By Frances McGarry, Ph.D.
Host/Producer First Online With Fran
Her love of literature coupled with a flair for creating her own melodies as a child pianist coalesced into becoming the career choice for composer/lyricist Georgia Stitt. “I have always been a musician. When I was seven years old, I remember trying to play Bach and then [wanting to] improve it.” Her innate talent for inventing variations on a theme became the natural course for Georgia’s professional pursuit as a musician; nevertheless, she did not even realize that it was something you could actually DO for a career. “It was ‘extra-curricular.’” And it wasn’t until college that music would be something she considered undertaking as a livelihood. Her passion for all types of music and a fervent love of reading convinced Georgia musical theater was “all the things that I loved [coming] together. It was really a light bulb going off when I realized that you could tell stories with music, and the more you knew about musical structure and narrative structure the more they fed each other.”
And storyteller she is! Her focus is not so much on what stories she likes to tell through music, but “what kind of story can I tell?” The two current projects she’s working on illustrate the range of her fascination for interesting tales to tell; one, Snow Child, commissioned by Arena Stage to be directed by Molly Smith, is set in 1920s Alaska. The score is Bluegrass because “that is what the music of Alaska is and was – that’s what they would have had – banjos and mandolins, fiddles.”
While her other piece is a WW II swing band and “there is no way that music for one of them could fit into the score of the other because that’s not who those people are; that’s not the world we’re creating. The sound of the show is very specific to the world that you’re creating, the people you’re creating and that’s interesting to me. That calls on all the skills I have as a classical musician and as a pop musician, as a listener of all kinds of music – understanding musically what the differences are in those worlds, but also character-wise.”
“The sound of the show is very specific to the world that you’re creating”
Snow Child has a husband and a wife from Pennsylvania who move to Alaska during the 1920s to homestead the land. “They’re new to Alaska and they’re trying to find their way. And then, their neighbors are people who have been in Alaska for a long time and so they have a much more laid-back vocabulary. They don’t speak in such big wordy sentences. It’s like when you write New Yorker characters and they talk more quickly than non-New Yorkers. There’s less space in their language and that sort of thing. So we have a little more folk music for the characters from Alaska as opposed to these people who are finding their way into Alaska. And part of the synthesis of the sound is, musically, you watch these characters find their way. Whether you are aware of it as an audience member or not I can’t say, but I think you feel it – you feel the ‘otherness’ in the music just as much as you do in the language, the costumes, in the way that characters behave and all those things. The music is telling as much of the story as all the other elements.”
Like a playwright, Georgia begins with crafting a character. “Who are these characters and what are they involved in, what are they trying to do? And then, what do they sound like? What music do they sound like?”
When working with students, Georgia credits her experience as a Musical Director to process a breakdown of a song. “I think a lot of what I know about writing is because I had to sit in a rehearsal room and explain something to an actor. ‘But why do I come in on beat 4? I want to come in on the downbeat.’ And I want to explain not just that you do, but why you do. Why has the composer anticipated—is your character anticipating something? Is your character in a hurry? Those are conscious, literal decisions composers make. ‘Are you back-phrasing because you are reluctant to get where you’re going? Is it because we’ve got 4 bar phrase-4 bar phrase-4 bar phrase and then we’ve got a 6 bar phrase? What are those 2 bars about? Why are they there?’ And so as a Music Director I’m dissecting those things, and that made me start thinking about what a composer has to do to put those clues in there for actors to dissect. A good actor– a good singing actor– knows to look for them.”
Oftentimes, Georgia will take away the music and have students translate the lyrics into a story, “put it in [their] own language. Explain the journey of the song in [their] own words that don’t rhyme and don’t have meter so we can be clear what we want.” Part of the job of a songwriter is to craft a song so that an actor can identify the highest climactic moment of the song. “Songs are structured and the bridge is the middle point and that is usually where the meat of the song is.” A character must have a Need to Tell; she refers to this as “I Want” songs where early on in the show especially a lead character will say ‘I want this and I can’t have it.’ “And then the whole show is about how do I get that thing? And it’s really that basic. You can look at almost any successful musical where there is a character who wants something and the whole show is about how they get it.”
“You can look at almost any successful musical where there is a character who wants something and the whole show is about how they get it.”
Wanting to be the best in her field is no easy task, especially for women. Jeanine Tesori said at the Tony Awards, “You have to see it to be it.” Despite Georgia not having many female archetypes, she credits the support of teachers and parents for her success. “Nobody told me I couldn’t do it.” Her advice is straightforward in terms of making it happen: “I have learned you can’t wait for someone to call you and say, ‘I have a job for you.’ You have to look around for whatever opportunity and say, ‘I should be doing that job. Who do I call to get that job? How do I MAKE that job? What do I do to make sure they think of me in that context?’”
“I have learned you can’t wait for someone to call you and say, ‘I have a job for you.'”
Georgia raises awareness of the plight of parity for women composer/lyricists as a Board member of the Lilly Awards. Six years ago, as a way to recognize female playwrights who were being overlooked, Marsha Norman, Julia Jordan, and Theresa Rebeck started this not-for-profit organization to honor their work. It’s not just an award ceremony, but it has “grown to [represent] the statistical analysis of what the numbers really are all around the country. How many women are being produced? How many directors are being hired? How many female composers are being hired? And how many female lyricists/playwrights/etc.? How many female protagonists are in the show? What are the stories being told? And the number hovers around 22% female, which is unbelievable when you think about how many women are in the audiences and how many female playwrights there are.”
How many women are being produced? How many directors are being hired? How many female composers are being hired?
Programs range from providing writing retreats to a mentorship program led by Susan Stroman. A fall fundraiser is scheduled every year. Georgia is the co-producer and music director for the November 9th event, The Lilly Awards Broadway Cabaret, which features Broadway stars performing the works of women writers. You can learn more about this event at: http://www.thelillyawards.org/thelillyawards/.
What Georgia loves most about being a composer/lyricist is communicating. “I love using music to communicate an idea and then having someone say afterwards, ‘I really get what you were trying to say.’” We DO get it.
Thank you, Georgia for making us all feel something special through your music!
Georgia Stitt is a Composer/Lyricist and a Music Director. Her musicals currently in development include Snow Child (commissioned by Arena Stage); A.Jax (written for Waterwell with Kevin Townley and Hanna Cheek); Tempest Rock (written with Hunter Foster); The Danger Year (a revue of original songs, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle); Big Red Sun (NAMT Festival winner in 2010, Harold Arlen Award in 2005 and written with John Jiler); The Water (winner of the 2008 ANMT Search for New Voices in American Musical Theatre and written with Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko); and Mosaic (commissioned for Off-Broadway in 2010 and written with Cheri Steinkellner). She has released three albums of her music: This Ordinary Thursday: The Songs Of Georgia Stitt, Alphabet City Cycle and My Lifelong Love. Her songs and arrangements are represented on the solo albums of Susan Egan, Lauren Kennedy, Kate Baldwin, Robert Creighton, Stuart Matthew Price, Caroline Sheen, Daniel Boys, Kevin Odekirk and composer Sam Davis. Her choral piece with hope and virtue (using text from President Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech) was featured on NPR as part of Judith Clurman’s Dear Mister President cycle, and her most recent orchestral piece, Waiting for Wings, co-written with husband Jason Robert Brown, was commissioned by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and premiered there with conductor John Morris Russell. Georgia has degrees from Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. She is on the theater faculty at Pace University and the Board of Directors for The Lilly Awards. Other fun credits include being the music supervisor of the Anna Kendrick/Jeremy Jordan film The Last Five Years, conducting Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway, writing arrangements for Tony Bennett’s 80th birthday party and playing a nun in The Sound Of Music Live! on NBC with Carrie Underwood and Audra McDonald. www.georgiastitt.com