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Women Who Wow Us: Spotlight 21 (Shaina Taub)

SHAINA TAUB

Shaina Taub is a songwriter and performer. She has starred in her musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It at the Public Theater’s Public Works initiative in Central Park. She is currently writing a musical about Alice Paul and the American women’s suffrage movement. She’s also collaborating with Elton John, writing lyrics for the upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Taub’s work was featured in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook concert series, and she recently made her Carnegie Hall debut performing her music with The New York Pops. She wrote the score for and co-starred in Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s Old Hats, directed by Tina Landau. Her songs have been performed by Audra McDonald and Sutton Foster, and she wrote the theme song for Julie Andrews’ Netflix series Julie’s Greenroom, as well as many songs for Sesame Street. She co-wrote the opening number for the 2018 Tony Awards. Taub earned a Lucille Lortel Award nomination as Mary in the off-Broadway run of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and appeared in the original cast and on the cast album of Hadestown at New York Theatre Workshop. She has an ongoing concert residency at Joe’s Pub, and her two solo records, Visitors and Die Happy, are available on her website.

Shaina Taub, Hiroyuki Matsuura, and Mike Brun

Wow-Worthy Writing

We asked Shaina for an update on The Devil Wears Prada musical, which she’s working on with Elton John.

Shaina Taub: You know, like every other musical right now, we’re just recalibrating. We were supposed to have all kinds of development in the last year that obviously didn’t happen. I’m proud of us because we’ve continued and written new songs and pressed on and tried to “make the best of the time” and be productive, but at the end of the day, I’ve had to accept that I’m not gonna finish or “crack” these musicals alone in my room. Because that’s not where they’re meant to happen. There’s a process element, and discoveries you can make that can only happen in a room with people. I think that doing a year of non-in-person process is one thing, but starting to wrap my mind around a second year of that is pretty daunting. How can we bring audiences back? That’s crucial. It’s everything. But in addition to that, how can we just have process in a room? How can we do readings and workshops again? Audiences aside, that’s what I’m so, so desperate for, is process.

Jamie Maletz: Yeah, for sure. And I have to ask, what’s it like to work with Elton John?

Shaina Taub: It’s great. He’s a total mensch. It’s unique in so many ways, besides him being a rock legend of the word. I usually write music and lyrics, and so just to be writing lyrics has been a really fun challenge. And not only that, but to write lyrics for a specific composer… it’s a different task. What is that person’s virtuosity? What is their superpower? How can I best set that up for success? And especially with Elton who has always, his whole career, worked lyrics first. I have to figure out what the song is really accomplishing and what it’s doing for the character and the story. And I’m also trying to set up a lyric to take advantage of his gifts melodically. It’s been really beautiful and fascinating to see his process up close. He’s someone who, for fifty years, has figured out how he thrives. And he’s been with his same bandmates for decades and they all were in the studio. It’s exciting to watch those lifelong collaborations: people who are still so passionate about making music and still so excited about doing something new. That’s what I wanna be like: so uncynical and so unjaded. He has such unmitigated joy for making music – still. I just love that.

We also asked Shaina for an update on her Suffragist musical (which tells the true story of the growing rivalry between the seasoned organizer Carrie Chapman Catt and the young radical Alice Paul during the suffrage movement).

Shaina Taub: You know, they were the first American citizens to picket outside the White House, to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. They really pioneered a lot of that. I was immediately interested in the intergenerational conflict in the social movement. Alice came along in a time where the women who had been in charge had a more moderate way of doing things. Like, “Let’s sit down and have tea with the senator” and, you know, “let’s just play the game of politics and work things from the inside.” And she said, “No, let’s disrupt the system.” I’m really interested in the conflicts within a movement, as opposed to the central conflict being all the suffragists as a united front versus the anti-suffragists. I wanted to make something worthy of the complexity of these women, and so I focused on the conflicts within the movement like strategy and tactics: how do you accomplish change; compromising and not compromising; in order to get our rights, who has to wait; all of the racism and classism that was prevalent within the movement. I’ve been working on it for six years, going on seven, and it’s all sung-through. And I have an amazing director, Leigh Silverman, who has been a dramaturgical partner. We were slated to do our premiere production at The Public Theater, where I’m an artist-in-residence, last fall. Obviously that didn’t happen. We were trying to plan it around the centennial of the 19th Amendment, around the election and everything else. So yeah, it’s tough. Even though I was working on Prada, I was really energetically ready to dive into it last year. I worked on it a lot initially in the pandemic, then I put it aside for a chunk of months and wrote songs for a new album instead. And now in the new year, I’m picking it back up again. On one level it’s so joyful to revisit it, and I feel like I have new perspectives on some things. In other ways, some of the same hard parts of the writing that I hadn’t cracked, I’m still having trouble cracking. It’s that feeling of “I just need to be in a room and hear it.” 

https://youtu.be/LoiiDEi1zHE

And beyond a professional production, she’s eager for the future of the piece.

Shaina Taub: Obviously I wanna do a great production in New York, but my end game is the high school productions, because as a kid that’s how I learned about history and culture. Everything was through embodying roles in musicals or listening to musicals. I want to bring this history to a new generation that way. I wanna write the role that I would wanna play as a teen. What would 14-year-old Shaina listening to the cast album just love and feel so seen and heard by?

We also talked about Shaina’s many awards: a Jonathan Larson Grant, the Kleban Prize, the Fred Ebb Award, the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award, and an ASCAP award.

Shaina Taub: I feel so grateful on so many levels. The monetary prizes allowed me to focus on writing in a time in my twenties that would have been tough. It helped hold me to be disciplined, to say to myself, “All right, I have this gift of a little more time because I don’t have to do quite as many side hustles for six months. I better do my writing.” Like, I have the ghost of Fred Ebb and Jonathan Larson over me [laughs]. In a way, it was motivating because I was like, “These people have put this vote of confidence in me based on my potential, not my accomplishments.” That’s really powerful as a motivator. And then, very powerful for me just to be connected to the legacies of these writers that I grew up idolizing, especially Rent with Jonathan Larson, and Cabaret and Chicago with Fred Ebb, and A Chorus Line with Ed Kleban. And then, for instance, to be at the Jonathan Larson ceremony, to be meeting his family and people in his life and hearing anecdotes from his friends of “I inspired this line in Seasons of Love”… just as a fan, it was really satisfying to be around this legacy that seemed like this far off thing when I was a kid growing up, and to feel connected to it. And then getting to stand with my friends and feature them in those award ceremonies. There’s a concept, invented by Brian Eno, called “scenius,” and it means genius of the scene. It’s not about any one individual person, but an ecology of talent and a community of friends and collaborators begets genius collectively. For me it really was about that. I really feel like I’m in this team of fellow writers and performers where we’ll support each other, but also challenge and egg each other on to be better.

Wow-Worthy Writing

We asked Shaina what it’s like to star in and be directed in her own work.

https://youtu.be/uwZMOmvFZtk

Shaina Taub: For me, it’s sort of the reward for the hard work of writing. Not that performing’s not hard work; it is, to be sure. But months and years of working on a project, and then to kind of step inside of it and ride the amusement park ride that you have built is very satisfying. When it feels like, “oh I’ll never get this right” or “this is taking forever,” I kind of visualize that eventually I’m gonna be on stage, running around with everyone and having fun. And, you know, it requires having a really excellent collaboration with the director, someone you really trust. I’ve had to trust someone to be the eyes and ears, because the tradeoff is you’re obviously not watching the show, you know? So, that’s a challenge, to not be able to see it. But when I’ve had really strong collaborations with the director who’s out there watching, I feel like I’m in great hands and it’s not as much of a stress.

JM: When you’re on stage during the performance, are you more conscious of your individual performance, or the show as a whole? 

Shaina Taub: An antidote to insecurity, for me, is preparation. So with my writing, people may have their own opinions about it (as they always do with your work), but I know that I’ve worked rigorously to make it as strong as I can, and so there’s something comforting about that – if I’m inside a song or a sequence that I’ve written, I feel this sort of safety within it, of months or years spent working on the thing and trusting that work. Performing is more in the moment, and I think that can be more nerve-wracking. But when I’m inside my own material, it’s like – okay, well, I built this boat, and I know that people may not like how the boat looks, and that I can’t control, but I know it’s a strong boat because I built it really carefully and so I’m not gonna drown.

https://youtu.be/qo27WvejT8I

JM: What’s it like working with the cast when you’re performing in a show you’ve written? Do you feel torn between your role as writer and performer?

Shaina Taub: Often discussions come about or people ask questions, and I’m always excited to talk about process. I also really like being questioned, like “justify this;” or I enjoy getting challenged (respectfully) by fellow actors, and having that healthy dialogue about the work. And I learn a lot by watching the director work a scene with the other actors. I learn a lot by performing it myself. As an actor myself, it’s quickly revealing if something doesn’t ring true, because I have to step inside and ride the ride. 

JM: Is there one thing you like better than the other when it comes to performing and writing?

Shaina Taub: There’s not a hierarchy. They’re really symbiotic to me. They both teach me something about the other. Writing on some level means more to me because it goes beyond me. I love so much seeing a video pop up on YouTube where someone’s sung a song of mine. That gives me such joy because it’s like, “Oh, I’ve connected with someone I’ve never met, and that the song has meant something to them.” So there’s a level there that runs a little deeper for me. But performing is what I’ve done longer. I’ve been performing since I was a little kid, whereas writing isn’t something I let myself dive into until college. This is my first year of not performing at all, except at a few protests and stuff, and I feel like I’m missing a part of myself. It’s definitely affected my whole; I really notice the lack of that symbiosis, of like, “I write, I write, I write,” and then I do a night at Joe’s Pub and that is restorative. So I’m in this place right now that’s like, output, output, output, but I’m not getting that energy of live performance that feeds it. Like… photosynthesis, like a plant, you know?

JM: So what have you been doing, or what are you trying to do to bring performing back into your life when you can?

Shaina Taub: Over the past year, my only live music has been at protests and rallies. All the ones I’ve been a part of, everyone’s been very conscientious and mask-wearing, even if they’re singing, socially distancing and really trying to demonstrate in the street while still adhering to good safety guidelines. Last fall I performed at a voter registration pop-up event at Astor Place, and I sang with a group called the Resistance Revival Chorus that’s a massive group of female-identifying people and nonbinary people. It’s a mixture of people who are artists and who are in the activism or nonprofit space. We were singing at a lot of actions last year, and that definitely fed it for me.

WOW-WORTHY ADVICE

We asked Shaina for advice for aspiring writers

Shaina Taub: I’m often telling young writers to apply to everything every year, relentlessly, for each of these awards. I think it was my third or fourth try on each one. I’d been a finalist and I just kept going. I’ve done so many residencies and fellowships, and it’s because I’ve applied to a million of them, constantly, every time. You have to cast that wide net and not expect to get something the first time out, and be in it for the long haul. Before I was accountable to other people’s deadlines, I created them for myself. There’s so much we can’t control in the industry, but I do believe we can control the quality of our own work and getting our writing done, no matter how complicated life is. It’s about both cultivating that creative practice, getting real writing done, and also building an accountability community. I would relentlessly share my work with friends, ask them to share their work with me, and just create a practice and a system of accountability around me, before anyone in the industry cared or was listening. So then, when a big call came from The Devil Wears Prada or from The Public Theater, asking,  “Do you want to write a Shakespeare musical in the next six months for the Delacorte?” that was still super pressure-filled and intimidating, to be sure. But I was like, yeah, I have my practice. I’m in shape. It was sort of like, “Hey do you want to run a marathon?” And I was like, “Well, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have been working out four times a week, so I feel like I can get there.” 

JM: How long do you feel like it took you to get from a place where no one was listening yet to where you had a following and were getting some of those bigger calls? 

Shaina Taub: I graduated in 2009 and I had a show, The Daughters, about Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite. And I remember going to FedEx on a cold January day and I just printed 50 scripts and CDs – [laughs] aging myself – and mailed them out. I was like, what’s the address for twenty theatres I love? And then I also applied to programs like the O’Neill and The Yale Institute for Music Theatre. The two things that came out of the mailings were that Ars Nova responded, and we met, and that kicked off a years-long relationship of residencies and stuff, and I will never be able to say enough great things about what they do for emerging artists. Because I don’t think I was that special; I just think that Ars Nova uniquely wants to give opportunity before anyone’s listening. And then The Daughters got into the Yale program. And that blew my mind so much, because it was like, I’m actually getting an opportunity as a writer? Wow. And that really kicked my ass into gear because it felt like it was such a chance. I always point back to that, because that led to a NAMT showcase where I got to feature a song, that led to me getting a literary agent, that led to Jacob Padrón (artistic director at Long Wharf Theatre) who worked at Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the time, which led to a commission from there, which ultimately led to when Jacob was at The Public Theater five years later and he put my name in the ring for Public Works. I can trace a line back to that one envelope I sent to Yale, which is why I say: apply to everything. Also, play at every event or open mic or random thing or crappy downtown venue. I relentlessly did everything, and a few little threads kind of worked that then led to the next thing, led to the next thing, led to the next thing. But I was dividing my performing and writing. I had two different bios. I thought maybe I had to choose. Over here, I’m writing songs for an album and doing concerts and I’m a singer-songwriter but then over here I’m doing musicals. And then around like, 2014, I made a choice where I was like, “Fuck all that. I’m just gonna be an artist that does a lot of things and I’m not gonna try and compartmentalize.”

JM: Yay, multi-hyphenate!

Shaina Taub: Yeah, totally! And I think when I embraced that, it starting to come back to me in opportunity. When I started to empower myself to think of myself as a whole artist who did a lot of things, it helped others see me in that way. I was in Great Comet, I did work a good amount, but definitely in those four years after college, when all my friends were booking Broadway shows and national tours, I was like, “I’m not getting those. Maybe that means I’m not gonna make it as an actor.” But I think on some level it was because I was trying to go into rooms and be what they wanted. As soon as I came in and I would bring my accordion into auditions and be like, “I’m gonna sing this song I wrote,” other people started to see me in that multi-faceted way.

WOW-WORTHY MEMORIES

We asked Shaina to share a few favorite memories from the shows she has worked on.

Adam Kantor had asked me if he could sing a song of mine in his big night at Carnegie Hall with Betsy Wolfe and I was like, of course! And he picked this song “O Luck Outrageous.” I asked if my longtime bandmate and collaborator who had done string and horn arrangements for that song on my album – Mike Brun – could orchestrate it for The New York Pops. And that was a go. The night of that show, I was doing a monthly residency at Joe’s Pub. It kind of all came together relatively last minute for Carnegie Hall, and I already had my show pretty well-sold for that same night at 7:00. A Joe’s Pub show is like 70 minutes, and our Carnegie Hall show was starting at 8:00. But the Carnegie Hall show was like a two and a half hour thing with Adam and Betsy and Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson and Georgia Stitt and all these incredible women. I think they were featuring women in music – Maestra, hello! And I didn’t really want to cancel the Joe’s Pub show because I already had special guests. But there was no way I was going to pass on playing piano and having my Carnegie Hall debut with this song. And so I was like, “Adam is this insane? Does this stress you out? Can we try and do both? If you put my song in the second act at Carnegie Hall, we should be there with over an hour to spare and it should be fine. And he agreed and we set up the car; it was a whole thing. And as soon as I could see from the clock at the top of Joe’s Pub that it was 8:00, I knew that the show had started uptown at Carnegie Hall and we were still on stage at Joe’s Pub! I told the audience I wasn’t gonna come out afterward because we were going to Carnegie Hall. And then we buzzed up in the car, and we were running into this back entrance and there was this grand piano in the backstage hallway. We made it with plenty of time so we got to sit and watch. And then we went up on stage and performed. And then we went to Brooklyn Diner after, where I had gone the night I got engaged. It was just one of those New York nights where I was like, oh my God, I can’t believe we played at Joe’s Pub and Carnegie Hall. Both my downtown home base and then the greatest hall in the world.

I had gotten a call from my agent like, “They want you to come in for this remount of Old Hats. It’s with Bill Irwin and Tina Landau.” And I was like, oh my God, I want this so badly! At the time I was doing this Tom Waits/Teller (from Penn and Teller) production of The Tempest in Las Vegas, and the audition and the Jonathan Larson [ceremony] were on a Monday, our day off. And again, I told my bandmate Mike, who was out there doing Tempest with me, “I know this is nuts, but let’s fly through the night Sunday after our show. Let’s take the red eye to New York. I’ll go straight from the airport to my audition. I’ll audition for Old Hats, we’ll go to the soundcheck for Jonathan Larson – Oh! And there was an Ars Nova gala that night we were performing at! We were like, and let’s go to the Ars Nova soundcheck, and then we’ll go back to the Jonathan Larson thing. We had a connection in Chicago, and I was running to make the connection, and I left my accordion by security and had to go back and get it! So I got off the plane, literally getting in a cab at 8 am in New York, practicing and warming up and singing and playing the accordion in the cab. And I also had my hair dyed blue for The Tempest, so I had blue hair and fake tattoos, which is not my vibe (nothing against that vibe). But I walked in this room, sleepless, unshowered, with blue hair, and auditioned for Old Hats. Then I ran to all the soundchecks. Got a call backstage right before Jonathan Larson that I had gotten the job with Old Hats. And I’m like, uh, that never happens! But it was just this magical one-time thing where they called me and I got the job. And then I was like, “Oh, well I’m at this Jonathan Larson thing,” and Bill Irwin said, “I’ll come! I’m right nearby,” and he came. And then we were headed to Ars Nova, and Lin-Manuel Miranda was at the Jonathan Larson ceremony and he was like, “I’m also going to Ars Nova. Can I catch a ride?” And Ars Nova sent this party bus to take us from Jonathan Larson to Ars Nova. And we were all singing songs on the party bus with my bandmates and Lin, and it was just so fucking joyful. And it was raining, and my bandmate left his bass in a cab, and then another friend of ours came and brought a second bass! Yeah, like, those stressful hijinx – “is this gonna work? Oh my God this is crazy!” And then magically, you’re on stage performing. It’s those whirlwind days I miss so much. 

https://youtu.be/hPTSMMx-hBM

WOW-WORTHY MAESTRA

JM: Why did you join Maestra?

Shaina Taub: I remember Georgia [Stitt] telling me about it back in the early days. Georgia is such a leader and champion for positive change in our community, and I will follow her anywhere. So I was like, this is amazing, sign me up. I have tried to embrace community building and mentorship in my own practice. And it excited me, the thought that that would be formalized in this structural way with an organization, and that Georgia and so many of the other people who have made Maestra what it is were willing to put in that hard work, time, and energy to create those structures. I think it’s so needed. Definitely for female and nonbinary folks, there are fewer opportunities. It definitely can feel like a boys’ club. It’s such a necessary and empowering initiative. I want to support it in any way I can.

JM: Why do you think Maestra is important? 

Shaina Taub: I remember Jeanine Tesori saying something in her Tony’s speech about “you need to see it to be it.” The visibility that Maestra is giving to composers and musicians is going to empower younger women and nonbinary people to think “Oh, there’s people doing the thing that I want to do. It’s possible for me.” I think that visibility element is crucial in making people feel like there’s a place for them.

JM: Why do you think people should care about the goals Maestra is working towards and the services Maestra is offering to the community?

Shaina Taub: There are many reasons, but one that pops to mind is: it makes the art better. Inclusion is not just an ideal or a good thing to do for society. It makes the actual art better when you have a multitude of perspectives from a multitude of people from different backgrounds and experiences. It improves the work. It makes the work different and deeper and less homogeneous and less coming from one set of life experiences. The more you open the room to diverse folks from gender and race backgrounds of all kinds, it makes it richer. Like the Public Works program at the Public Theater, which brings together so many communities across backgrounds from all over the city. I feel like it made the work deeper and richer because we had so many points of view in the room. Having a homogenous band or homogenous creative team, it’s less interesting. It’s so additive. Even if you can’t get behind the core value of inclusion being important for folks being seen and heard, and for the greater causes of equality across the board, if you can’t get down with that, simply do it because it makes the work better. 

JM: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself, your work, or Maestra?

Shaina Taub: Just that I am only where I am because women ahead of me paved the way. They not only paved the way with their work and their virtuosity but they reached back and listened to my songs when I sent them to them, or gave me some hard hitting advice, and nothing is more important to me than continuing that cycle. And I love that Maestra is formalizing that. Long may it live.

Special thanks to Shaina for sharing her story.

ANNOUNCEMENT: We’re changing our format! Keep an eye out for the shorter version of our Women Who Wow Us spotlight series – next interview coming soon!

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, Ann Klein, Lynne Shankel, Irene Sankoff, Carmel Dean, Lauren Pritchard, and Angelica Chéri

Women Who Wow Us
Author: Jamie Maletz
Editor: Tina deVaron

Volunteer: Alex Crosby


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