Maestra Music is a not-for-profit organization that provides support, visibility and community to women and nonbinary people who make music in the musical theater industry. On Monday, March 28, Maestra Music will hold Amplify 2022, its second annual – but first in person – concert and community event featuring Broadway talent Jessica Vosk, Elizabeth Stanley, Heidi Blickenstaff, Grace McLean, Bonnie Milligan, Bryonha Marie Parham and more. The in-person event (Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan) will also stream live internationally on BroadwayUnlocked.
Ahead of the event, Maestra Music founder Georgia Stitt, a composer/lyricist and music director, put together a playlist of her 10 favorite theater songs written by women.
I’m so honored to have been asked to put together a playlist of my Top Ten Theater Songs Written by Women in celebration of Women’s History Month. It was a less daunting task than I originally thought it might be thanks to Maestra Music’s astounding Broadway and Off-Broadway Timelines, which have been a kind of education for me over the last few years while our team has been building them. Of course there are a lot of women and nonbinary people who aren’t represented here at all, but that’s the curse of a Top Ten list (and perhaps of the industry itself), so you’ll just have to follow @MaestraMusicOrg to learn more about everyone else!
Here’s the playlist on Spotify.
“Can’t We Be Friends?” by Kay Swift from Fine and Dandy
Kay Swift is credited with being the first woman to write the complete score to a Broadway musical, Fine and Dandy, in 1930. There were certainly women before her who contributed songs to shows that ran on Broadway, notably Clare Kummer, Nora Bayes, and Cissie Loftus, but Kay, who was trained as a classical musician and had a relationship with George Gershwin, wrote the whole score all by herself. The show featured an 18-year-old tap dancer named Eleanor Powell, who would go on to stardom in the movies. I also love this 2004 recording with John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, which captured a score that otherwise had never been recorded.
“Shy” by Mary Rodgers from Once Upon a Mattress
Once Upon a Mattress opened off-Broadway in 1959 and moved to Broadway the following year. It was Mary Rodgers’ first full-length musical and it starred Carol Burnett as Princess Winnifred. I got to work on the ABC movie revival in 2005 that featured Carol Burnett as Queen Aggravain (and Tracey Ullman as Princess Winnifred) and those were some of the funniest weeks of my career. This recording is from the 1959 cast album.
“If I Could’ve Been” by Micki Grant from Working
Micki Grant has made history in so many ways it’s hard to list them all. Most significantly, she was the first woman to write book, music, and lyrics for a Broadway show with Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, a show in which she also starred. You should also read about her soap-opera career and consider that she was nominated for five Tony Awards but never took one home. When Stephen Schwartz was assembling the team to write songs for Working in 1977, he said, “The first person I called was Micki Grant.”
“Old Friend” by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford from I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road
Gretchen and Nancy met in college at DePauw University in 1953, lived in the same dorm, and started writing songs together for college productions. Almost seventy years later, they are still collaborating. Their work has always been subversively political, and they were featured in Ms. Magazine before anyone knew to call them feminists. Their only Broadway show was called Shelter (1973), but they had quite an off-Broadway career. They have so many good songs, but this one is my favorite, from the OBC, with Gretchen singing.
“A Change Shall Come” by Elizabeth Swados from The Beautiful Lady
I’m going to admit I didn’t know a lot about Swados’ music except for her 1978 show Runaways, but when I was in high school in the ’80s I read her book Listening Out Loud: Becoming A Composer and it absolutely changed my life. It gave me permission to choose a career I didn’t see other women doing. I chose this 1984 song from the new recording The Liz Swados Project because so much of this music has previously been unrecorded, and I love the work this album did to excavate her canon.
“Doatsy Mae” by Carol Hall from The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas
What’s better than a story song? I love this one because it’s so beautifully structured, it builds a complete character, and it’s got such a feminine point of view. In addition to her Broadway and off-Broadway work, Carol Hall wrote for Sesame Street and Free To Be You and Me, and I think about how often women wind up writing songs for children on their way to writing songs for adults. Her songs are brilliant and emotional, and I wish I knew more of them.
“Hold On” by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon from The Secret Garden
This song got me through high school even before I met Marsha Norman, who has been a mentor to me in my professional life. The Secret Garden is one of those formative cast albums that we musical theater people all have. I think I could sing every lyric from this show, and I’ve certainly played those beautiful Michael Kosarin piano arrangements about a million times. Interesting to me, also, is the fun fact that the Associate Conductor and Dance Arranger on that show was Jeanine Levenson, who now uses her maiden name, Tesori. For this show, Marsha and Lucy were the first female writing team to be nominated for a Tony Award.
“Changing My Major” by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron from Fun Home
How to choose just one Jeanine Tesori song? I love her score to Violet and I can’t wait to hear the opera music she is currently composing, but I think “Changing My Major” is a groundbreaking moment sung by a groundbreaking character in a groundbreaking musical. Fun Home made history in 2015 when Jeanine and Lisa were the first female writing team to win a Tony Award. In their acceptance speech, which CBS opted not to air, Tesori told the crowd that as a young woman she didn’t realize she could have a career in music until she saw a woman conduct on Broadway. Holding up her Tony, she said, “For girls, you have to see it to be it. We stand on the shoulders of other women who have come before us.”
“You Matter To Me” by Sara Bareilles from Waitress
We are so lucky to have Sara Bareilles writing for the theater. I single her out because so many other pop songwriters have curated musical scores based on their catalog of pre-existing songs, but Sara wrote an original score for Waitress – and then she starred in the show and fully fell in love with the Broadway community. In fact, I marvel at her ability to write storytelling songs that are successful in both the pop and theater markets, something that is pretty rare since the Golden Era of Broadway. Many people single out “She Used To Be Mine” as the great song from this score, but “You Matter To Me” is my personal favorite.
“Stop” by Georgia Stitt from The Danger Year
I know how arrogant it can be to include yourself on a “best of” list, especially for a show that hasn’t yet been produced, but I also think I have a very female tendency to throw the spotlight on others instead of allowing it to land on me. And yet, I’m a good writer, part of the astounding lineage of these gifted women who have been doing this work for a hundred years, and this song, sung by Sutton Foster, is one of my best. So I’m including “Stop.” (Here’s a fun music video below, if you’re so inclined.) I hope in the future that you get to see the whole show. I wrote this song before the pandemic, but in many ways it feels like an anthem for our times. Enjoy.