Thursday, December 27, 2007

Summing it All Up

I've had lots of excuses for failing to post anything new in the last six weeks. The biggest one is that in order to work on CLASH OF THE CHOIRS (for NBC -- did you watch it?) I had to sign a confidentiality agreement stating I wouldn't go around talking about the show. And since that project took up every hour of my every single day from Thanksgiving to Christmas, there wasn't much I could write about, and even if there had been, there wasn't time to write, anyway. I don't know if I've ever worked on something that consumed so much of my time. Truly, I woke up and checked my email, then started dealing with things for the show until my husband finally screamed at me to log off and come to bed somewhere around midnight. In the midst of all that, somehow the Christmas tree got decorated, the presents got wrapped and the babysitter made a fortune.

I'm going to share just a little bit about the show and specifically my role in it. The show was a reality TV competition featuring five stars who went back to their hometowns and each hand-picked 20 singers to form a choir. Those five choirs rehearsed (in five different cities) for 40 hours each and then came to NY and competed in a sing-off on national TV. The winning celebrity got $250,000 donated to his chosen local charity, and the others each got $50,000 donated to their chosen charities, as well. (Click here to see some YouTube footage.) I was the assistant music director, which means I handled all things musical from choosing the songs (along with a team of several other people from network execs to choirmasters to celebrity managers) to supervising the choirmasters and their arrangements to conducting the orchestra (in rehearsal only -- the magnificent Nigel Wright conducted them for the actual TV shows) to overseeing audio for the TV broadcast.

What I loved about the show was how very much in the spirit of the holiday it was. Everything was in the spirit of good will and good fun, and the attention paid to the charities was lovely and sincere. Nobody said anything mean-spirited (well, at least not on the air). Also, there's something extremely bonding about groups of people that are thrown together in intense situations for short amounts of time. (Those of us in the theater know this to be true.) Those choirs were made up of unlikely mixes of people and I'm told several of them are still very close. The winning team, led by Nick Lachey, has been asked to perform several future engagements -- a Cincinnati Reds game, a corporate event, and even possibly singing back up on Nick's next album-- so I get the sense they're going to continue to be a choir. Hopefully the others will do the same.

I made some great friendships with some great musicians and I'd like particularly to draw attention to the five choirmasters who did fantastic behind-the-scenes work making real music and celebrating the choral arts with their choirs of amateurs. Take a look at these five diverse talents.

Kim Burse, for Kelly Rowland

Gary Eckert, for Blake Shelton

Steve Zegree, for Nick Lachey

John Stanley, for Patti LaBelle

Shelton Becton, for Michael Bolton

You'd be lucky to cross paths with any of these fine musicians.

So, the biggest stress of my life, aside from the usual stress of working at such a high level of pressure on such tight deadlines, is that the day I arrived in NYC to start working on the live shows, I left my computer in the back of a cab. The first wave of panic was the "how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-my-work-done" kind of panic, followed quickly by the "oh-my-God-everything-I've-ever-written-is-on-that-computer" panic and the third and most lasting panic was the "what-if-someone-tries-to-steal-my-identity-and-wipe-out-my-bank-account" kind of panic.

So, the production rented me a computer to get through the week, the hard-drive backups I've been doing at home seem to have worked, and the fraud alert I placed on all my accounts has so far had no activity. So my best hope is that whoever found my computer wiped it clean and gave it to himself for Christmas. Lucky me -- I had to buy another one. My friend Marcy Heisler tells me to enjoy the "clean slate" feeling, and that's a good way to wrap up this last post of 2007. Look forward to your clean slate of the new year, and for God's sake -- ALWAYS BACK UP YOUR WORK!

Happy New Year, everyone, and thanks for reading.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Giving Thanks

I'm heading out tomorrow to start the Thanksgiving holiday week and as always, the last day before you go on a trip becomes a nightmare of organizing and trying not to forget anything important. I'm nursing a cold, too, which didn't help the singing issue I talked about last week, but hey -- the concert went well and I got a little bit closer to overcoming stage fright. Just before I went onstage in Santa Monica this week, one of the volunteers said to me, "Do you get nervous before these things?" I thought, "Well, I was doing a pretty good job at avoiding it this time, but now that you've brought it up...." Hmmph.

Broadway's dark. The writers in LA are on strike. I suppose Thanksgiving week is the time to say outloud that I'm grateful I'm working on a reality TV show. Who knew? I'll tell you more about CLASH OF THE CHOIRS as soon as they'll let me, but if you're in New Haven, Philly, Cincy, Houston, or Oklahoma City, you've probably already heard about it. And by this time next month, you will definitely have heard about it. Especially since there will be nothing else to watch on TV.

Here's a photo from the concert I did at the Madison Theater at Santa Monica College this week. That's Tim Christensen (bass) and Shannon Ford (drums) flanking me in the back, and Susan Egan and Kevin Earley sitting in front. If you put a little bubble over my head it would be saying, "Hurry up and take the pictures because I have to figure out what I'm going to talk about in fifteen minutes when the concert starts." But, as always, I'm glad someone was there taking photos to document the event, even though I might have been a little bit cranky as it was happening.

Since we're doing photos, here are two from the master class I taught at the Orange County High School of the Arts. In the first photo, that's Hannah Solow, Lamont O'Neil, Robert Anderson and Nina Herzog. And the second photo is everyone who was in the room while I was working with the first four people. That's an amazing program they've got there, and if it weren't an hour and a half from my house I'd be trying to get my two-year-old daughter on the wait list right now.I've been so lucky to get to see inside lots of fantastic musical theater training programs this year -- both in the US and the UK -- and I'm excited about the interest there is from young people in the future of Broadway musicals. Now, if we could just get the lights back on in the theaters. I know I sound flip, but it's really a problem. In case you haven't been following it, the Broadway stagehands union has been on strike for a week, and even though talks resumed this weekend, they didn't solve the issues at hand. Now it looks like the theaters will be dark over Thanksgiving week -- which means all those people in for the Macy's parade... well, I can't even think about it. Fingers crossed.

I'm gonna keep this one short because I've got to pack, but as this very special holiday approaches I want to thank all of you for reading my blog and supporting my music. This has been a big year, and I've got even bigger things in store for next year, but none of it would be possible if no one cared about the music. So, hey -- Happy Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for you.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Don't Worry That It's Not Good Enough For Anyone Else To Hear... Just Sing

I'm off this evening to play and sing a few songs in Susan Egan's "Broadway at Pomona" concert at Cal Poly. Those of you who know me personally know that I can play for anyone else without even a quickening of my pulse, but the minute I'm asked to sing in public I get so nervous I feel like I might pass out before I make it to the stage. It wasn't always this way. It used to be worse.

One year in college, I got so freaked out during my piano juries (which are like final exams for musicians) that I lost track of where I was in the middle of a Bach fugue. It's exactly a performer's worst nightmare -- forgetting your lyrics, forgetting the next chord, forgetting where you are in the music. You might as well be naked on stage. So, I did what any composition major would do. I made something up. I just improvised in the style of Bach until I got myself back to some place I recognized, and then I played out the piece to its end. My piano teacher's jaw hit the floor, I'm sure. Everyone in the room EXCEPT ME knew how it was supposed to go. The comments I got on my jury sheets (which ultimately constitute your grade for a semester of piano lessons) said things like "very creative" and "who knew?" Ugh. If I had been considering a career as a concert pianist, it went out the window that afternoon.

When I'm coaching singers on their audition material, I tell them what I believe: that if you're truly acting your text, if you're talking to the right person and your objective is clear and you've done your homework in terms of vocal technique, then you won't be nervous. Or, at least, your nerves will be manageable. I think it's part of why actors say they're never nervous when they're actually doing the show -- only when they're auditioning to be in the show. It's all about where you are inside your head, and if you're fully connected as your character and you're trying to accomplish something, you don't have room for the self-criticism that might otherwise fill your brain. Trouble is, when I'm singing my own songs, my character is usually me and my objective is to sing my songs well enough that someone might be interested in buying my album after the show. You can see why I prefer to leave it to the professionals.

That said, every time I sing in public people tell me that there's nothing like hearing a composer sing her own work, and having seen other composers do the same thing, I know it to be true. I had one very very very famous musical theater composer (not my husband) tell me that he takes drugs before he has to sing in front of an audience -- and then he told me where I could order the ... we'll call it an herbal downer ... online. And I know there are other songwriters who simply won't do it -- though they confess to be just as nervous sitting in the audience knowing that people are listening to their songs and judging them accordingly. Oh, it's so hard to be a performer. Why on earth do we do it?

If you're in LA and you want to come witness me torturing myself in public, I'm performing with Susan Egan and Kevin Earley in Santa Monica on Saturday, November 17th at 7 pm. I know I've mentioned it before, but the details I can give you now are that this is only a 99-seat house and the only way to make a reservation is to call and put your name on a list. If this thing sells out (and since it's FREE it won't really sell out, but you know what I mean), hopefully it will lead to me having a kind of residency at this theater -- a standing gig maybe once a month where I bring in special guests to sing my music and other fun theater tunes. So, let's overwhelm them with calls so they know that there's an interest in LA for contemporary musical theater. Especially mine. Call 310-434-3414 and tell them how many seats you want. The address is The Stage at Santa Monica/Second Space, Santa Monica Blvd and 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401.

All right. I'm off to warm up. And drink some tea. And figure out what to wear. And completely freak myself out. Here we go again.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Five Announcements

1. LAUREN KENNEDY's album Lauren Kennedy: Here and Nowis available! You can order the album today exclusively from PSClassics, but the official release is November 6th, at which point it will be available everywhere. Look for track #5, "My Lifelong Love," which is mine. I have several friends with songs on the album, too, so it's guaranteed to be a fun and interesting listen. Watch for it on iTunes in a few weeks, too.

2. I just got word that the goal for the published songbook for This Ordinary Thursday: The Songs of Georgia Stitt will be available mid-December, but they're already taking pre-orders at Amazon. Very exciting!

3. Thanks to conductor Judith Clurman, I've got another choral piece coming out for publication! This piece is called "De Profundis" and was premiered by International Orange Chorale in San Francisco under the direction of Jeremy Faust. After that, Judy Clurman conducted it with a choir at Girton College at Cambridge in England, and now it's to be published in her series with Hal Leonard. YAY! Watch for more details here. Unlike my other choral pieces, this one is a cappella SATB, but like some of the other choral pieces, the text is again by one of my favorite poets, Christina Rossetti.

4. Finally, I'm excited to announce that for the rest of the year I'm going to be working as the Assistant Music Director of a new NBC TV show called CLASH OF THE CHOIRS. It will air as a special holiday program for four nights the week before Christmas, and it will feature five celebrities and their choirs in a fantastically competitive but good-spirited "sing-off."

5. Coming up in the weeks ahead, I'm performing a few songs at Cal Poly Pomona University with Susan Egan on November 8th (info here), I'm doing a master class at the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA) on November 9th, and I'm doing a FREE concert at Santa Monica College on November 17th. Check my website for more details on all these appearances!

If you didn't read last week's blog, take a look. I'd love your input. Thanks!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

To Bring or Not To Bring?

In a session of THE GYM this week, a question came up that I found I couldn't adequately answer for my students, so I thought I'd open it up to you people to see if I could gather a consensus of opinion.

Often times when I'm working one on one with an actor, I'll point out if a piano accompaniment is particularly challenging, and I'll explain why it might be difficult for an audition pianist to sight-read it. If the song is really well-known, like say Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark" (tricky with seven zillion page turns) or Andrew Lippa's "Life of the Party" (requires the pianist to have a great sense of time), I'll say that it's probably not a big deal because the pianist is bound to know it. But if it's a new, just released piece (like Adam Guettel's "The Beauty Is") or an original piece (perhaps something the actor did in a reading which has not yet been released for public consumption) or a strange arrangement or a chord chart or even a not-fully-notated transposition, I'll suggest to the actor that he might consider taking his own accompanist to the audition.

When I lived in New York and I was playing auditions all the time, it was not uncommon in the course of an eight-hour day for me to move aside for another accompanist at least once or twice. Sometimes I rolled my eyes when an actor would bring her own pianist for a song I'd already played three times that day, but I understood that removing one element of surprise from the audition process probably made the actor feel more comfortable and more in charge of her own audition. And that was fine. And, actually, I didn't mind the break. And sometimes, the pianist didn't even have music and you just knew the two of them had been doing this one particular song this one particular way for seventeen years, and you were grateful that the actor wasn't standing there trying to explain to you how it went when nothing was accurately written down, anyway. I never once had a casting director scoff at an actor's choice to bring her own accompanist. They scoffed at everything else, but you know what I mean.

In my class in LA this week, however, several of the actors agreed that they had been told that bringing their own pianist to an audition made them seem rude and presumptuous. More than one had been told by a coach that under no circumstances should they bring their own accompanist, and they even seemed to feel that doing so might sabotage their audition. The assumption, I think, was that once they left the room everyone would be annoyed that they had brought their own pianist, as it somehow disrespected the already-hired pianist and perhaps even the other people who were in the room.

So my question is this -- what do you think? Actors? Musical directors? Casting directors? Has the audition climate changed since the days when I was playing auditions? Or, maybe, is the NYC audition code of propriety different from the one in LA? I'm very curious to hear what's up.

I've only been out of the NY market a short time, but when I was there, headshots were in black and white, the Variety Arts was still in business and nobody had yet heard of Max Crumm and Laura Osnes. So, you see, I could use your help.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Women I Want You To Know

I want to take a week off from writing about myself because there is so much else I'd rather be discussing. I've been thinking a lot lately about how I have so many female friends who are doing brave and innovative things, and I want to tell you about a few of them. So, this week, a diversion from the world of musical theater, but hopefully one you'll find extremely interesting.

1. Mary-Mitchell Campbell, ASTEP

Mary-Mitchell is pretty well-known in the Broadway community as a musical director and pianist. She's climbed that ladder with amazing speed, working with stunning talents and achieving pretty high status jobs at a very young age. (Among other things, she was the music supervisor of the Tony-Award winning production of COMPANY last season and won a Drama Desk Award for her orchestrations of the show.) But, gifted though she is, Mary-Mitchell's true work for the last two years has been nurturing her new charity, Artists Striving To End Povery, or ASTEP.

According to the language on their website, ASTEP "uses the arts as a tool to empower poverty-stricken youth with creativity, knowledge, and a strong sense of self-esteem, factors which help them break the cycle of poverty in their communities and their own lives." What I know personally is that Mary-Mitchell travels regularly to India, where she owns an orphanage, and she and her team of artist/volunteers teach the arts to young people who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to anything even remotely of the kind. The stories she has told me about the degrees of poverty she has encountered are simply staggering. ASTEP has fund-raising efforts in New York and also supports programs in Florida and South Africa. Click on their website here and see how you can help her in her extraordinary efforts.

2. Kourtney Harper, Guy Fox

Kourtney and I went to college together, but we have become better friends since we graduated than we ever were in school. In the time I knew her at Vanderbilt, I thought she was a fun gal from Georgia who was a gifted cartoonist. After graduation Kourtney won a travel fellowship which allowed her to traipse around the world studying cartoons and film animation, and at the end of that year she generated an illustated book documenting her travels. Kourtney married a Brit and now lives permanently in London, where she runs the Guy Fox History Project, an educational charity whose mission claims "to produce innovative projects which will promote education and London history."

As you all know, I was in London for most of September, and Kourtney filled me in on her latest project with her company: mapmaking. In addition to her history projects and public service work for kids, Kourtney has developed the London Children's Map, which is a completely accurate but child-friendly map of the city, complete with stickers that say things like "rode in a taxi" and "bought souvenirs" and "admired great artwork." In addition to the London map, Guy Fox has released maps for San Francisco and Washington D.C, and while I was there I looked at the proofs for the New York City map. (I'm told Paris is also in the works.) Click here to learn more about Guy Fox, and pick up a children's map for your favorite young traveler.

3. Julie Dingman Evans, Your Environmental Road Trip (YERT)

Julie and I met years ago doing a musical in South Carolina. She's a great actress and singer and we have managed to work together several times since. But this year, Julie is taking a year off from acting to take a year-long road trip across America with her husband Ben and their friend Mark on what they're calling an "eco-expedition." They say they are "exploring the landscape of America's unique approach to environmental sustainability." And they're documenting the whole thing on their very entertaining blog, which can be found at their website here. They've been on the road for just over three months, meeting people all over the country and learning about what Americans are doing to deal with environmental issues. They travel with a compost box in their hybrid car and they try to generate as little garbage as possible. And they'll be doing it for another nine months. Join in the learning adventure and watch what they're doing. And, in their honor, maybe we can all turn off a few incandescent lights.


* Wendy Melkonian and Katie Donovan and their breads: BREADWINNER

* Heather Hiett and her photos of surfers: H2 PHOTOGRAPHY

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Performing and Proofreading

Home. Home. Home. We're home. We're soooo tired, but we're home. Going on an adventure is great fun, and coming home is great relief. There's lots happening here at home, and I'm way behind in telling you about it.

If you read this in time, and you happen to be in NY tonight, and you happen to be looking for something to do in a few hours, I encourage you to go to Birdland to hear Sam Davis's evening of songs. Sam is a fantastic composer and he writes with lots of different lyricists. Two of the songs on my album ("Perfect Summer" and "Air") are the result of that collaboration. His evening is called "All Mixed Up: The Music of Sam Davis," and he's featuring performances by Anastasia Barzee, Matt Farnsworth, Santino Fontana, Megan Lawrence, Kelli O'Hara, Megan McGinnis, Matt McGrath, Karen Murphy, Dan Reichard, Benjamin Schrader, Patrick Sullivan, and Will Swenson. My friend Annette Jolles is directing, Sam himself will be at the piano, and the rest of the band is Sean McDaniel (drums), Brad Russell (bass), and my own pal from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS days, John Benthal (guitar). Concert is tonight, Oct 7th at 7 pm, and Birdland is 315 W. 45th Street (btw 8th and 9th). And if you do go, clap really loudly for my songs!

Next on the agenda, I've got a concert of my own coming up in Santa Monica on November 17th, featuring my good friend and long-time collaborator, Susan Egan, and my new collaborator and pal Kevin Earley. It'll be a bunch of my songs, including several that I've not performed in a REALLY long time and even a few that I'm sure you've never heard. The thing about this concert, part of the "Under the Radar" series, is that it's FREE, because we're kicking off the opening of a new theatre in Los Angeles. It's called the Madison Theater and it's attached to Santa Monica College. Click here to check out what's happening in this new and vibrant space, and better yet, call 310-434-3414 for more info about tickets to my concert. (As soon as there's a website for tickets, I'll post it.)

Upon my return home, the most exciting thing waiting for me in the pile of mail on the kitchen table was a stack of proofs for my new songbook, to be published by Hal Leonard in conjunction with Williamson Music. It's all the music for the songs on my album, "This Ordinary Thursday." You may be wondering how this all works, and I'll fill you in. I sent computer files of my songs to the good editors at Hal Leonard, and they've taken about two months to create and edit the scores for publication. At first I thought, "What's to edit? I've written everything down; it's exactly as I want it." But now that I've got the proofs I see some of the changes they've made. Editing is a really interesting thing. In some cases, they've changed the layout of the pages -- meaning the page turns might fall in different places, the lyrics might be less crammed into the space between two barlines, or the separation of two voices on two lines might be consolidated into two voices on one line. None of that affects the music, and often it actually solves some problems and makes the scores easier to read. In other cases, they've renamed some of the chords. Sometimes I say, "oh yeah, Ab (add2) is a better choice than Ab2," and sometimes I say, "No, I actually meant C Maj 9 instead of G/C." So the proofing is a chance to correct mistakes -- both theirs and mine -- before this thing goes to print. I think it would be pretty upsetting to go through this process and then have the final product have some glaring and obvious error that we all missed, so I'm gonna take some time and hope to get it right. But the aim is that the songbook will be out in the world by the end of the year. Of course I'll announce it and make a big deal when that finally happens, and then YOU will go buy it. Right? Right?

While we're talking about editing, I had another interesting editing story that I thought was worth sharing. Earlier this summer Lauren Kennedy recorded one of my songs for her new album which is to be released on November 4th. I wrote about it here in this blog at the time. We recorded the band and Lauren's vocals, and I always intended to add backing vocals later in the game. In my mind, the vocals were a part of the orchestration, a layer in the tapestry of sound, just as a bed of strings or a pair of guitars would have been. So about a month after we recorded the inital track, I hired four great singers and we went into a studio and added the backing vocals. As we began mixing the track, there emerged a great number of differing opinions (Lauren, me, record producer, recording engineer, etc.) about whether or not the vocals were working. It was an interesting dilemma. On an album designed to feature Lauren and a collection of songs you probably don't already know, how do you keep the other voices from grabbing your attention away from the STORY of the song? We tried mixing them down at a very low volume. That didn't work -- then you were straining to hear them and not listening to what Lauren was saying. Next we tried cutting them out except for the spaces in between the lyrics -- using them only when they wouldn't compete with the text of the song. That didn't work because it felt like a very stop-and-start arrangement. Finally we tried bringing them in only at the end, and then they just felt like they were appearing out of nowhere -- more confusing than helpful. The final decision, and it was unanimous among all of us, was that the song worked great as a solo and the addition of the backing vocals in any form was more distraction than illumination. So, we cut them. You may wonder why things get cut, and there ya go.

(Buried deep in my iTunes folder, of course, is the version with the complete BVs. Someday, when Lauren's album is a huge hit and everyone knows all the words to this song, I'll pop that baby up on my blog and you'll all go, "Ohhhhh.... I see." Until then, it's Lauren's and my little secret.)

All right. More later. Go to Sam's concert if you can. I'm off to throw a birthday party for my two-year-old. Go ahead, envy me.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Notes from London (Part Three)

We're heading home from London tomorrow, which means today is a bit of a panic of packing and last-minute things, but I wanted to write one more time before I left the UK. It's really one of the joys of my career that I get to travel so much and I get to spend extended amounts of time in places other than my home. This trip has been so great, and so different from the last time I was here.

Last week I wrote about all the master classes I was teaching, and I've taught several more this week, but I've also served as pianist for some master classes my husband taught. People often ask us how we handle the fact that we do the same thing for a living, and I'll admit that there are times when we're probably too competitive for our marriage's comfort. That said, the truth is that he's so good at what he does that I find it inspiring. Our master classes are very similar in terms of what we teach, but as I watch him do what he does, I inevitably learn something that I can then take into my own practice. Some people might call that stealing, but I prefer to think of it as responding to inspiration.

That's really what I wanted to write about today. A question I got asked a lot while I was here is, "Where do you find your inspiration for the things you write?" I've answered it differently every time it was asked, but the common fact is that I respond to things that are good. When I see a great piece of theater, I want to come home and write good theater. When I hear a Mahler symphony (one of my favorites), I want to come home and write great music. And while I was here, I experienced lots of things that made me want not only to write, but to read more, to learn new languages, to research things more in depth.

I've talked before about how nostalgic I am, but another great part of traveling is getting to reconnect with people from your past. Whilst in London (see how British that sounds?) this time, I was able to attend the premiere of a new string quartet written by one of my former composition professors, Dr. Michael Alec Rose. The piece was performed twice -- once at the Royal Academy of Music (where I heard it) and again at the Priory Church of the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew the Great. Dr. Rose was going on about what a wonderful space St. Bart's was, and so a few days later, pushing a sleeping baby in a pram on a windy day, I peeked in to take a look. Begun in 1123, St. Bart's is one of the oldest churches in London, and certainly one of the most beautiful. It was also just enough off the beaten path that I was the only visitor there for the 45 minutes I spent in the space, and somehow that made it even more sacred. You might even call it ... oh, I don't know... inspiring. I've also found inspiration this month at the National Portrait Gallery, in the audience of Jason's show PARADE, and sitting in my friend's flat watching boats go up and down the Thames. I've been inspired by my daughter, by funny things that people say, and by books I've read that linger after I've turned the last page.

As we pack up the house and prepare for a long flight tomorrow, I just want to thank the many people who were involved in all the work we did here. Thanks to the Contempo Theatre Company who produced my concert, to all the schools who asked me to participate in master classes, to the teachers who let me into their classrooms and the students who let me into their work, to the actors who sang my songs and the fans who came to the concerts and bought the CD, to the babysitters who stayed in our home and taught Molly so many new songs, to the nice Londoners who gave us directions along the way, and mostly to Alastair Lindsey-Renton, our agent and friend, who did everything else.

Home calls.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Notes from London (Part Two)

You'll have to forgive me for not posting in so long. These Brits are keeping me busy. The photo to the left is the team of people who were a part of my British debut concert at St. Paul's Church in Knightsbridge. In the back row you've got Amy Maiden, who is half of the Contempo Theatre Company which produced the evening, Damian Humbley, some girl who showed up in a black dress, Jo Ampil, Daniel Boys, Eliza Lumley, and violinist Ben Lee. In the front is Caroline Sheen and producer Alastair Lindsey-Renton. Caroline also had a beautiful red dress and these fantastic shoes she wore for act two, but her act one song required her to wear exercise clothes, and so there she sits. Bless.

And now -- about the concert itself. I'm always amazed that it's not over in three minutes and that there are more than six people in the audience. And especially in another country, in a city where I've never been promoted, it still astounds me to be able to say that the concert was two hours long and the audience held about 200 people. I sang three songs, and the other five singers each sang three or four, as well. The more I do this thing -- performing my own music -- the more comfortable I get. I have to say, this time I was really at peace with the singing I had to do (instead of being a nervous wreck about it) and even though the banter between songs was goofy and off the cuff, I think it went over well. (Does anyone know if Olga and her date actually made it to the concert?) So, a huge thank you to all involved. I am really happy.

The day before the concert my team all gathered at Dress Circle to sign CDs and sing a few tunes. As I was playing, I saw that several people were watching me through camera lenses and sure enough, the next day there we were on YouTube. So, for those of you who couldn't be there, here's a taste of what you missed.

In addition to the performing, I've been working around the UK doing master classes. So far I've been to The Brit School (click here to see the write up we got in their blog!), Knightswood School in Glasgow, Scotland, the Royal Acadamy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), and the Sylvia Young Theatre School. We've got more schools booked all throughout next week, and I'm also accompanying some of my husband's classes he's teaching. The thing I've been surprised by, more than anything else, is how similar musical theater students are everywhere you go. The work I did with British students this week is the same work I do with my professional actors in my class The GYM. I'm constantly asking actors, "Who are you talking to?" "At what point in the song do you feel like your character is changed?" "How is the music giving you the clues you need to act this song?" And students everywhere are working in their classes and their coaching sessions and their lessons to answer just these questions. One of the most surreal moments for me was driving in to Glasgow from the house where we'd spent the night before, and our driver was engaging us in a conversation about the differences between Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and Rodgers and Hart songs. It was a pretty deep conversation about a very specific topic, and as I looked out the car window, I saw the most rural countryside, sheep, and ancient stone buildings. Even here, when I'm as far north as I've ever been, these songs are famous and, even better, relevant.

I leave you with a quick word about the Donmar Warehouse production of my husband's show PARADE. Go. It's one of the most astounding things I've ever seen, and the response from the London audiences has been amazing. Three curtain calls last night. I am so proud of him and the work they have done for this much smaller version of the show that originally played at Lincoln Center. Press night (official opening) is Monday. Keep your fingers crossed.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Notes from London (Part One)

I think it officially starts when you take your American money out of your wallet and you say, "Well, I guess I won't be needing this for a while." I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm still trying to read the numbers on the coins to see how much value is attached to each one. Ugh. Such a foreigner -- and I've even lived in London before. Years and years ago at Vanderbilt I took a summer abroad to study British Lit and Fine Art over here. I remember reading the British novels. (It was one of my favorite classes ever.) I remember going to the museums and sitting through the slide shows. I remember taking the train trips on the weekends to see more of the country than just this city. I remember mastering the Tube and lounging in the pubs and seeing great theatre (and not-so-great theatre). Apparently I just don't remember the coins.

That's Molly in Southwark walking along the Thames. COME ON. I didn't get out of America until I was in college. In fact, that trip to London so many years ago was my first time out of the country (and I suppose I'm not counting Mexico and Canada, even though they are actually different countries). The fact that my two-year-old daughter has a passport and it has already been stamped is astounding to me. It's so easy now to be worldly, and yet Americans tend to get stuck within our own fifty states. Granted, those are some big states. A Brit yesterday asked me how far it was from New York to Los Angeles, and I said, "Oh, it's about a six hour plane ride." His jaw dropped, and he tried to figure out how far from London a six hour plane ride would get you. "South Africa?" he suggested. I don't think it's THAT far, but the vast amount of space we take for granted in our country is unique to us, that's for sure.

It took me two days to get my cell phone to work over here, and during those two days I had to call my cell phone company in America twice. The second time I got this girl with a deep Southern accent who was helping me to figure out the code that would unlock my phone and allow me to use it abroad. She said, in a thick Alabama drawl, "It must be so different over there in London." I really hate making small talk with people who can put you on hold, but I engaged. "Yes, yes, it's pretty different, all right. But it's not SO different because at least everyone here speaks English." "Oh. Really? They do?" she asked. Is it possible that we're so self-involved as a country that some Americans don't even realize that English people speak English?

So, anyway, I'm going to do my part to represent America with grace and class. Next Sunday the 16th, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I'm doing a concert of my music at this amazingly beautiful church in Knightsbridge, London. (For those of you coming, it's just behind the Barclay Hotel.) We start official rehearsals tomorrow, though the five singers have been rehearsing on their own for about two weeks. I've got an Irish nanny showing up to watch my child while I'm in rehearsal, and I imagine she'll walk about with the pram and take along some spare nappies while she's sorting out what to do to keep the day from being rubbish. I can't wait.

Concert tickets: CLICK HERE

Books I read for my British Lit class at Vanderbilt, many years ago. I can only remember a few of them. Anyone reading who took the class with me and can remind me what the others were?

1. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
2. Little Dorrit (Charles Dickens)
3. Heart Of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
4. The Time Machine (H. G. Wells)
5. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
6. The Woman In White (Wilkie Collins)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Matter of Perspective

It's all in the perspective. I missed my entry last week because I was traveling, and I'm still on the road but I realize that's no excuse. In fact, traveling often leads to insights that you certainly wouldn't have if you were sitting on your duff at home, so let's start there.

A little over a week ago I flew from LA to Boston and spent several days on Cape Cod. There's a theater there I've mentioned before in this blog, and because of the many summers I spent there during college, that part of the world is incredibly special to me. You know how there are places that resonate with you -- where you feel a kinship with the very land, the people, and the history that surrounds you? Cape Cod is like that for me. I feel like me when I am there. (Interestingly, Scotland is like that for me, too, and I've just found out I'm going to get to go there later this month. But more on that later.) Meanwhile, tell me this isn't the most spectacular picture ever. If you've purchased my CD (with the booklet), you might be wondering... and the answer is yes. Same beach, same baby, one year later. Those of you who downloaded the album on iTunes (and thank you for doing so!) didn't get to see the fantastic graphic work Derek Bishop designed. And those of you who dowloaded it illegally -- shame on you. But the rest of you know what I'm talking about.

The College Light Opera Company was producing THE SECRET GARDEN that week, and as I sat in the audience watching it, I was thinking about how interesting it is that your perspective can change so much over time. When I was 20 years old and getting to conduct a show for the first time (32 singers and an 18 piece orchestra!), I thought the singers I was coaching were the greatest I'd ever heard, the conductors I was studying with were uniquely informed about how musicals work, and the audience on Cape Cod was capable of making me as nervous as I'd ever been. Now, some (mumble mumble) years later, and with all due respect to all of those people from earlier chapters of my life, I've heard so many more great singers, learned from so many more conductors, and been far more nervous than I ever was at CLOC. Sitting in that audience, trying to remember who I'd been at the beginning of this career, I found myself listening to the inside of my head more than listening to the show. And though the actors might not agree, I think that's all right. It's nostalgia, it's self-evaluation, it's observation. It's a change in perspective.

After we left Cape Cod, we drove through New England on a beautiful late summer day and wound up in Vermont, where we visited family. Two days in the mountains with a great aunt and uncle in their 80s. No cell phone service. No internet. It was magnificent. I realized how dependent I've become on being able to be in contact with people all the time. A year ago I remember thinking, "what do I need a Blackberry for?" and now I check it at least ten or twelve times a day. Once you get used to the constant flow of email and text messages, it's shocking not to have them. When, at the end of the trip, I drove back into an area where my cell phone received service, the messages came pouring in -- and I was relieved and disappointed at the same time. Wouldn't it be nice, for at least parts of every day, to be truly unavailable?

After Vermont, we headed into New York. I lived in NY for ten years before heading out to California two years ago, and coming back to the city always feels like coming home. My dearest friends are here, and thankfully I've gotten to connect with almost all of them this week. I know my way around NY better than any other city on earth. Most of the time, even now, my work leads me back to Manhattan. And yet, for the first time in two years, it was clear to me that NY is no longer my home. Instead of pining away for it, I found myself thinking how grateful I was to have the things I have "at home." Again, my perspective had shifted.

One of the great things I got to do this week was attend a performance of GREASE on Broadway. After working as the vocal coach on the TV show for months and months, I sat in that audience knowing that I was having a truly unique experience of watching the show. I know Max and Laura's voices in such detail, and I know their personalities but I haven't been with them for the last few months as they made the transition from aspiring actors to Broadway stars. I know that score so well, and I was hyper-aware of every change in the vocal arrangements, the orchestrations, the placement of the new songs. I know the conductor and most of the cast. I know the director. I even knew the sound guy running the board at the back of the house. I was sure that I was going to sit there completely unable to enjoy the show because I was so in my head. But you know what? I really liked it. Perhaps it's because of my relationship to the show that I had such a good time, but I was really proud of those performers and really happy to have been a part of it along the way.

Next week I cross the big pond and start rehearsing for the September 16th concert in London and the numerous master classes I'm doing in England and Scotland. (See? Scotland! We came back to it!) I have no idea what I'll be posting about, but assuming I don't wind up in Vermont again, I'll be back each week. Can one write a blog with a British accent? It certainly would change your perspective. See ya then.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Announcing the Concert in London 9/16

At long last, it's time to talk about LONDON! For those of you who keep up with my husband's career, Jason's already in London working on PARADE, which I'm sure he'll tell you is going to be a smaller version of the show that played at Lincoln Center in 1998-99 and won him a Tony Award for best score. The Donmar Warehouse, an extremely prestigious theater in the UK, approached Jason about bringing the show overseas, and he jumped at the chance. As he was saying yes, we both realized that that would mean he was away from home for about two months. Without much debate, I said, "So I guess I'm coming with you."

It's a tricky place we're in, because bringing along the wife and kid is not always included in negotiations. (Maybe Stephen Schwartz can get that kind of a deal, but we're not there yet.) So our choices were: (A.) be separated from wife and two-year-old child for two months or (B.) fork over a bunch of dough and bring them with you. We split some differences. Wife and child are coming for the second month only; Brown family is picking up the extra expense.

I tell you all of this probably-too-personal information to say that London ain't cheap for Americans these days, and for many reasons, obvious and otherwise, I was thrilled when Amy Maiden and John Ellis of the Contempo Theatre Company called and said they were hoping I'd be in London with Jason because they wanted to present a concert of my music, thereby introducing me to the London theater community. What started months ago as a crazy brainstorm of ideas has finally settled into an actual event, and with the most brilliant help of agent and producer Alastair Lindsey-Renton (There's a British name if ever I've heard one), a concert is about to be born.

Here's what you need to know -- especially if you live in England or are planning to be there next month.

SUNDAY, September 16th, 2007
8:00 pm
St. Paul's Church, Knightsbridge

And, I'm excited to announce, I have a most amazing cast. I don't even know all of them yet, but I'm googling them and emailing them, trying to figure out who should sing which songs, and I'm kind of blown away that they all said they wanted to participate.

Jo Ampil, Daniel Boys, Damian Humbley, Eliza Lumley, and Caroline Sheen

Here's the announcement on Facebook -- and you don't have to be a member of Facebook to view it. (But if you are a member -- hey, wanna be friends? I'm totally addicted and spend way too much time on this site.)

I fully intend to keep blogging while I'm across the pond, as they say, so watch here for more news. Also, Alastair seems to be having quite a bit of success setting up numerous master classes for me while I'm over there, so if you're a theater student in the UK, you might even wind up in my class before the month is out. How cool would that be? And how amazing is it that I get to teach at places called "The Royal Academy" and such?

Finally -- with regards to last week's blog -- don't even ask me about the nightmare that was required to secure a passport for my daughter. Some stories are better left untold.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Guilt, Worry, and the Anger of No Recourse

"So what are you up to these days?"

It's a question that fills me with dread. No one really wants to hear about how it's all I can do to make it from one end of the day to the other without having to change my clothes. Keeping up with a toddler and a career feels like two full-time jobs, and yet when I'm faced with the above question I find myself scrambling to say somthing that doesn't feel pitiable. I talk about the job I just completed, the CD that came out three months ago, the shows that I've been writing and re-writing for months. Having spent ten years in NY and now two more in Hollywood, I am pretty good at spin.

But the truth is, I know all of us who free-lance are filled with horror at the idea that we're not doing enough. We're not working hard enough, we're not getting enough credit, we should have more shows on our resumes and more hits on our websites.

I had a composition professor in college who had ordered personalized pencils that were inscribed to say "You should be composing now." I was as torn back then as I am now. He was absolutely right. I should be composing now. But I also should be spending more time with my family. And exercising for an hour each day. And reading more books. And keeping up with the news -- especially the news of my industry. Not to mention the fact that I've always wanted to be fluent in another language. And to take voice lessons. And to play the piano for leisure instead of just for work. And I have all this great kitchen equipment; I really should cook more often. And buy food at the farmer's market. And stay in touch with my friends who live far away. And conserve energy. And floss.

You people with actual jobs, how on earth do you do it?

We've had a lot of family stresses around here this week, but like my friend Seth Rudetsky writes in his blog, I know that ours are luxury problems. We have friends and family with actual problems -- health crises, failing marriages, jobs in jeopardy. I have nothing like that to complain about, and I am extremely grateful. But in lieu of such a grand worry on my plate, I am filled to overflowing with petty worries and pedantic anxieties. I can't believe how many times a day I wash dishes. No matter how many hours I spend responding to email, I invariably forget to deal with something that will have unfortunate consequences the next day. Today, while I was trying desperately to finish something on my computer, my daughter decided to write on the wall with a crayon. That's what I get for not paying attention to everything at once.

When you're functioning in the world of luxury problems (overcommitted, overextended, overwhelmed), you're only one step away from the kind of frustration that can completely wipe you out. It's nine pm, you've finally gotten to a point where you can stop and have some dinner. There's nothing in the house so you order takeout. You and your husband request a salad and two entrees, and when the food comes, nearly forty-five minutes after you phoned in the order, you pay the nice delivery man and send him on his way. Only ten minutes later, when you're plating the food and looking forward to sitting down for your first moment of quiet in a week, do you realize they've forgotten to include your entree. It's not that there's NO recourse. It's that at this point nothing will make you happy. Even if the restaurant recognizes the mistake and offers to send another perfectly lovely delivery boy over with your entree, your night is ruined. They can't give you two hours of your life back. You're furious, and I call it the anger of no recourse.

It's the anger that builds when you're stuck on hold and you have no option but simply to wait for someone to tell you the piece of information you need to get on with your life. It's the even bigger anger that comes when you've already been on hold for ten minutes and you finally get a person who tells you he's transferring you to another department, and he disconnects you. But mostly, it's the anger that comes when you're doing everything exactly right, treating people with respect and giving them all the benefits of the doubt, and they screw you over anyway.

I didn't mean for this blog to be so filled with bile, but in writing about my work, I suppose sometimes I have to write about how impossible it is to do my work. I know you all have the same petty frustrations in your own lives and you'll be happy when I stop writing about mine. Things should be better tomorrow. I have five hours set aside for writing, and there's a pencil on my piano that says, "You should be composing now." What could possibly get in my way?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The view from behind the piano

It seems to me that theater people are always looking for work, and then as soon as they've settled into something that's running for a while, they're looking for a way to get out of it. The SOUTH PACIFIC run (which ends today) wasn't long enough to build up that kind of anxiety. There were only three performances, after all. But my job as rehearsal pianist ended on Thursday at five pm, right before the performances started on Friday. It's a weird thing to be a rehearsal pianist. You're one of the most crucial people to the rehearsal process. You play the same songs over and over again while the dancers learn their steps, the singers learn their tunes, and the chorus learns its harmonies. If, God forbid, you're late, rehearsal doesn't start until you get there. And then, when the orchestra comes in to play the performances, you're done. Everyone else goes on and gets into costume and moves into their dressing rooms, and you're officially unemployed. (Sometimes you get to play WITH the orchestra, but in this case, the 55-piece orchestration did not call for a piano.)

Sometimes during the rehearsal process a pianist will have to play things in several different keys. That happened this time for me. Before the rehearsal period started I was practicing SOUTH PACIFIC out of the published copy of the score I have at home, and about two days before rehearsal started, I looked at the copy of the score that the Hollywood Bowl had sent over. It was marked with cuts in the dance music and the underscoring, and, to my surprise, it had several indications at the beginnings of songs that said things like, "Down a whole step in the key of D-flat."

For those of you who aren't pianists, I'll try to translate. What that means is that the music is PRINTED in the key of E-flat, but you're expected to play it in the key of D-flat. It's not an impossible transposition, but sight-transposing is one of those skills that you have to practice doing to be able to do it well. I haven't done it in a while, so for the first few days there were clunkers every now and then ("a hundred and one, pounds of fun, that's my lit-tle Honey STINKY NOTE!") To his credit, conductor Paul Gemignani would look at me and laugh, knowing exactly what had happened and trusting that I would get it right next time. I did.

In one such moment, I looked over at his laughing face and said, "You know, I'm not Paul Ford." (Paul Ford is one of New York's finest pianists and has the enviable reputation for being able to play any piece of music in any key, even if he's never heard it before.) Gemignani, who has been Stephen Sondheim's primary music director since the 1970s, said something like, "You know, even Paul Ford couldn't do that when I met him. I told him that if he wanted to play auditions for me he had to learn how to transpose. So I guess he took me seriously and he taught himself how to do it."

By the end of the two-week rehearsal process I had gotten really good at transposing, and I'm inclined to follow Paul Ford's lead and fine-tune (so to speak) this skill. I've spoken to other musicians and it's amazing to me that even though we all are asked to do transpose at some point or another, none of us thinks about it in quite the same way.

(This next paragraph might get a little bit music-geeky, so if you're not notationally inclined I won't be offended if you skip it.)

If I'm given a piece of music to transpose at sight, I tend to think of it as having been written in a different key signature. Up or down a half step and I just change the key signature. A piece written in E that you have to play in E-flat is easy. Just think three flats instead of four sharps. Re-reading accidentals takes some getting used to: sharps become naturals, naturals become flats, flats become double-flats which you have to re-spell in your head anyway. Up or down a third and I just imagine there's another line on the grand staff, and I read it accordingly. But once you get into transposing more than a third, you're in confusing territory and you kind of have to rely on your ears instead of your eyes. (Am I going down a fourth or up a fifth?) Other musicians I've known have told me that they do it all by ear, but I imagine that gets tricky if the piece you're playing is something you've never heard before. I'm so fascinated that not everyone thinks of music theory in the same way. Write in to the comments section if you have something illuminating to say about all of this.

(Welcome back.)

Actors sometimes need their music transposed for the purposes of auditions. A song that's just a bit too high in F might sound fantastic in E. Or someone who wants to show off her belt might be disappointed that the high note in her song is only an A, and raising the key a whole step allows the climax to mean something in her voice. I encountered a situation in my class this week where someone was singing a song that tends to be the make-or-break song tenors use in auditions, and he wanted to transpose it down a step. In that particular case I advised him to sing something else, rather than have all the musicians behind the audition table scratching their most-likely-masculine chins and wondering why it sounded so low. Sometimes transposing doesn't matter. Sometimes it does. Sometimes a bright song can seem darker when you change the key, or vice versa. Regardless, if you're an actor, you should NEVER EVER NEVER EVER NEVER take a piece in to an audition and say to the pianist, "I usually do this in the key of G." You might get a pianist who's great at it. Or you might get "Sing for me, my Meadow-CLUNK." Better to be in control of your own destiny. Either have your music printed out in the proper key or take along a pianist who isn't going to stomp all over your audition.

All right, I've ranted long enough. In closing, I'll pass along this one-liner I love. Another musician once told me, "You know you're a musician when you can't see a dot on a page without hearing it in your head."

The question then becomes, "In which key?"

Monday, July 30, 2007

Fancy Me

Celebrity photo! I spent all week playing for Reba McEntire at SOUTH PACIFIC. I've played for a lot of celebrities, and I have to say, Reba is as down-to-earth as they come. She clearly loves being on stage. She's genuine and nice and real. She takes notes from her directors and she's a solid actress. I am totally impressed.

I'm not bragging when I say I've played for a lot of celebrities and they run the gamut from normal to diva. Reba brings great confidence to her performing which is a trait that, surprisingly, a lot of stars lack. They're really used to being in front of the camera or being surrounded by people who fix their hair and tell them how pretty they look, and then they get on the stage and the audience looks at them expectantly. Oh, the pressure.

Reba defies that generalization. I'm not even a huge fan of her music. It's not that I don't like it; it's more that I don't know it. I go in phases with country music. I listened to a lot of it when I lived in Tennessee, and then when Jason was working on URBAN COWBOY we found we were listening to a lot of it in the car and there were country music CDs all over the house. But that phase ran its course and now we're back to our usual favorites. (Mostly the iPod is on shuffle play, which for me is a little Bach, a little Joni Mitchell, an Italian lesson, a demo of me croaking out some embryonic melody, and then finally a Barry Manilow classic. I know, I know, but I bet your iPod is just as random.)

Anyway, tonight I'm downloading Reba songs and listening and I feel like the last girl to arrive at the party. She's great. I feel so lucky. Come to the Hollywood Bowl. There are three performances and 18,000 seats at each one. I can't imagine it'll be sold out -- unless everyone knows what I'm just discovering. Reba is the real deal.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

All Rights Reserved

Earlier this week I received this note in my Facebook mailbox:

Hey Georgia,

I really like your songs. That's why I added you on facebook, because I love your CD so much. So I feel like I should tell you that some people are sharing PDFs of your songs online. How do you feel about this? Selfishly, I love it, but at the same time, there's nothing I would hate more than taking money out of your pocket. So if you're against this, just let me know and I will do all I can to prevent any further sharing.

Hmmm. I was actually surprised to hear this, and then I kicked myself for being so naive. For the last few years, and certainly even more now that my CD has come out, people have written me emails and asked for sheet music to the songs I've written. Seeing how this is actually what I do for a living, I charge a small fee which I split with my collaborators. Once I've cleared the check, I send out a .pdf of the music via email and that's that.

Only apparently that's not that.

I called Sam Davis, who wrote two of the songs (Air and Perfect Summer) on my CD with me, and asked him how he felt about the fact that our music was being circulated around the internet without our permission. His first comment was something like, "I'm still just so excited that anyone wants to sing any of my songs!" But his next comment was about how we should probably stop sending out .pdfs, because clearly people were taking advantage of us.

I try to make this blog about the work I do, and so I don't think it's too far of a stretch for me to explain a bit how this all works. I've been writing songs since I was in high school, but only in the last ten years or so has it become something that generated money for me. In the music theater business, you can write and write and write, but unless someone is out there performing your work, those pieces of music just pile up as files on your computer or sheets of paper in your piano bench. Sam's right; it's thrilling when at last people start talking about your music and asking for copies of it so they can sing it. Our impulse as young composers is to fly over New York dropping copies of our sheet music from airplanes in the hopes that actors, recording artists, and music publishers will pick up the pages and recognize our unique genius.

This is who I was when I first moved to NY, and if you're one of the actors who coached with me in those early years, you probably got free copies of everything I had written at the time. In those days I thought of myself as a music director/coach by day and a composer by night. I've now gotten to a more exciting point in my career where I've got enough demand for music that I need to be a composer by day, and it's led to a career-changing discovery. If I am music directing all day long, I don't have time to write.

All this is to say that those of us who are writers for a living depend on your support of our writing. When I'm not making money as a writer, it's not that my baby is starving or I'm unable to afford shoes. It's that I have to do other work during the day, and I'm not able to write. Ultimately that means, you, the people who claim to love the music I'm creating, will have nothing new from me.

At the moment I've got about a month's worth of music that I'm supposed to be writing, but during the days I'm at SOUTH PACIFIC. I'm not complaining -- I had no idea how much I would enjoy sitting next to Paul Gemignani all day and listening to Reba McEntire sing about how she's gonna wash Brian Stokes Mitchell right outta her hair. By the time I get home and put my daughter to bed, I've got (at best) three hours before I fall asleep, and not one evening so far have I chosen to sit at the piano and write something. However, come August, I've got pretty much the whole month to focus on finishing these three shows, addressing a choral commission, putting together a concert in London and planning several recording sessions. The writer in me is chomping at the bit to get back to work.

I'll close with a piece of good news. Before too long all of the complaining about posting .pdfs and using music without permission will be moot, because you'll be able to go to your favorite music store and buy a songbook folio of my sheet music for yourself. "This Ordinary Thursday: The Songs of Georgia Stitt" is due out later this year, thanks to the wonderful Maxyne Lang at Williamson Music. I'll pass along more details as I know them.

And then we can talk about photocopying.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Guidelines for Singing Actors

We're halfway through the six-week session of my musical theater class, THE GYM, and halfway seems like a good time to write a little bit about working with actors. I've been coaching actors for years. Right after college and before grad school I took a year and worked in the music department at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. I remember one day an actor from the mainstage show tracked me down in my office and asked if I would coach her. I did a double-take to see if maybe she was talking to someone behind me, and then I said, "sure, why not?" I played through her music and we talked about the lyrics and I corrected some of the notes she was singing incorrectly, and then after about an hour of her recording everything I said, she wrote me a check. Seriously? It seemed like the easiest money I'd ever made.

Over the years I've gotten better at coaching, to be sure. I figured tonight I'd write about one of the things I find myself saying over and over and over again in classes and coachings and even auditions. For you non-actors reading this, maybe you can find a fun way to interpret this week's blog and translate it into something useful for you. Or maybe while the actors and I are talking, you can tackle that John Irving novel I couldn't finish. Mild entertainment either way.

One of the most important things an actor has to know is how he or she is perceived. One of the main reasons actors (young ones, especially) have trouble getting hired is because they're so eager to prove they can do everything, and as a result they wind up lacking distinction. It annoys me to no end when, during auditions, actors throw in high B-flats and Cs that aren't anywhere in the song and aren't justified by the storytelling -- just because they want you to know that they have high notes. (There's a great story that my husband tells about the singer Laurie Beechman. Legend has it that she was once asked at an audition if she could belt an F. Her response was, "Do you have anything worth belting an F for?") In my book, high notes have to be earned, and if I need to know if you can technically hit a high B-flat, I'll ask for it. I know not everyone agrees with me, but arbitrary high notes only make your audition generic and unspecific.

Another big problem people (young and old) have is choosing audition material that is appropriate. Sometimes you'll see a beautiful, petite, delicate-looking 22-year old white girl in a pretty sundress come in and she wants to sing "Your Daddy's Son." You musical theater nerds will know that first of all, that's a bold, belty song that would crush every sunflower on that girl's dress, and second of all, that character is black, and it's kind of important to the plot that she be so. As I'm making my notes about that girl's audition I might write, "pretty girl, big voice, but huh? totally confused." And I would not call her back. Auditions are not the time to sing your favorite songs. Go to a piano bar for that. Auditions are strategic performances designed to get you jobs, and you have to be very smart about how you prepare for them.

I have some homework I often make my coaching clients do.

1. First, write down the names of five characters from musicals that you know you are EXACTLY RIGHT to play right now, if only someone would give you a break and let you do it. Are you the perfect Ado Annie in Oklahoma? The perfect Jim Conley in Parade? The perfect Toby in Sweeney Todd? Write 'em down, and I challenge you really to come up with five. If you don't know enough musicals, go to the library. It's your business, after all. Get to know more musicals.

2. Second, write down the names of five more characters that you think might be a long shot, but you'd really love to have a chance to try playing. You're too young to play Mame but she's the essence of your personality. You're so tall that no one would ever let you be Squeaky Fromme in Assassins but that character speaks to your very soul. You're boisterous and silly but you know inside you could pull off Amos in Chicago if only you had a shot at it.

3. Finally, think about the Broadway actors you admire, contemporary and historical. Who are you most like? Is there an actor that you think is getting all the roles you would be getting if only the casting directors knew who you were? Is there someone for whom you would be the perfect understudy?

Now we have the raw materials for improving your audition book. Look at those lists of characters. Go through the scores or vocal selections from those shows and pull out their songs. Not all of the songs are going to work as audition pieces, but I'll be amazed if you don't find one or two that are exactly right for you and that show off your strengths as a singing actor. Then do some research on each of those performers you listed and find out what shows they've been in. Are you right in line to have Brian Stokes Mitchell's career? Google him -- and then pull songs from Ragtime, Kiss Me Kate, Man of La Mancha and South Pacific and put them in your audition book.

You're always going to need to round out your book with specific things, and some of them will be outside the realm of your comfort zone. (Scared to death of the pop song? The comedy song? The legit piece? -- stay tuned for future blogs.) But at least this will help you start somewhere authentic with a few songs you actually like to sing. And hopefully, no one will ever write "huh?" beside your name again.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summer Musicals and Nostalgia

Big week coming up. On Tuesday, I'm taking three singers in to the recording studio here in LA and we're going to record additional vocals to Lauren Kennedy's recording of my song "My Lifelong Love," which she's going to release on her new solo album due out this fall on PS Classics. Some of you have heard me sing the song in concerts of mine, but Lauren knocks it out of the park and I'm really excited to put this finishing touch on her recording. My featured singers here in LA are Jennifer Shelton, a soprano I met during auditions for "Finding Nemo," which I music directed here in LA, Daniel Tatar, a tenor I saw play Jamie in the Pasadena Playhouse production of "The Last Five Years" and then cast in several things since (including "Baby" which I music directed at Reprise!), and Lawrence Cummings, a baritone I saw audition for a Disney project called "Snow Queen" and cast immediately. I wasn't working on that project, just casting it, and I've been looking for something to do with Lawrence ever since. All three of them have amazing voices and I'm excited to see how they sound together. One of the greatest things about being a composer, I think, is that you get to create opportunities for talented people to sing. I love being able to give a good singer a job. Actually, I love being able to give anyone a job. (Any babysitters out there?)

On Wednesday, then, I start rehearsals for the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "South Pacific." This is the production they did at Carnegie Hall starring Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Those two stars are coming over with it, and they're doing this production at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
I've been there to see several things in the two years I've lived in Los Angeles, but this is the first time I've been offered a chance to work at the spectacular venue. (I'm the pianist to Paul Gemignani's music direction.) I'll keep you posted, but the rest of July for me is pretty much going to be about "South Pacific."

I music directed the show once before, at the College Light Opera Company. CLOC, as we affectionately call it, is the summer stock theater on Cape Cod where I learned to love musicals. I got a job there in 1993 as a rehearsal pianist for the whole summer. We did nine musicals in eleven weeks, usually rehearsing one during the day and performing a different one at night. If you love musicals, it's like heaven. You eat, sleep, breathe, and drink (and drink and drink) musicals all day and all night. If you don't like musicals, I imagine it would sound like torture. For most of the summer, I thought it was heaven. It wasn't just about the musicals -- it was about the musical theater people. I was majoring in music and was in between my sophomore and junior years at Vanderbilt when my conducting professor, John Morris Russell, asked me if I wanted to come work with him for the summer. That's how I found out about CLOC, and I believe my piano teacher kept the letter I wrote him during about week ten where I said I was contemplating breaking my finger to keep from having to play any more show tunes.

I didn't break any fingers, and, in fact, I went back the next summer and worked as an associate conductor (alongside Eric Whitacre, my dear old friend who has now become very famous). I continuted to come back for years and years working as a music director there. One of those years, and I honestly can't remember which, we did "South Pacific." The actors I worked with there have gone on to have amazing careers on Broadway, in opera and choral music, as conductors and stars and producers and composers.

When you're a person who works in musical theater, you often don't know more than a month or two in advance what your life is going to do to keep you busy. I was excited to get the call about "South Pacific" because I've worked with Paul Gemignani before and also because I haven't worked with director David Lee before. I anticipate getting to know lots of new actors and working really hard for two and a half weeks to get the show ready for the thousands of people who will come through the doors at the Hollywood Bowl. But mostly, I'm excited to sit there and re-discover that score. I look forward to being flooded with nostalgia, as I am tonight, and gratitude for the summer on Cape Cod when I first figured out how it all worked.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lucky 07

Today is 07-07-07. I didn't notice it until I was writing a check to my babysitter early this evening. Too late in the day to take advantage of the extreme luck-i-tude of the date, but I thought maybe it was worth mentioning. I don't feel like it was a particularly lucky day for me, but hey -- I wasn't in Vegas. Apparently zillions of people got married in Vegas today. So I'm glad I wasn't in Vegas.

I did, however, do something today that I rarely do. I abandoned a book. I am a bit of a completist, usually, in these matters. If I start reading a novel, I stick with it until I finish it. If it's not a good book, I might grumble the whole time I'm reading it. ("Can you believe the audacity of this author -- wasting my time so?!") I suppose it makes me not so much fun to be around. But I think there's a value in finishing what you start, even if it takes a long time. I don't leave shows at intermission. I still watch "Desperate Housewives" even though it jumped the shark two seasons ago. (And, oy, "The L Word.") And I finish books.

With that lofty paragraph preceding this one, I'll now tell you that after 162 pages and a cursory glance through the reader reviews on, I am abandoning the John Irving novel Until I Find You. I read the whole first section (122 pages) even though I was bored out of my gourd, and I kept thinking it had to get better. Forty pages into the second section and I thought maybe I'd take a look at what other people had to say, just in case it didn't get better. Apparently it doesn't get better.

I'm the mother of an almost-two year old, and if I find 30 minutes a day to read, it's stolen from something else I'm supposed to be doing. At that rate, I'm looking at weeks and weeks of this, and honestly, life's too short. My apologies to Mister Irving. I really am a huge fan of other novels of yours. I read A Prayer For Owen Meany in about three days because I just couldn't put it down.

Alas. Jose Saramago awaits.

Lucky me.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Reveal of the Top Twelve

You've been patient. You've been curious. You've been nagging me. And, really, it's time I revealed them. You're sick to death of thinking about it. You couldn't care less. Anyway, here they are.

My top twelve favorite Broadway showtunes. Listen to the interview here... unless it gets pulled tomorrow, which is possible, in which case you missed it.

1. Mamma, Mamma by Frank Loesser from The Most Happy Fella (OBC, 1956, sung by Robert Weede)

2. Story of My Life by Bernstein/Comden/Green, cut from Wonderful Town, this recording is on Leonard Bernstein's New York (sung by Judy Blazer)

3. Giants In The Sky by Sondheim from Into The Woods (OBC, 1987, Ben Wright)

4. Out of This World by Arlen/Mercer from movie “Out Of This World” (1945, Bing Crosby) this recording is on A Vintage Year(Live) (George Shearing (piano) & Mel Tormé (vocals))

5. Hurry! It's Lovely up Here by Lerner and Lane from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (OBC, 1965, Barbara Harris)

6. Speak Low by Kurt Weill from One Touch of Venus (1943), this recording on Lotte Lenya: American Theater Songs (Lotte Lenya)

7. Right As The Rain by Harold Arlen from Bloomer Girl (1944) (Jessica Molaskey)

8. Sorry-Grateful by Stephen Sondheim from Company this is the 2006 revival sung by Keith Buterbaugh, orchestrated by my friend Mary-Mitchell Campbell

9. The Schmuel Song by JRB from The Last Five Years (OBC) 2002 (Norbert Butz)

10. Migratory V by Adam Guettel from Myths And Hymns (OBC) 1998 (Theresa McCarthy)

11. Laughing Matters by Dick Gallagher/Mark Waldrop from When Pigs Fly (OBC) 1996 (Jay Rogers)

12. Sunday by Sondheim from Sunday In The Park With George (OBC) 1985

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Retreating and Writing

Okay, okay. I know it's been a long time since I wrote anything, but I've been sitting on these things I wanted to announce, thinking any day I'd get the go ahead.... hmmm.... still waiting... any day now...

What I CAN tell you is that I did my radio interview yesterday for the Broadway Radio Show where I listed my twelve favorite showtunes. It will go on the air for a week starting on Sunday. I was fascinated to learn that of the twelve songs I picked, only one of them had ever been picked by any of Donald Feltham's previous guests. (Only ONE! And that one was so obvious I can't imagine anyone NOT having it on his/her list.) Also fun was how much time we spent talking about WHY the songs made it onto my list of favorites. Thanks to all of you guys who wrote in to the comments about what your favorites were. There were some great songs included -- many of which I considered, but only one (yep, that's the one) that was the same as any of mine.

I was in NY last week having a writing retreat with my collaborator John Jiler. You might be aware of him because he wrote the really spectacular musical play AVENUE X (which I have music directed three times). Anyway, he and I are writing a new musical called BIG RED SUN (though the title is inevitably bound to change). It was one of those intense weeks I don't get often enough where he and I met for four or five hours each morning, and then he left and I spent the afternoon writing out the music for the things we'd rewritten. The next morning, I showed him my revisions, he showed me his revisions, and we repeated the process. At the end of the week we did a reading of the script with six fantastic actors and then I flew back to LA, utterly exhausted. I found myself really jealous of people who get to live that way all the time. I get so easily distracted with the other things I've committed to in my life that sometimes a few days -- even a week -- can go by and I realize I haven't written anything. Maybe I haven't even played the piano. What a luxury it would be to have nothing else on my plate except the task of finishing this show. Of course, when I really think about it, that would mean giving up a lot of other things in my life that are way too important, and I don't really mean it. But what I'm getting at is how crucial it is to find balance.

When I was young and single in NY, I sometimes would put myself "on retreat." I'd tell everyone I knew that I was going out of town for the weekend, but I'd actually stay put in my little one-bedroom apartment and I'd unplug the phone. I'd write music all day, have a solitary dinner in a nearby restaurant at dusk, and then come home either to write more or to settle in with a great book or a favorite rented movie. It was the perfect New York City life, the kind of thing I'd dreamed about when I was a little girl lying on my bed listening to Broadway cast albums. I can't imagine doing it now, but if you're in a place in your life where you could pull it off, go for it, man! It's the most refreshing, healthiest little white lie I can imagine, and it's totally worth it.

Tomorrow I'm doing an old-fashioned backers' audition for a new musical revue I'm putting together with David Kirshenbaum. Tentatively called SING ME A HAPPY SONG (why can't I commit to titles?), it started out as just a collection of our trunk songs that we wanted to throw into two acts and call a revue. But as we've been developing it (thanks Goodspeed, thanks TheatreWorks), we're finding there's a bit more substance to it, and we've been writing all kinds of new songs. Keep your fingers crossed mid-afternoon that the 20 or so people in this room like it enough to give us our first production. If that happens, you'll definitely be hearing more about it.

And finally, oh okay, there's nothing really to announce yet but I had a meeting last week about the possibility of releasing a songbook of my music to accompany the CD, and things are looking good. So in the interest of not jinxing myself, I'll leave it at that.

Wish me a happy birthday (it was last week) and good luck tomorrow. Now I've got to go tinker with that one lyric that I just haven't gotten right yet...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Top Twelve

I guess I'm a purist.

Donald Feltham at Broadway Radio has asked me to think of my twelve favorite showtunes of all time, and we're doing an interview in the next few weeks where we talk about them and play them on his hour-long show. It's more of a challenge than I expected. At first I only had four or five songs on the list. Then, in a surge, I had twenty-six. I think I've narrowed the list back down to twelve, but I told Donald we had to do this interview quickly before I changed my mind.

There are a number of tunes that made it to my list because of the actual writing of the songs, but I didn't have a favorite performance of them. So I've been listening on iTunes and trying to determine which recording to play. A few of the songs got knocked off the list because I just couldn't find a recording that wasn't all about the arrangement. I don't need to hear what cool string line some arranger came up with, nor is this the forum for a two and a half minute trumpet solo, and why does everything have to be a bossa nova? I'm also surprised at how many songs I wanted to include on the list and then realized they weren't actually from shows. They were just standards or they were written by theater composers for their (ahem) solo albums.

Then tonight, with all this on my mind, I watched the movie "De-Lovely." (Yes, I know it came out in 2004, but sometimes it takes me a while to get around to those things I'm supposed to have done already.) And in this biopic about Cole Porter they've got some of the most contemporary singers performing songs in the most contemporary styles, but their costumes and the nature of the story imply that they're supposed to be chronologically accurate. Alanis Morissette? Really? I'm a fan, but come on. Get a coach on the set who knows something about the period. Interestingly, as the credits were rolling I didn't mind the arrangements of the songs at all, but in the context of the show, I found those contemporary chords and phrasings to be totally distracting.

It was one of the complaints I had about the GREASE show. If I had been in charge, which I so wasn't, those kids would have sung theater songs every week, all the judges would have been from the musical theater community and the network would have filmed more rehearsal and less performing. Great singers in one style of music are not necessarily great singers in ALL styles of music. But I suppose that's why I'm in the theater business and not the TV business.

While I'm complaining -- let me throw in this completely random non-sequitur of a complaint. Today at the supermarket I bought a week's worth of groceries and I paid with a credit card. As the checkout gal was handing me my receipt, she said, "Thank you very much, Miss Stitt." I was so annoyed. Why does she get to know my last name and I don't get to know hers? Why does she get to announce it to everyone else in line without my permission? And why did everyone in that store feel the need to ask me if I was finding everything okay? How hard can it be to find groceries in a grocery store?

Ah. Okay. Back to the topic at hand.

In looking at my list of twelve showtunes, I'm learning some things about myself. Apparently I'm an optimist, as I've chosen a lot of tunes about happiness and only three heartbreakers. You might be surprised to read that given the tone of the rest of this blog, but perhaps today I was having an off day. Apparently I also like very long songs. And try as I might, I couldn't get fewer than three Sondheim songs on the list. Even at that, I've left out some of my major favorites, but there were only twelve spots. I figure Sondheim deserves 25% of my list at a bare minimum.

Watch here and I'll let you know when the interview airs. Meanwhile, what are your top twelve favorite showtunes? It's harder than you think.