Women Wonders: Kate Baldwin & Julianne Merrill Chat About Maestra, The Pandemic, Re-Opening Broadway & “An Enlightened New Normal”

Damn! If you are having a gloomy week with all of this crazy weather throughout the U.S. Or, are you just ready to finally get out in the world and celebrate, here’s a song to pump you up!!!“Amplify,” written by Lynne Shankel and featuring Shoshanna Bean. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsMBm7jKVHM&ab_channel=MaestraMusic

Wow!!! “Un-Block The Music” has been dragging along in the last month or so, trying to accomplish projects that just won’t come together. Amplify” is a song, but also the name of Maestra’s Spring Gala which was written and directed by Tony nominated Kate Baldwin and Technically Directed by Julianne Merrill.

“To refresh your memory, Maestra was founded by Composer Georgia Stitt to give support, visibility and community to the women who make the music in the musical theater industry.” That includes composers, music directors, orchestrators, arrangers, copyists, and musicians. They have put together an online directory to help connect female identifying creators with jobs, but also to connect them with each other. I had such a wonderful ZOOM meeting with Kate and Julianne. It made me think I should start a podcast. There is just so much to say. Here is the gist of what we talked about.

While theater shutdown during the pandemic, Maestra ramped up. They offered so much in terms of online classes and workshops. Julianne said, “this community of female identifying artists has been instrumental in creating what I hope is an ‘enlightened new normal.’”  Julianne hopes to see a “beautiful sense of humanity and hope; people sharing stories that you might not have heard if there was no pandemic.

“Maestra is in tune with this access pillar. We can now have a sense of connection with people we have never met,” Julianne said. It’s obvious to “Un-Block The Music” people crave theater, and hopefully, as a result of this Gala, they will begin to learn about women’s history in theater. During the Gala’s livestream, there were over 800 people logged in actively watching the show, and the chat was constant, according to Kate. And, to further the show’s relevance, most of those signed on stayed for the full 90 minutes.

Kate Baldwin

Kate is not known for directing. She is a Tony nominated actress who starred as Irene in Hello Dolly with Bette Midler. She also originated the role of Sandra in Big Fish which earned her a Drama Desk nomination and of course she received lots of award nominations for Finnan’s Rainbow back in 2009. Her involvement with Maestra did not just start during shutdown. She said, “Georgia and I have been friends since 2003. Georgia was doing concerts in the Symphony Space on the upper westside. They featured works from new composers and my friend Joel Frahm invited me to be one of singers. I sang Georgia’s songs, and she has been my music director and friend ever since.”

Kate continued. “I lived through and heard about stories of trying to find an all-female band. It seemed like a weird problem to have…to not have a directory.” Georgia started her own list which turned into a directory. Then, the world took a terrible turn in March 2020 when COVID -19 hit and everything shutdown. “What I did for a living (musical theater performance) became illegal.” And as that happened “our nation then encountered a huge call for Social Justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.” It was at that time, a lot of people, including Kate, looked in the mirror and thought “who do I want to be?”

Wanting to make a change in your life is overwhelming at first but if you look at your circle of friends, you then realize where you can start. Kate was always an advocate for non profit theaters that give voice to emerging artists. That’s what she concentrated on in grad school before she every got a lead on Broadway. “So, becoming involved with Maestra was only logical,” she said. She got involved in development and listened to board members who already had that kind of experience. She then volunteered to create the Gala. “It was fun for me to reach out and gather the people and to think of the bigger picture about the story we telling.” The Gala started to come together in January. “Then our committee expanded and Julianne joined us. She has not only the technical knowledge and an artistic heart, but a musical director’s brain and a great communication skill. She was the glue that held us together!”

Julianne has been working as a professional Music Director, Pianist, and Electronic Music Designer in addition to conducting and performing. At shutdown she was subbing for Musical Director Jacob Yates in the off-Broadway production of Rock of Ages. She said, “we now have an opportunity to create meaningful change.” The integration of technology into theater during this pandemic has changed lives and can save lives, she said, “The reason I do what I do is I want gay identifying kids who are still coming into their own to see what is possible and to stop killing themselves.”

Theater is catharsis both women say. Even shows that are seemingly happy have some moments of real life. For example, Kate points to Hello Dolly. While it’s a fun musical no doubt, three of the characters in the beginning of the show have lost their life partners and have to search for a new life. “Theater and music are a way of reaching out. People in musicals sing out of desperation. Singing is a way of reaching out to our audiences to say you are worthy, you are loved.”

“I don’t know if it aligns with a time in life, but I have been thinking how can I give back?” Kate said, “I know how to tell stories. And, I know who I would like to hear from. I can clear the way for empowering other people. That’s what is going to make me feel connected.” Maestra is key.

Julianne Merrill

Julianne agrees. “Maestra was created for someone like me. Kate and I come from different sides of production. I am forever an observer, and I take notes on what I like and what I don’t like. Something I love about Kate, who is on stage and incredibly visible, is her willingness to be vulnerable. She also treats everyone with her breadth of knowledge and values and cares about the other person” and we need to instill that in our peers. “If I were in high school or college today, and I saw this Gala concert, I would have thought it to be an amazing gift to see lesbian identifying women on Broadway.”

Julianne joined Maestra in Spring 2017. “I made a profile and didn’t get that involved at first. This past Christmas, Georgia asked me to host the holiday party. After that, I wrote to her and said I would like to get more involved in Maestra. I was incredibly impressed and empowered about how Maestra rose to the occasion in this last year with their virtual technical workshops and creation of virtual communities throughout the world.” Julianne taught some of those workshops such as the one she did about the MainStage app that turns your computer into a multi-instrument and effects processor that you can use on stage when you perform. According to Julianne, it is very specific and the number of people that are interested in the app is tiny, “but on my call there were 100 people from all over the world. The experience of shared learning from professionals who are using it was invaluable.”

Shared learning and shared community is the foundation of Maestra. “Our concert (and Gala) had a feeling of celebrating community,” said Kate. “It’s a way to introduce our community members to the world. We are extending out hand to say ‘hi.’ We now have community members in Australia and Japan who will get up at 4 in the morning to be part of our free workshops!”

At the time of my interview, Kate and Julianne were talking about the possibility of a Fall Gala. So keep an ear to the ground about that. But, until then, check out these previously posted stories about Georgia Stitt and Maestra. https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/05/20/women-wednesdays-composer-musical-director-georgia-stitt-releases-an-album-finds-quarantine-a-time-to-reflect-on-her-art-new-projects-as-well/


Just an Aside: In the last week “Un-Block The Music” has felt inspired and hopeful. It got me to thinking about the experience I had as a new reporter working freelance at Billboard. I was covering “pop” music, but in the end, it all comes back to theater. My first “famous” interview was with Emilio Estefan. While, of course, I loved Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine before that interview, I became an adoring fan after it. I loved the Broadway show about the Estefan’s’ life, On Your Feet, and I cried during the scene when “Gloria” sang “Coming Out of The Dark.” The lyrics to Gloria’s song have never been more relevant than they are today. Gloria’s band was the first Latina band to have music on top of the Billboard charts. Latina…and a woman! Awe inspiring. That makes her key, but for all of us looking for a new path after this pandemic…a path to equality…her words are just stirring and make me want to do anything I can to empower women through my writing.

Coming out of the dark
I finally see the light now
And it’s shining on me
Coming out of the dark
I know the love that saved me
You’re sharing with me

Starting again is part of the plan
And I’ll be so much stronger
Holding your hand
Step by step, I’ll make it through
I know I can
I may not make it easier
But I have felt you
Near all the way

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