Dressing in a nun’s habit while singing in Latin on national live television? All in a day’s work for the supremely talented conductor, vocalist and writer Georgia Stitt!
You may recognize Georgia from her role as a member of the nunnery in NBC’s ‘The Sound of Music Live!’ or as a vocal coach on ‘Grease: You’re the One that I Want!.’ You might also be a big fan (as we are) of her many acclaimed written works including ‘Alphabet City Cycle,‘ ‘Sing Me a Happy Song‘ and ‘My Lifelong Love.’
We asked the lovely Broadway songstress to share a bit about her writing process, why she fell in love with the theatre, her best tips for aspiring professional vocalists and the five ‘desert-island‘ songs she wouldn’t live without.
You continue to wear so many musical hats, writing, composing, arranging, performing and teaching. How do you switch gears from one activity to the other?
G.S. Honestly, I don’t know how people can make a life in this industry if they CAN’T do many things. When I am sitting alone, composing, orchestrating, or arranging, I miss being around people. I love making all of the little detailed decisions on my score paper but I ache to hear the musicians play the notes, to hear the singers shape the words. And then when I’m in rehearsal for too long, I get antsy to be back at my desk and my piano at home. There’s this balancing act that has to happen. I have both the desire to make something that will last forever and to make something that will fill up the space with music RIGHT NOW. So as projects appear on my desk I guess I have a kind of barometer that guides me. I will admit that it’s hard on a given day to shift gears between something internal and something external, but it’s more like my schedule has chapters: this is a writing time, this is a rehearsing time, this is a performing time. And, let’s face it, sometimes the job that’s paying the bills is the one that gets the most attention.
What are some of your sources for songwriting inspiration?
G.S. I find myself wanting to write when I experience other people being enormously creative. A good novel, a beautiful piece of art, a perfect poem — all of these things can send me into my writer’s head. I am always on the lookout for adaptable material. Everything I read is colored with, “but is this a story that could sing?” Most things aren’t great fodder for musicals, but sometimes even a flawed piece of someone else’s work can make me want to take a pass at telling the same KIND of story. Once I know what I want to write about, I try to find a way to expresses a universal emotion or a common experience in a unique and personal way. The perfect response to hearing one of my songs would be, “I have felt that way before, but I have never thought about it quite like that.” I love songs that have great lyrics, I love songs that have interesting and surprising music, and I love songs that make me laugh. So I look for stories and situations that open themselves up to those possibilities.
G.S. Oh yes, absolutely. When I’m working with pre-existing text, the words dictate all kinds of choices. Words, especially pre-existing poetry, have their own rhythms and their own energies. The vowels demand to be held for certain amounts of time and the meanings of the words claim prominence that I then echo with musical architecture. Sometimes when I’m setting a poem to music I feel like my job is closer to archaeologist than composer. I’m there to uncover the music that the words are showing me. It’s already there; I just find it.
When I’m building a song from scratch, however, the prep work is about finding a way of saying something that allows both the text and the music to communicate their ideas at the same time. Are the words and the music saying the same thing, or are they providing subtext for each other? Is the music telling you that the singer doesn’t mean what she says? Is the energy of the music supporting the energy of the text or is it providing an obstacle the singer has to overcome? Where are the moments of unison, and how can they be most powerful? I often make these structural decisions before I know exactly what the words are, and then the job of fitting the words into the music becomes this massive task. Then I rewrite it about forty times and finally I layer in the orchestrations and the vocal harmonies. So many layers. A good song, like a good lasagna, is very thick with layers. That, I think, is what makes classic songs able to stand up against repeated listening. A timeless song reinvents itself to you every time you hear it.
[blockquote source=”Georgia Stitt”]”A good song, like a good lasagna, is very thick with layers.”[/blockquote]
What drew you to musical theatre, in particular, and how does writing for theatre vary from other musical art forms?
G.S. When I was in college I was majoring in music composition at Vanderbilt and I was writing string quartets and art songs, but I was also playing piano and accompanying a lot of singers for their lessons and their recitals. My conducting teacher, John Morris Russell (who is now the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra), asked me if I’d be interesting in joining him that summer as an accompanist for a summer stock musical theater company on Cape Cod that did nine musicals in eleven weeks. It sounded like a fun job but I had no idea how life-changing it would be. In addition to JMR and me, the music staff that summer also included Joseph Olefirowicz, now a prominent conductor in Europe, and Eric Whitacre, now a celebrity choral composer and conductor. It was as satisfying a musical experience as I’ve ever had. I turned 21 that summer, played my little fingers off and decided that there would nothing more satisfying than being a person who got to create musicals for a living. It was the first time I understood how my love of words and my love of music and my love of storytelling could all come together to make something powerful. By the end of the summer I knew I was in the right place, but I wanted a bigger piece of it. I went on to be a conductor for several seasons, and then I applied to NYU and got my MFA in Musical Theater Writing. That led to the beginning of a career writing and conducting musicals, and I am very lucky that I’ve been able to do this work for all of this time.
Writing for musical theater is such a collaborative art form. You simply can’t make a musical by yourself. You need partners for the writing part, the performing part, the producing part, the selling part, the recording part, the promoting part… and so on. You are constantly throwing ideas back and forth with other people. It’s art by team, or art by committee, and that comes with its own set of challenges, for sure. I happen to enjoy people, especially smart, talented, creative people. But if you just want to sit in your studio and create something, musical theater is probably not for you.
What was it like working on ‘The Sound of Music Live!?’ How was it different from or similar to your previous roles on television (as vocal coach for ‘Grease: You’re The One That I Want,’ ‘Clash of the Choirs’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’)?
G.S. Working on NBC’s “The Sound Of Music” was a real kick. I’d done a number of jobs in TV/film production before, as you stated above, but most of them were behind-the-scenes kinds of jobs. I have worked one-on-one as a music director or vocal coach for many of those music competition shows. In the film world I’ve also had music supervisory jobs on the ABC TV movie of “Once Upon A Mattress” and the not-yet-released feature film “The Last Five Years.” But on “The Sound Of Music” the job came with a twist. I was hired to be the music director for the nuns. There were 20 of us in the nun-semble — 24 if you count Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess) and the three featured nuns. Our job was to sing a cappella, in Latin, on live TV. I know that David Chase, the music supervisor of the entire project, hired me partly because he knew I could sing and that I had both conductor and TV-production experience. So I taught the vocal parts and conducted the nuns (under David’s leadership), and then I actually got to BE IN THE SHOW as a nun. I sang alto. I wore a habit. I had my own trailer. I conducted off-stage. It was pretty wild and so much fun. The music-making on that show was out of this world, and the company of women in our nunnery was not to be surpassed.
Are there any essential words of wisdom to share with aspiring vocalists and/or young folks auditioning for musical theatre?
G.S. I say get all of the experience you can in all areas of music. Sing different styles of music. Sing in ensembles, sing with bands, sing with pianists. Audition for things that sound like fun and be willing to go on the adventure. Most of the projects we get asked to do are short-term, so even if it winds up being less spectacular than you expected, it’s still going to add something to your musical bag of tricks. Work with people who have something to teach you, people who inspire you, people who can connect you. And then, learn how to say no to things that don’t sound like fun, or things that don’t add to your experiences, and especially say no to things that take advantage of you. Your talent is your commodity. If you choose to give it away, it is just that: a gift. Lend your gift to benefits for organizations you believe in or people who need your help or causes that inspire your passion and your rage. But don’t give it away to people who don’t respect it or value it or understand it. You have worked too hard to be invisible.
And lastly, you’re stranded on a deserted island, and you get to bring one instrument and five song recordings. What would you bring with you and why?
G.S. Well, nothing’s going to stay in tune anyway, and the piano that I know I wanted to bring with me probably went down with the ship. So if I can’t amuse myself by playing through all of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (which is really what I would most like to be doing), then I suppose I’d choose the ukulele. I am learning the ukulele and it is quite versatile and fun. But I don’t think I can really play Bach fugues on it. Hmm. A dilemma.
Five desert-island songs:
- MIGRATORY V — I have a demo of Mandy Patinkin singing this Adam Guettel song. Just glorious.
- MAMMA, MAMMA — from “The Most Happy Fella.” One of my all-time favorite moments in one of my all-time favorite shows.
- SPEAK LOW (WHEN YOU SPEAK LOVE) – Kurt Weill. Sexiest song in the whole world.
- ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET – This is the song I sing to my kids to cheer them up. So, any recording, really, so long as it has some life and some pep.
- MY ROMANCE – My very favorite song. It was sung by Jessica Molaskey at our wedding. My 4-year old knows all of the words because I sing it to her every night. Perfect song.
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Musicnotes would like to offer our sincerest thanks to Ms. Stitt for taking the time to share with all of us. And, be sure to browse the excellent collection of sheet music by Georgia Stitt, which includes an awesome selection of great vocal audition pieces.