, particularly for young women starting out in this business, that I think anybody would be fascinated to know who we are and what we’re doing.
Special thanks to Sheilah 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, Emily Grishman, and Rona Siddiqui.
Women Who Wow Us
Author/Photographer: Jamie Maletz