Lynne Shankel is an award-winning orchestrator, arranger, music director, and composer. She was music supervisor/arranger/orchestrator for Allegiance on Broadway and was the first woman to solely orchestrate a new musical on Broadway. Her diverse musical background has led her to write orchestrations and arrangements for everyone from Chita Rivera, the New York Pops, and Raul Esparza, to Tony Award winner and Bon Jovi member David Bryan and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. She was music director/arranger for the Broadway production of Cry-Baby, as well as the resident music supervisor for the Tony Award-winning revival of Company, for which she conducted the Grammy-nominated cast album. She was music director/arranger for the Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz, for which she received a Drama Desk nomination for orchestrations. Lynne received a second Drama Desk nomination for her work on The Extraordinary Ordinary (by Paul Loesel and Scott Burkell) in 2010. In 2012, she received the Craig Noel Award for Outstanding Orchestrations in San Diego for her work on Allegiance. Lynne was the music supervisor, arranger and co-orchestrator for Bare: the Musical. She also collaborated with lyricist Jon Hartmere to provide the new songs for that production, which are featured on her album, Bare Naked.
A Conversation with Lynne Shankel
Jamie Maletz: Your Maestra profile says that you are the first woman to solely orchestrate a show on Broadway. That’s mind-blowing. I’m thrilled to be talking to a female orchestrator. This is kind of a broad question, but what is it like to be an orchestrator on a Broadway show? What’s a day in the life like?
Lynne Shankel: Well, I mean, it’s the same as a day orchestrating a show anywhere else. The only difference is that it’s under the label of “This is Broadway,” and sometimes that can put extra pressure in people’s minds. But I found the same thing when I was music directing. When I music directed my first Broadway show, I was like, “Oh, the job is exactly the same; it’s just the surroundings that are different.”
JM: To me, the job itself is a bit of a mystery. I would love to know what it’s like to be an orchestrator in general.
Lynne Shankel: Orchestration is about adding color and texture to a piece. So, you have a piece of music. Usually it’s something that’s arranged just for piano and voice, and your job is going to be to expand it into a different palette of instruments depending on what the show needs and what you and the composer have discussed. It brings a whole new musical world to the piece, so it can mean adding countermelodies that weren’t there before, it can mean adding rhythmic structure that wasn’t there before… it’s adding a lot more layers to the process, but color and texture is really what it’s about. When I’m orchestrating for the theater specifically, the show is about lyric, so my choices as an orchestrator are also based on lyric, where I can emphasize something or when I really want to be out of the way of something so that the words are coming through. I think it’s also knowing how a voice needs padding in places and where a voice really wants to be the one thing soaring through. It’s a lot about understanding balance, and for me, those are things that I have learned through doing.
JM: That’s really cool. So how long have you been doing this? And how did you learn how to do this?
Lynne Shankel: Well, the truth is, I was a piano performance major in college. I was doing shows constantly because, at that point, I really wanted to conduct. I wanted to be an MD in theatre and shows, so I was doing that a lot. I took two orchestration classes. If I had known that it was going to be a focus of my life, I’m sure I would’ve paid a lot more attention. But, I learn by doing. The first thing that I did when I was really young was orchestral reductions.
JM: Orchestral reductions?
Lynne Shankel: Yeah! I did a reduction of The Music Man when I was 22 for seven pieces instead of–
JM: –the whole orchestra.
Lynne Shankel: Exactly. In doing that, I started to learn things, and I was learning because I was studying these scores written by brilliant people. When I moved to New York, I started just doing really small things. I was doing small orchestrations for cabaret shows (which was really just a rhythm section). The first show that I orchestrated was in the late ’90s. It was an Off-Broadway show called Summer of ’42, and that was the first full musical that I orchestrated. I mean, that was terrifying and thrilling. And I think that was the point when I really realized that this was something I truly wanted to focus on.
JM: So you didn’t always know that orchestration was going to be your main focus?
Lynne Shankel: No, no, I didn’t. When I started out, I wanted to music direct. And then I started doing some vocal arranging and writing incidental music; I did a lot of that. Then I started orchestrating, and along the way I started composing more, and now that’s a big focus for me.
JM: Which is good, because you’re amazing! So, I’d love to ask you about your experience working on Allegiance. Do you have any favorite memories or behind-the-scenes stories? And what was it like working with Lea Salonga and George Takei?
Lynne Shankel: Oh my goodness, I mean Lea and George are both just amazing humans. Lea is just one of the great voices of our generation, and she’s a doll. We both refer to ourselves as “broads.” We just say what we mean, we mean what we say, and you like it or you don’t. We very much formed a friendship based on that commonality. She’s a dream, and it was a dream to get to orchestrate the song “Higher” for her. It was an absolute thrill, and I will never forget the first time we heard it at the sitzprobe with the orchestra at the out-of-town at the Old Globe. It was just thrilling. George is amazing. He’s everything you want him to be. When you’re speaking with him, he’s always listening to what you’re saying. There’s no checking out, like there can be with a lot of people of his stature. He’s truly interested in what you have to say, and his passion about the story of Allegiance is real. I mean, Allegiance is based on him. It’s based on his story of being a child who grew up in an internment camp from age five for four years and how that impacted his life and how it still impacts his life. I think the biggest thing about Allegiance, for me, was realizing how little I knew about it when we started. How it was this tiny little paragraph shoved in a corner of an American history book because it’s not something we want to talk about. It’s a very shameful chapter in our history. As I got to learn more and more about it, I was honestly quite embarrassed how little I knew when we started.
JM: Yeah, I actually know very little about it.
Lynne Shankel: Exactly, we don’t. We don’t know, and I think that it was interesting for audiences to learn about it and sometimes to learn what they didn’t want to learn. It’s tricky, but I do firmly believe that it’s a story that needs to be told, and I’m really glad that we told it.
JM: You were talking a lot in some of these interviews about honesty in shows and the importance of that. And I think the more of that we can get, the better off we’ll be. I think the time for holding back and telling the stories we think people want to hear has passed.
Lynne Shankel: I agree wholeheartedly. And everything I have been working on as a writer and as a composer now has been something that I really need to talk about.
JM: That’s good.
Lynne Shankel: Yeah. And it feels good. It feels good to be writing things that are meaningful to me.
JM: I do have a question coming up later about current projects, so we’ll get more into that for sure. But right now I want to ask, what was it like conducting the cast album for Company?
Lynne Shankel: Oh, it was amazing! That show is so much fun, and I got to work on it with one of my best friends, Mary-Mitchell Campbell. The cast was so great, and being able to conduct that score was so fun. It was actually a little bit bizarre because in that show, there was no conductor.
JM: There was no conductor for the show?
Lynne Shankel: No, because it was actor-musicians. But also lots of those folks had never played an instrument in a recording setting, and sitting down and recording in a studio is a lot different from moving in a show. We also did nothing with click or anything like that. So everybody felt like it was a good idea for someone to conduct it. And it was just crazy. I mean, Stephen Sondheim was in the control room. It was an amazing experience.
JM: That’s so cool. Sondheim was just right there in the control room?
Lynne Shankel: He was. He was in the control room.
JM: Was that really nerve-wracking? I mean, a legendary composer-lyricist in the control room, and you’re just there wondering if you’re doing everything right.
Lynne Shankel: Yeah, 100%. But that cast was such a well-oiled machine. I really wasn’t worried about the thing going off the rails. They were so good and so consistent. But standing in a studio conducting Company for Sondheim was amazing. It was very generous of Mary-Mitchell to give me that opportunity. It was a blast.
JM: That’s really amazing. And that album was nominated for a Grammy!
Lynne Shankel: It was! It was very cool.
JM: So what does it mean to be a music supervisor?
Lynne Shankel: A music supervisor oversees the whole umbrella of the music department. When I’m music supervising, I’m communicating with the orchestrator, with the music director, with the copyist, with general management. I’ll say that I’ve done a lot of those things as a music director. But on some shows, it’s really particularly beneficial to be able to have ears out in front; in the house, in rehearsal, and to not be at the piano and not be conducting; to be able to be outside of it. To really be able to see the piece for what it is. I think that’s the most important part, especially when you are developing a new musical, which goes through so much change at a ridiculously rapid pace. For me to be able to look at it from the same side as the authors and the director and the choreographer can be really beneficial to the piece. A lot of the pieces I have worked on as a music supervisor, I have done a lot of musical dramaturgical work, and I find it easier to do that when I can be outside of it, when I can look at things globally. It’s also wearing a lot of hats, because usually when I’m the music supervisor, I am also writing arrangements or orchestrating.
JM: And what is the difference between orchestrations and arrangements? Because they’re similar, right?
Lynne Shankel: They are, but arrangements have to do with structure. When I’m writing song arrangements for something, I’m maybe putting it in a different style. It might be about key changes. And when I’m doing vocal arrangements, that’s a whole other thing and has everything to do with vocals. But the biggest difference is that arrangement is about structure while orchestration is about color and texture and imposing that on a structure that’s already there. So the arrangement is about building the structure. If it’s a rhythm show, it might mean that you change the groove on something. It also could mean putting harmonic changes in the structure. It could mean suggesting a slightly different melodic turn here and there. It could really alter a piece quite a lot.
JM: And like we talked about, you also compose music and lyrics. Do you have a favorite amongst your skill sets?
Lynne Shankel: Between all the things: composing. I think composing is number one, followed closely by writing lyrics and orchestrating. At this point, I’m most interested in all things writing. That’s the stuff that brings me joy.
JM: That’s awesome. So as an orchestrator, you mentioned that there are different ways of deciding what instruments you’re going to work with. How much are these decisions driven by your thoughts and expertise versus the composer’s desires, the producer’s desires, the budget, etc.?
Lynne Shankel: Well, producers will sometimes say, “We think we have this many musicians to work with” or “we are currently budgeted for 10,” let’s say. I thankfully haven’t had a producer say to me, “You have to use a guitar” or “you have to use a trumpet.” I haven’t had that experience. Obviously producers and general managers are concerned about the budget, but I think that most also understand the artistic element of this, and I’ve certainly had conversations where I’ve said, “Hey, I know you said you’re budgeted for seven, but we really need nine, and here’s why.” I’ve had those conversations. And have had the producers come back and agree. And I’ve also had situations where we’ve met in the middle somewhere — you know, where they said seven and I want twelve, and we end up meeting at ten. It can be about compromise. We would all love for everything to be about art all the time, and I wish that it was, but there are a lot of strong financial obligations when you’re putting a show together. And all departments have to go through that. It’s like if you can’t have the best of silks, what is the alternative that still…
JM: Gives you something that looks like silk.
Lynne Shankel: Exactly, so we all go through that.
JM: So when is it your decision to decide which instruments are appropriate? What goes into your decision making?
Lynne Shankel: Well, I talk a lot with the composer about what their wants are, what their dreams are, and I like to talk in adjectives like, “What do you want this piece to feel like?” I want to know how you want it to feel, and then we can talk about where that leads us instrumentally. I mean, usually if I listen to the demos for a bit, I have a good idea what I want in my head, but then I need to have that conversation with the composer to see what’s in their head.
JM: So I’ve taken a few orchestration lessons, and one thing I find very overwhelming is the staring at the empty staves part, and they’re staring back at you, and they don’t even all fit on your screen at once. Do you ever find it hard to get started on a song when a lot of time you only have piano and vocals and you have to create a whole world of sound?
Lynne Shankel: Oh, definitely. And I think everyone does. I think everyone has that moment; that moment a composer has when they are looking at a blank piece of paper. Like… now I have to come up with something. Once I dive, I’m just in it and it tends to fly. It tends to move pretty quickly. But it’s always intimidating. I don’t think you ever get over that, and I think it’s one of the good parts, because it keeps you on your toes. If it was easy, then everybody would do it. You know, I think that’s the truth with all aspects of our business.
JM: That’s true, yeah.
Lynne Shankel: But, I mean, it is intimidating. You know what’s hard? Starting the first number I work on for a show. I will try to start with something that feels rather innocuous. I would never orchestrate the opening number first. I think every orchestrator would tell you that’s a really bad idea. Start with something simple, straightforward, and also something where the team, as a whole, feels like maybe this one won’t go through 50 versions and we feel pretty solid about it. But I try to start with smaller pieces, because even though you have chosen the instrumentation, the language of the show, and the way that it moves orchestrally is something that you develop while you’re writing the piece. So it’s something that develops over the first three or four pieces, and that’s why I don’t want to start with a really huge number like the opener or the 11 o’clock number or the closing. I want to start with what is the real simple essence of this piece and then build from there.
JM: That’s really smart.
Lynne Shankel: The flavor you establish comes into the other pieces and then it expands from there. And I think that’s where the cool stuff can happen.
JM: I really like that. So, you were the music supervisor, arranger, and co-orchestrator for Bare: The Musical, which, by the way, I’m a big fan of that musical.
Lynne Shankel: Yay!
JM: And you collaborated with the lyricist, Jon Hartmere, to provide the new songs for the production?
Lynne Shankel: Yep.
JM: That’s really exciting. Can you talk about that experience?
Lynne Shankel: Bare was amazing. I love that piece so much, and I loved the original [Bare: A Pop Opera]. I loved being able to work on it and really reinvent it. That was a real honor, and it was an honor to work with Jon. He’s amazing, and we were very blessed that Damon [Intrabartolo] gave us his blessing to go forward and work on the piece.
JM: Damon was the composer of the original.
Lynne Shankel: Yes, so that was a big gift. And Jon and I had an incredible time working together. It definitely hugely reignited the composer bug in me. It was life-changing. After that, I kinda didn’t look back. I just started writing more and more, and then we did Allegiance, and as soon as we were done with Allegiance, I started working on an album of my own and I just kept plowing forward. It was really all because of that opportunity on Bare. It was amazing, and Jon and I have written some other stuff together. We wrote a couple songs for Lindsey Mendez and Derek Klena.
JM: I saw that on your website.
Lynne Shankel: That was a total blast.
JM: One thing I love about that, and about a lot of your songs, is that if you watch the videos, you can see that the performers are having such a good time. They can’t stop moving, and they have big smiles on their faces. They’re so into it.
Lynne Shankel: I love it when people are into it, when people find something infectious. I definitely take it as a compliment. If someone is smiling and dancing to my music, that means that I’m doing a good job.
JM: It’s like a seal of approval.
Lynne Shankel: Exactly. It’s scary, you know, the first time you decide to do a live show and put your fresh babies out there for everyone to hear. It’s terrifying, but it’s something that I would encourage all composers to do. You have to get those songs out there.
JM: Even if they’re not perfect. I’ve definitely shared videos of songs where my lyrics have changed or it wasn’t sung perfectly. If it’s a good energetic representation, still put it out there.
Lynne Shankel: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got to put your babies out into the world. And how people react to it is not something that you can control, but you have to put it out because you want to put it out, not necessarily because you want people to like it.
JM: Yeah. So speaking of the things we put out into the world, I’d love to talk to you about some of your other works and current projects. We talked a little bit about your album, Bare Naked. And other than songs from Bare, there are some standalone songs where you wrote the music and lyrics. “I Will Make Thunder” is one of those.
Lynne Shankel: Yeah, weirdly, it is. And after I made this album, I met with Crystal Skillman for the first time, and we were talking about writing something together. And I had given her a copy of my CD just so she could hear what my style was like, because we had no idea what we were going to write. And when we got together, she said, “I feel like with a couple of these songs in this album… I feel like there might be a show here. Maybe some of the themes that are in here are a kernel of something.” So basically “I Will Make Thunder” and “Anything Can Happen” and “Postcard American Town” were those songs, and we started writing a show that is now called Postcard American Town.
JM: Oh, that’s amazing! I specifically brought up “I Will Make Thunder” because I love that song and I’m really glad it’s in a show. I would love to hear more about that show.
Lynne Shankel: Thank you. The show is set in a fictional American town called Westville. In Westville every year, the big event is the Settler’s picnic that celebrates the founders of the town. And a new person, Dylan, moves to town with his father, who owns a food truck. And his father is Indian. Dylan is mixed race, and he goes to the town hall to put in an application to sell their food at the picnic. That’s when he finds out that there is a rule that says only direct descendants of the founders of the town can sell their food at the picnic. And so that really sets Dylan off because why is that a rule? Why is that a thing? And it brings up the latent and not so latent racism in the town, and it all starts to boil to the surface all over this picnic. One of our main characters, Emma, runs the picnic. And she has a real reckoning with her own white privilege and realizing how her views impact others, at first going head to head with Dylan, and then becoming an ally with him.
JM: That’s really great. And then you’re also working on a show with our Women Who Wow Us editor, Sara Cooper.
Lynne Shankel: Yes, I am.
JM: I would love to hear about that as well.
Lynne Shankel: We are working on a piece called “HoT,” which is a contemporary feminist retelling of Helen of Troy.
JM: That’s amazing.
Lynne Shankel: It is amazing. Sara is amazing. I love her.
JM: Me too.
Lynne Shankel: We met on a show that I orchestrated called The Memory Show, which she wrote with Zach Redler and which Transport Group produced in New York. And we just kept in touch, and she emailed me last summer and said, “I’ve been working on this thing, and when I started working on it I thought it was going to be a play, but everything is coming out in verse. And I know it’s not a play. I don’t know what it is, but do you want to look at it?” I was like, “Yeah! Definitely.” And I was blown away. So what it’s turned into is a through-composed piece that is the story of Helen of Troy told through a feminist, contemporary lens.
JM: HoT is an acronym.
Lynne Shankel: Exactly. And the music is pop, rock, R&B… it’s a very contemporary mix of styles that we are super excited about.
JM: That’s so cool.
Lynne Shankel: I love her. She’s the bomb.
JM: Yeah, Sara rocks. From reading your bio and your Maestra profile, I know you have several other projects you’re working on too, including a collaboration with a choreographer?
Lynne Shankel: Yes, I started working on a piece that I’m writing with Ann Yee, who I met at the Old Globe. She was the choreographer for Life After, and we started working on a piece called Sold! that’s about the commodification of women in advertising, and we are telling it through a combo of modern dance and musical theater.
JM: So you have a ton of projects on your plate. How do you juggle it all? How do you keep track of it all and stay on top of everything that you’re trying to accomplish?
Lynne Shankel: Oh gosh, sometimes it’s mapping out the week, looking at, “Okay, these four days I’m going to work on this piece; these three days, I’m going to work on this piece…” and sometimes I do it day by day. “The morning will be spent on this, the afternoon will be spent on this.” I look at things and try to look at them in small pieces. Because if I look at the whole thing as “I have to write three shows,” then I can’t process. So I just look at, “What is today? What is this week?” And looking forward to, “What is this month?” Little by little. Oh, and the other thing that I forgot, and I can’t believe I forgot this, I’m teaching this year part-time at the University of Michigan.
JM: So lesson planning on top of all your other things?
Lynne Shankel: Yes, exactly. They are starting a minor in musical theatre composition, and they asked me to head it up in this transitional year when they are just trying to figure out what it is. I’m just working with them part-time this year, so a lot of back and forth to Detroit.
JM: That’s incredible. So is there anything else you want to share about your life or your work?
Lynne Shankel: I wanted to say one more thing. I think that as a female orchestrator, it can be particularly tough to walk into a room for your first orchestra rehearsal. You know my early experiences were often… and this is how Maestra is trying to change things, but… it was often a room full of guys. A lot of the time, I was the only woman in the room, and I’m the orchestrator. And it would take me one full three-hour session for them to trust me and realize that I did know what I was doing, whereas my male counterparts would walk into the room and there would be no proving factor. And I felt the same thing when I was a young conductor in my early days. I don’t feel it as much now because especially here in town a lot of people know me and they know my work.
JM: You’ve built a name for yourself.
Lynne Shankel: I’ve built a name for myself, but it still continues to be a thing for so many people, for so many women — that you do have to go into the room and prove yourself. I know when I go into a room, I feel like there cannot be mistakes. You have to be five times more prepared than your male counterparts simply because you have to overcome this threshold of, “Oh, what is she going to do? Oh God, what is this going to be?”
JM: Yeah, it’s like innocent until proven guilty with men. And guilty until proven innocent with women. Like, good enough until proven otherwise with men, and not good enough until proven otherwise with women.
Lynne Shankel: It’s competent until proven otherwise with men, and it’s incompetent until proven competent with women.
JM: And that’s stupid.
Lynne Shankel: It is stupid.
JM: I don’t know why it’s like that. I recently went back and read some of the previous Maestra blog posts, and in Georgia [Stitt]’s “Play Like a Man” essay, she was like, we hate this, but it’s in us too. This bias against women.
Lynne Shankel: It’s true. And honestly I see it in myself sometimes. I have to catch myself. And I think some of it is that I spent so much of my career being the only woman on the creative team, so you build certain walls because you have to. But what’s so refreshing now is that I’ve had quite a few experiences lately where women have outnumbered men on the creative team. And that is just a joyous thing. I mean, it truly is amazing. And we have to keep fighting for that representation. It just can’t be the token female conductor because you’re going to see the conductor so, okay, let’s put a woman there because we’ll see her and therefore our quota is filled.
JM: Like checking a box.
Lynne Shankel: Yeah, exactly. I could go on about this, but I write and orchestrate all different types of music. I don’t write and orchestrate “girl” music. I write and orchestrate all kinds of music. Sometimes people are surprised when I write something that’s very rock oriented or a big band chart, and it’s like, “Oh really, she wrote big band?” Yeah, I do. I do write big band charts. Yeah, I do write rock scores. Yeah, I do lots of different things. And I also love to write for some delicate strings.
JM: Yeah, people think that we can only do this little subset of things, and that’s not true.
Lynne Shankel: We’re much broader than we’re given credit for.
JM: We are. Okay, I have some Maestra questions for you now. First question: Why did you join Maestra?
Lynne Shankel: Georgia [Stitt] told me about it when she was first starting out, and I just thought that was such a thrilling idea. And I also thought, why didn’t anyone think of this before? Because we need this so badly. Just a place where female composers can come together and be in a room together. It’s turned out to be an absolutely amazing experience. I look forward to our meetings every month.
JM: And why do you think Maestra is important?
Lynne Shankel: Maestra is important because representation is important. I mean, women are more than 50% of this country, and women should be more than the token lady on the creative team. More than, “Oh, we thought we should have a female voice on the team.” More than checking off the lady box that you fulfilled with your one hire. You know? We need to be there across the board.
JM: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know?
Lynne Shankel: I honestly think it has helped everybody who’s been involved. We have developed such a sense of community that I think a lot of us didn’t even know we had. And that is an amazing thing.
JM: Why should people care about the services Maestra offers and the goals that we’re working towards?
Lynne Shankel: People should care because representation matters. People should care because we’re smart, and we’re talented, and we have a lot to offer to your creative teams. People should care because we do good work, and don’t you want the best people working on your team? I mean, you should. You should want us to be around.
JM: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself or your work, or thoughts about Maestra?
Lynne Shankel: I think Maestra is amazing. I’m so excited to see it continue to grow, to continue to be a part of its growth, and to watch us take over the world.
Special thanks to Lynne 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, Rona Siddiqui, Sheilah Rae, Kathy Sommer, Kristy Norter, Elena Bonomo, and Ann Klein.