Women Who Wow Us: Week Seven

BRITT BONNEY

Britt Bonney is an award-winning music director and composer whose original work has been performed all over the world, from New York to London, Cape Town, and Tel Aviv. Music directing credits include the DC premiere of Todd Almond’s Girlfriend at Signature Theatre, for which she received a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Musical Direction. Britt’s vocals can be heard on 2017’s Beauty and the Beast film as well as Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame cast album, which Britt mixed and mastered together with Stephen Schwartz. Britt is an accomplished copyist, having served as a music assistant to Alex Lacamoire, Alan Menken, Shaina Taub, and Kelli O’Hara. Britt’s vocal arrangements have been featured on The Weather Channel, the Fox network, WPIX11, at Lincoln Center, and in Broadway houses. She recently received an honorable mention from the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award for female composers and is an alumna of the BMI Workshop and the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat. A reading of her new musical Montgomery will be presented this Labor Day weekend at the Kennedy Center.

A Conversation with Britt Bonney

Jamie Maletz: So to start: you’re a composer. Your work has been performed in a bunch of cool places. Do you have a favorite place you’ve gotten to travel to and see your work performed in?

Britt Bonney: Washington DC is the number one. Last Labor Day at the Kennedy Center, I had the first act of my musical Montgomery performed as a reading. And to go out of town and see these wonderful performers in DC just crushing it was amazing.

JM: It also says in your bio that your vocals can be heard on the 2017 Beauty and the Beast film…and the Hunchback of Notre Dame cast album…which you mixed and mastered together with Stephen Schwartz??

Britt Bonney: [Laughs]

JM: Okay, so we need to talk about that.

Britt Bonney: Okay.

JM: Um, what was that like?

Britt Bonney: That’s a wild thing that happened. One of those sort of flashes in the pans that will never happen again. I guess…I’m a bit of a jack of all trades when it comes to working in musical theater. I do all kinds of things, like anybody has to. Anybody’s toolbox has to be very big. So I play, and I arrange, and I orchestrate, and I do copy work and do music assistant work and I write and I music direct. And it’s pretty common that I’ll start a project doing one thing and end up doing that plus a whole bunch of other things. And on Hunchback of Notre Dame, I started the project as the music assistant. And that was actually my first big professional job, being music assistant on Hunchback of Notre Dame at La Jolla Playhouse and then in New Jersey at Paper Mill Playhouse. And the show had this big choir in it that was contracted locally. So when we did the cast album in the fall after Paper Mill had already closed, we needed to kind of assemble our own choir, so I got to sing, which was great, and that’s how I ended up doing Beauty and the Beast, ‘cause they kind of called up a lot of those same people to sing on that. And as far as Hunchback, I just…I started out singing on it, and I was doing some light music prep. We had to adjust a few things for the album, so I was helping out with all of that. But the show had closed many months prior. People were coming from out of town. Everybody was very busy. And people didn’t have time to sit in a room for a week with an engineer and choose the takes and stitch together different parts of the score we had to record. And so it was me alone in a room for a week with an engineer, saying, “This take not that take,” “this is closer to show tempo,” “that part has a wrong note in the bassoon, can we clip that out and replace that note with another take?” So there was a lot of that. And then after a week of that, Stephen Schwartz joined me, and we mixed it.

JM: For people who may not know, what does it mean to mix a recording?

Britt Bonney: It’s mostly about…what are you going to hear when you listen to the album? Are you going to hear the trombone line that sweeps through? Or do you want to hear the vocals more? What are all the different levels? A recording engineer could explain it way better than I can, but we’d have a lot of moments where I would just have the score open in my lap, and Stephen would say, “This part sounds really stagnant. What can we do about that, Britt?” And I would look down, and see, who has a moving line? Trombones have a moving line. So we’re gonna turn up the trombones here. So it’s just a lot of little decisions that go into making the cast album the best representation of the music it can be. Like the music equivalent of a director directing your ear to what it should be listening to.

JM: Very cool. And mastering is different from mixing.

Britt Bonney: Oh, yes. Mastering is almost entirely the engineer’s domain, sort of balancing everything… We sit in the room and nod and smile, but the engineer’s making the real magic.

JM: And of course I have to ask, what was it like to work with Stephen?

Britt Bonney: He’s wonderful. He’s very precise. He knows what he wants. And he couldn’t be more willing to go with the best idea in the room, no matter whose it is.

JM: That’s great. I just have to say, and this can be off the record if you wanna talk about it, but I think the transition from “Heaven’s Light” to “Hellfire” is one of the greatest things ever.

Britt Bonney: On the record, Michael Kosarin is no joke. He’s the real deal. He’s absolutely top-notch when it comes to arrangers.

JM: It’s so good. Speaking of arrangements, your vocal arrangements have been featured on various TV channels, and in Broadway houses. So what exactly does that mean? How were they featured?

Britt Bonney: A lot of them are through a company that I work with called Chris Wade Music Productions. Chris Wade runs a company where he contracts out vocal groups. He has a Christmas caroling division, he has a barbershop quartet in there–they were actually on a Geico commercial recently–there’s all kinds of vocal things that he contracts out. And he lives in California, but a lot of his work is on the East Coast, so I’m the music director for his East Coast division. So whenever we need to send someone out, a lot of times I’ll be running rehearsals for that or doing vocal arrangements for that. And our gigs really run the gamut from a corporate party to The Weather Channel. In the case of The Weather Channel, they were launching a new show, a morning show with Sam Champion, and they wanted to do something with an a cappella group singing on top of a bus in Times Square. I mean, all right. So we had a lot of things to put together for that. They wanted medleys of songs pertaining to weather. “Heat Wave,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Stormy Weather”…and so we had to put those together for the TV appearance. Similarly, WP1X11 was a Christmas caroling situation. They were looking for ambiance in their morning show around Christmas, and I’ve done a lot of vocal arrangements for the caroling group, so they were used in that, and I was music directing it as well and singing there. Lincoln Center, this is one of my favorite things, Orfeh and Andy Karl are two Broadway stars that are married to each other. They’re the best. They do these concerts called Legally Bound. Self-explanatory pun. We’ve done them at 54 Below, we’ve done them at Lincoln Center…and they made an album called Legally Bound Live based on the 54 Below concerts. And at Lincoln Center, the American Songbook Series (which is a fantastic series that I’m nuts about and love to hear everything they do every year) they did a show there. And that was actually the first show that we did. I just do some keyboards and backup vocals for them. But for that concert, I arranged most of the backup vocals that we sang.

JM: That’s awesome. So you mentioned that you’re a copyist, and that you’ve been a music assistant to, ahem: Alex Lacamoire, Alan Menken, Shaina Taub, and Kelli O’Hara. What was it like to work with them? And were you at all intimidated? Because I imagine that if I ever meet Alan Menken, it’s gonna be like that scene in Hercules where the giant statue of Zeus picks up scrawny teen Herc, and Hercules is slipping through his fingers, and Zeus is like “hold on, kiddo!”

Britt Bonney: [Laughs] Well, you can go see Hercules in the park and see if you can meet him! Alan Menken could not be more delightful. He’s a love and light kind of guy. Probably the time I worked most closely with him was on that Hunchback cast album. We had a situation where there was a small piece of the recording that hadn’t been done, and I had to kind of pull everybody back in a room to get it, and so he and I were in that session together, which was a delight. He’s full of incredible stories, and he’s just a wonderful guy. You asked if I’m intimidated…Alex Lacamoire can be very intimidating. But in the best way. He’s so nice and he’s so kind, he’s so specific. He and Michael Kosarin both demand a high level of precision, and if you’re in a room with him, you have to deliver it. Which is, I think, how the greats work.

JM: I always wonder, or worry…when I’m in a position where I’m trying to put my work together with other people, I worry about being seen as bossy or rude when I’m trying to aim for that kind of precision.

Britt Bonney: It’s definitely harder for women to be a force in the room in that way. On one of my first shows, I remember watching the way the conductor interacted with people when he was trying to demand what he wanted. And I had a situation where I didn’t have printer access, without which I couldn’t really do my job during previews, as we had new pages every day. So I adopted the same kind of no-nonsense voice talking to the people who were kind of hemming and hawing about getting me a printer. And later, I got a very serious talking to from the production manager about my behavior. And in my head, I was like, “Wow, I was just trying to emulate my boss. But I suppose that doesn’t work for me. Or maybe it just doesn’t work when I’m not the boss.” But it was definitely, in retrospect, a gendered situation, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time.

JM: Yeah, it’s hard.

Britt Bonney: But back to what it’s like to work with the people I’ve assisted…it’s very exciting. There is a reason that incredible projects follow these people. Because they make projects incredible. So to be able to be there and learn from them and watch them work their magic and be part of it, however small a part…to make their job easier, to free up brain space for them so they can focus where they need to focus, is wonderful. I love my job.

JM: It sounds amazing. So, switching gears, you’ve also done the BMI workshop.

Britt Bonney: I have!

JM: Did you do it as a composer/lyricist or a composer?

Britt Bonney: Just a composer. Actually, when I first moved to New York, I was very adamant that “I’m only a composer, I’m nothing else, and I do music.” And there’s a funny thing about BMI, but I also think it’s true of almost any workshop: Not everybody in it speaks music, but we all use words. And as a result, the education of the workshop tends to focus almost exclusively on lyrics, dramaturgy, story, and character, not so much on the nuances of music. It’s rare that you’ll bring something in and somebody says, “This felt stagnant, and you could really use an internal modulation,” or questions some of your harmonics or the rhythmic language in the groove. And we don’t talk about it that much, and when we do, the vocabulary is usually pretty non-specific. So, it means that everyone who goes through BMI, whether they intend to or not, gets a lyric writing education. So a couple years later, I was on some sort of project where I was the composer and there was a playwright, and we were just supposed to figure out who wrote the lyrics. And…I wrote ’em. It ended up being my New York lyric writing debut. It was fun.

JM: And you’ve also done the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat?

Britt Bonney: I have!

JM: That’s a great opportunity. When did you do it?

Britt Bonney: Just last year, with my musical Montgomery. The woman who runs it, Kathy Evans, couldn’t be kinder and more excited to help writers generate new work. She just gives you everything you need to try to have a successful week to dive into your project. It’s great.

JM: What is it like when you’re there?

Britt Bonney: You stay in this beautiful house with these big windows, and they buy all your food…usually they do it for collaborative teams. There are all kinds of bedrooms all over, but Montgomery is just me, so it was me alone in a house for a week. [Laughs]. I was able to kind of spread out my index cards everywhere, I had a big poster board, and it really helped. A full-length musical is just such a gigantic thing. There are so many moving pieces that sometimes it becomes difficult to really see them all at one time. And something like Rhinebeck is so great for that, because you can be immersed in it and just lay out everything, and try to see, “How does this connect to this connect to this?” and really be able to put your piece together in the most elegant way possible.

JM: So what is Montgomery about?

Britt Bonney: Montgomery is about a 15-year-old girl arrested nine months before Rosa Parks for the same thing. Her name was Claudette Colvin, and the civil rights leadership in Montgomery got wind of her arrest and thought, “Maybe we can use this case to fight segregation law.” They wanted to do a bus protest. But some people were hesitant and wanted to wait. They thought, “Claudette is too young. She’s poor, her parents are working class, she’s kind of mouthy and sassy, and her skin is really dark.” And they decided that this was not the right person to unite everybody in a bus protest, and waited to find a symbol that was a bit older and more mild-mannered, better spoken and lighter-skinned.

JM: And this was performed in Washington DC, right?

Britt Bonney: It was, and it will be again.

JM: Really?

Britt Bonney: Yes! This Labor Day, August 31st. There’s going to be a reading again at the Kennedy Center.

JM: Very cool! And how is that being done, through a specific producer?

Britt Bonney: Yes. The Kennedy Center has a festival called Page to Stage, where they invite companies in the DC area to apply with one show to produce a reading of that show. And it’s designed to help develop new work. So Monumental Theatre Company, which is a wonderful new theater company in the DC area, they produced the first act of Montgomery there last year. And it went so well and they liked it so much that they said “Hey Britt! Let’s do the whole thing this year!” Which is incredibly exciting. I loved working with them, and I’m so excited to do it again.

JM: It sounds very interesting, and like it would be great to see it live.

Britt Bonney: I hope so. My hope is that it really captures the sort of electricity of a teenager on a mission. There’s a lot of danger, and there’s a lot of pain, and there’s a lot of fear around any story having to do with such an immense struggle. And I think the challenge is to make sure that all of that is very real and very present, so that we tell the truth, and also to find the hope and find the joy. This is a fifteen-year-old girl with tons of hope and tons of joy. So I like to think that the show is very energetic, because there’s this visceral energy that propels this fifteen-year-old to do what she did.

JM: Yeah. So you wrote Montgomery, book, music, and lyrics, by yourself. As a composer, do you have other collaborators that you work with?

Britt Bonney: I do! I often write with Nadav Wiesel. We wrote a short musical about a very rich cat from the Upper East Side. And we’re best friends in addition to being collaborators, so we just have a blast writing together. And I think we work very well together, because he has a very dark sense of humor and is always interested in what’s the unusual or the ugly, the gritty…and I’m so sunshine and I like things to be light and whimsical. And it actually ends up being a very good combination, because I brighten his darkness and make it a bit, I guess, more accessible, and he gives more depth to my penchant for whimsy. So it’s a great combo.

JM: Awesome. So one of my favorite things to talk about is talented women doing the work they do in action. Do you have a favorite music directing or gig experience you’d like to talk about?

Britt Bonney: Well, just earlier this year, and last year as well, I was music directing a show called Girlfriend. Actually, Georgia [Stitt] recommended me for it, which was wonderful. It’s a show that Todd Almond wrote about two teenage boys who fall in love in Nebraska in 1993. It’s a very sweet show. It’s a jukebox musical with songs by Matthew Sweet. And I had such a blast with this show. I actually went in thinking, “Oh, it’s a jukebox musical, I don’t know if I’m gonna like it that much.” And I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s so moving. And there’s a universality to the way these two boys interact. It’s so awkward and wonderful. And the music is really fun, and we got to have an all-female rock band. And it was tricky, because I think when the director had said, “I want this all-female rock band,” the theater basically told him no. And he went looking for recommendations and found me, and he would find other people for the band and send them to me to approve, and…we ended up assembling three of the best musicians I’ve ever met. And they were all from different worlds. Our guitarist was a prodigy–19 years old, and she just is an insane rock guitarist. And the bassist was a very accomplished jazz musician. And the drummer had conservatory training, was a very accomplished classical musician. And then here I am, the musical theater girl. So we had kind of a nice mix. And we all had to sing back-up vocals for all the songs in the show, and they were only loosely spelled out in the sheet music, so I ended up arranging quite a bit. A lot of vocal arrangements, a lot of voice coaching, I had to program my own keyboard, I had to learn acoustic guitar…’cause they’re rock songs! We really only had a keyboard because musicals usually have a keyboard player. In any other venue, it would have had two guitars and no keys. So…it was just such a joy every night, to load into the show in my little 90s rocker outfit, and think, “Yes! I get to play this show again! I get to groove on my keys and my guitar and sing my face off.” And meanwhile, the audience is just having a wonderful time. It was wonderful, after the show, to see how they would just run up to us and tell us how much the show meant to them, to see this sweet love story of these two boys, where no one got beat up and no one got HIV, they just were in love, and it was awkward and wonderful. 

JM: I wish I’d seen the show. It sounds like it was so good. And you got an award for it, right?

Britt Bonney: Yup, the Helen Hayes Award. Washington DC is one of the few places that gives an award for music direction.

JM: More places should.

Britt Bonney: Yeah. That would be great. I have kind of come to a place where, with regards to awards here, it really does hurt the profession that we don’t get one when all the other designers do. They have name recognition as a result and they’re better able to negotiate their salaries, and it does hurt us that we don’t have one.

JM: And for anyone claiming that it’s not something you can judge, it absolutely is.

Britt Bonney: And if it is hard to judge, I think it’s no harder to judge than something like sound design, or anything that is done in collaboration with the composer, the director, because it is a collaborative art. So, in that sense, all awards are silly; but if they’re all silly, music directors should be counted in the silliness.

JM: Absolutely. So, what was it like for you starting out in this industry, and what do you think helped you get to where you are now?

Britt Bonney: Well, a lot of it is the music assistant stuff, because I’ve been a music assistant or copyist or transcriber on probably 20-some shows or more in the past five years. There’s just no substitute for being in the room where it happens and seeing how a show gets made. It completely changes your perspective, just to see what has to happen for a show to happen. It’s really kind of amazing that we make any shows at all. It’s so impossible. [Laughs] It’s such a huge undertaking, and it’s so collaborative. And yet, we do it. And we create these wonderful works. It’s quite miraculous, really. Honestly, if I could make a career out of music assisting, I probably would. It’s really fun. And to step forward from there is intimidating, to give up being the one who follows orders and instead become the one who gives the orders. I had a moment in Girlfriend where, you almost never hear what the band sounds like in the house, and I remember thinking, “Yeah, somebody will tell me if it sounds bad in the house,” and then realizing, “Nope. Nope. Just me. It’s my job to make sure that’s taken care of.” So I think stepping from an assistant position to a leadership position can be difficult, both internally and then of course externally. If you’ve been an assistant your whole life, it’s hard to convince people that you can do anything else.

JM: Yeah. Okay, now for one of my favorite questions: why did you join Maestra?

Britt Bonney: A friend of mine, Rachel Griffin Accurso, is a part of Maestra, and she sent Georgia [Stitt] my name. And Georgia couldn’t be more inclusive about wanting everyone who really wants to work in professional theater to be part of it. And it was a pretty life-changing thing for me. I was in a place where I was going, “What if I’m an assistant my whole life? What if I never can push my value to where I want it to be? What does a career in this industry look like as you exit your 20s, where…everybody’s your colleague and your best friend! And we’re all still out after the show ’til 2am getting a beer! When that part is over…you’re just here for the work. What does it look like to really be a grown-up, building a life and building a career in this industry?” I would never have put it this way before joining Maestra, but I didn’t have an image for what that looked like. And my brain was going, “How long, Britt? How long before you say, This has been really fun, but I can’t build a life here?” And while those voices were ticking off in my head, I went to Maestra. And there, I met women of all ages, who were making a career out of this. And some were moms and some were not. And some were hugely successful and some were just starting out, and everything in between. And I was looking at these women, going, “I can stay. I don’t have to leave. I can be like them.” And that was really wonderful for me.

JM: So you’ve started to answer this already, but why do you think Maestra is important?

Britt Bonney: Those reasons! [Laughs] For so many reasons! For the role models, for–this is a small part of Maestra, and I like that it’s a small part, but–the confirmation that you are not crazy when you experience what you think might be sexism in the industry. Which is very common. I work in an assistant capacity in a lot of rooms where I’m the only woman on the music team. I see it a lot. And not just directed at me, but in other interactions as well. To hear other women’s stories, and get confirmation that when you think something might be going on because you are female or you might be having trouble advancing in your position because you are female…you’re usually right. Knowing that doesn’t necessarily change it, but it helps to know that you’re not crazy. And it’s nice to be around others who are sorting through these same things too, and we can sort together, so that we can all have ideas of what it looks like to be a woman in charge in these situations. And something that’s hugely important is the Maestra directory that Georgia’s put together. It’s just true that orchestra pits are overwhelmingly male. Music teams? Overwhelmingly male. Everyone wants to hire women in theory, but they don’t feel like they know enough of them, and they tend to just gravitate towards the people they know. And taking a chance on someone that you don’t know is a huge ask for anyone who is staffing a show. And I get that. And so what Georgia has done with the directory to try to create a database where you can go and look for these people and hopefully get some confirmation that they’re gonna be good at their jobs…I think it really will make a huge difference. Because once more women are present in the room, I think it’s going to completely change the culture of the business. And I’m really looking forward to that day. And I’m grateful to Georgia for making it happen.

JM: Has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far to find work?

Britt Bonney: Absolutely. I was recommended for Girlfriend through Maestra, and that’s what got me the Helen Hayes Award. And I’ve had lots of people tell me they’ve gotten work off the database.

JM: That’s great! So, not that we haven’t already given a lot of strong reasons but, why should people care about the services we offer?

Britt Bonney: We want things to be fair. And right now they’re not. And everybody just kind of shrugs and goes, “Oh, yeah, it’s a bummer that it’s not fair.” And Georgia said, “Maybe I can do something about this.” And so to support Maestra is to support an effort to do something about this. If you believe, as I do, that stories help us to define what is normal in the world…when I was a kid, that definition was very narrow. And it looked very white, and it looked very male, and it looked very heteronormative, it was heavily gendered…and today, it’s slightly broader. We have some more options for what normal can look like. And to be at Maestra, to see women in charge, women making things happen, and to learn from them these stories where women have been making things happen since the dawn of time…it helps us to broaden our mental map of the world, to see what could be possible. And when you have women in positions of power telling stories, then the next generation who comes and listens to those stories, their sense of what could be gets even more vast than ours, and they can see further than we can. And so to support Maestra is to support progress, in a word. To support a broader worldview where normal can be a lot of things, and everyone has a place.

JM: Which would benefit everyone. Not just women. One last question, is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself, your work, or Maestra?

Britt Bonney: Coming to Maestra to find a community of female composers was such a game-changer. I was remembering back to my BMI days. In my class, there were three female composers, myself included. And neither of the other two ended up finishing the program. They may have an eye on their gender parity now as they accept new people, but still with female composers, they don’t reach what we are, which is half. Women are, in fact, half the world.

JM: Yeah, the gender divide didn’t look much better in my class at NYU. We had two female composers.

Britt Bonney: Yeah. It is an odd thing in people’s mind that for some reason, women can’t create serious music. And that women’s music is…teeny bopper. It’s less than. It’s cheap. There really is something for women, with confidence…I think back to when I was eight years old and thought I was god’s gift to all things artistic. And sometimes I wonder, when did the switch flip? ‘Cause it did, at some point. At some point, I decided that my self and my music was less than. And that I wasn’t enough and that I was kind of just a pretender sitting here waiting for people to notice that I didn’t belong. And I think back to that little girl, and I wonder what happened. But I just can’t find that brazen confidence anymore. And like, two years ago, I was a finalist for the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award…they gave me honorable mention. And even just going through the interviews for that, and talking with these people who said wonderful things about my work…and Shaina Taub won that year. This incredible writer who I admire so much, who deserves all the awards, and I was like, “Wow!” To even be considered close to on parallel with her in the eyes of this award was huge for me. There was a huge confidence boost of, “These people like my work, and that means something. It means that I belong here and that I should keep going.” And I know I shouldn’t require outside validation, but it takes a certain brazenness to want to write a musical. It takes a little bit of overconfidence to say, “Listen to what I have to say. It’s more important than all this other noise that you’re listening to right now. So put down the noise, and listen to what I have to say.” To bolster women who are writing is to feed that voice, and say, “Yes! What you have to say is important! And you shouldn’t shy away from that.” And things like the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award and the Stacey Mindich “Go Write a Musical Award,” which pay women to write musicals, and even Maestra as a whole, they really lift you up, because they feed that sense that you are doing good work, and your work is worthwhile.

Special thanks to Britt 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, Jennifer Isaacson, and Emily Grishman.

Women Who Wow Us: Week 7
Author/Photographer: Jamie Maletz
Editor: Sara Cooper


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *