US composer, lyricist, arranger, performer, teacher and producer Georgia Stitt makes her West End theatre debut on Sunday 26 October at the Garrick Theatre. In her new show, My Lifelong Love, she will be performing some of her best-known songs from her many albums, with guests including Simon Bailey, Norman Bowman, Cynthia Erivo, Jamie Muscato, Eva Noblezada and Caroline Sheen. Musical Theatre Review asked her about her career in music, her ‘lifelong love’…
You seem to have spent your entire life working with music in various forms. Did you come from a musical family?
I came from a music-LOVING family. My mom studied piano for a few years when she was a child, so she was certainly able to read music. I remember standing with her in church while we were singing hymns, and her hands were always playing the chords on the imaginary piano in front of her. My father played recordings of the loudest classical music he could find – organ concerti and bombastic symphonies – and sometimes he would lie on the floor underneath the grand piano in our house while I was practicing so he could fully absorb the physical sound of the instrument. Nobody else in my family grew up to be a professional musician, but we were definitely a household of music lovers.
Presumably your first encounter with music was as a performer. When did you discover that you had a ‘voice’?
The summer I turned 14 I attended a five-week music camp to study classical piano. I certainly knew I was precocious as a pianist in my little hometown in western Tennessee, but when I went to this camp I encountered serious young prodigies and started to understand how competitive the world of music could be. My closest ally that summer was my room-mate, a young girl who was studying the viola. In addition to our major instrument (for me, piano) and our minor instrument (clarinet), everyone at the camp that summer had to choose one elective subject to study. I chose music composition, and by the end of the summer I had written a piece for piano and viola, which my room-mate and I performed at the final concert. It was called ‘Summer Daydreams’, and my father recently found the cassette tape recording we made. He transferred it to digital media. So, yeah, it exists.
What sort of music did you prefer as a youngster? Were you brought up on popular songs of the day, or did you perhaps show an interest in classical music or music theatre?
I was a pretty serious classical musician until my mid-teenage years. I remember falling in love with Into the Woods and The Indigo Girls (those harmonies!) and the romantic song stylings of Barry Manilow, but really my love was Bach. Later I discovered Stravinsky. Prokofiev. Brahms. I loved to play Mozart. I will admit that I hated the pop music of the 1980s. All those synthesizers! I didn’t really become a convert to musical theatre until I was in college and got a job as a musician at a summer stock theatre. It had not occurred to me that my love of music and my love of literature and my love of poetry and my love of storytelling could all come together in one profession.
You have written several choral works, so were you involved in music and the church from an early age?
Yes. I was hired as a pianist for my (Presbyterian) church choir when I was 14, and I spent many formative years either singing in choirs or playing piano for choirs. What I like about church choirs is the sense of community in the music-making. With a good choir director, there are no limits to what a group of amateur musicians can do. I was actually an adult before I think I understood that there were choirs in other places than churches. To me, choirs and pipe organs feel like coming home.
You studied musical theatre writing and music theory and composition at university. Do you think this had any bearing on your future taste in music?
Absolutely. I think of music as architecture, and this is entirely because of my schooling. I also won an award for highest marks in math at my high school. Numbers make sense to me, and music is the combination of numbers and emotions. I like solving the puzzles.
Who were the singers and musicians you most enjoyed while you were studying music? And who are the artists you admire today?
When I was in high school my hero was Leonard Bernstein. He died during my first year of college and I grieved that I would never get to meet him. Since then I’d say that I’ve grown to admire people who capture energy in their music – Stravinsky, John Adams, Joan Tower – and certainly in musical theatre there is Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and my own Jason Robert Brown.
You have won awards for your work, such as the Harold Arlen Award and the ANMT Search for New Voices in American Musical Theatre. Did these awards help to get future productions on stage?
I think awards help you gain notoriety, and notoriety helps you gain opportunity, and opportunity helps you gain audience. I’m not sure I could say that any of my awards have directly led to a future production, but I think the bigger the body of work that you can accrue, the more chances there are that someone might see your work and say: “Her. I want to work with her.”
You have been associated with many diverse musical shows in one way or another, such as Once Upon a Mattress, Avenue Q, Sweet Smell of Success, Little Shop of Horrors, The Music Man, Titanic and Annie – all very successful in their own way. Can you ever tell if a show is going to take off with the public?
I wish I could. Wouldn’t that be a gift? I have been grossly mistaken a number of times; shows that I thought would be sure-things have failed miserably and shows that I didn’t believe would make it to opening night have run for ages. If you spend your life trying to choose the ‘hits’ you will likely miss out on the chance to do your best and most creative work. I try to choose projects that are interesting enough to sustain me over the many years that they will take to develop, and I try to choose people who inspire me to do my best work. You have to ‘write up’: ideally you’ll surround yourself with such seasoned professionals that you’re the least experienced person in the room.
Of all the jobs that you do – performing, writing, producing, arranging, teaching – is there one thing that you enjoy most?
My favourite thing in the world is being in the recording studio. There’s really nothing better than making an album. Great musicians, great singers, great technicians – that’s heaven. I like recording my own music, of course, so I suppose that means I like writing and arranging the best, too. Oh, and conducting. That’s like driving a sports car as fast as it will go. Maybe that’s my favourite thing. But when I want to quiet my soul I sit down at the piano and play Bach. So, maybe it’s that. I like being a well-rounded musician. I often say that everything I do falls under the umbrella of ‘musician’, and so long as I get to make music every day I really enjoy the variety of it all.
You will be performing songs from your albums This Ordinary Thursday, Alphabet City Cycle and My Lifelong Love, plus material from your shows Big Red Sun, The Danger Year, Mosaic and Samantha Spade: Ace Detective, most of which will be new to London audiences who didn’t see you at St Paul’s Church in Knightsbridge or the Hippodrome cabaret room. What should they expect to hear?
My songs are little one-act shows. They are lyrical and energetic. They are often piano-based but I have had fun writing the orchestrations for this ensemble (piano, bass, drums, guitar, violin and cello). You will follow the characters as they go on journeys of self-discovery. Hopefully they are funny, hopefully they are sexy, hopefully they are heartbreaking. I am a big fan of the traditional song and I come from the old school of recognisable song forms and catchy hooks. I enjoy finding situations or emotions that are universal and then describing them in ways that perhaps you haven’t considered.
Do you think you have a particular style in your songwriting or does it change depending on the show and the situation?
There’s always the element of ‘me’ in everything I write, but yes, the style of the songs change depending on the needs of the shows. I think the songs from the album are probably the pieces that expose me the most.
You wrote an orchestral piece called Waiting for Wings with your husband Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County etc). Was it a good idea to work together and would you do it again?
Writing ‘Waiting For Wings’ was one of the most challenging things we have ever done together. Jason and I have been married for 11 years (our anniversary was last week!) and that piece was perhaps simultaneously one of the highest and lowest points of our partnership. (Sometimes you’re fighting about the development of the counter-melody and sometimes you’re fighting about the fact that no one has taken out the trash.) But I think that collaboration was the beginning of learning how to communicate as co-writers. We have always respected each other; we just had to learn how to divvy up the responsibilities. Jason and I have another property that we are currently considering co-writing, so we’ll see. You never know.
Next year sees the opening of the film of The Last Five Years for which you were the music supervisor. Would you like to work on more films in the future?
I was technically the on-set music supervisor, and I worked extensively with the stars Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. We sang live on set every day, so I was doing vocal warm-ups and supervising the playback of the instrumental tracks and sometimes playing the piano or conducting just out of range of the camera. It was a thrill. I would love to work on more musical films in the future, but I fear that director Richard LaGravenese has set the bar so high that I’m not sure other films can live up to my now very high expectations. Seriously, I think working in musical film is extremely satisfying, so yes, yes, yes. I mean, yes, please.
You seem to have done everything in the music business, including playing a nun in The Sound of Music Live! on television. Do you enjoy being someone else for a change?
I have no desire to be an actor. There was a time when I was a kid and I thought that acting was the most glamorous way to go, but I will be the first to admit that my talents lie elsewhere. It was fun to have someone else do my hair and makeup every day, though. I could get used to that.
So what lies ahead for Georgia Stitt in the immediate future and will you be returning to the UK?
I am doing a number of concerts in America in the next few months and I’m at work on two new musicals. I’ll come back to London the minute you ask. I love it here. Seriously. Call me. Anytime.
Compiled by Michael Darvell
Georgia Stitt’s show My Lifelong Love, presented by Danielle Tarento, is at the Garrick Theatre on Sunday 26 October at 7.30pm.
Eva Noblezada and Cynthia Erivo star in Georgia Stitt show – News