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.