Women Wonders: Pandemic? Bah!!! Composer Lynne Shankel  Finds The Silver Lining With 3 New Musicals

“Un-Block The Music” is optimistic and believes we should always find a silver lining! For all of those who say theater will never come back in New York, I want to introduce you to Lynne Shankel. Like most of us, Lynne always dreamed of a day she might have extra time to work on pet projects, unfortunately that extra time came as part of a pandemic. Anyway, Lynne is a composer, orchestrator, arranger and musical director.  In fact, she was the first woman to solely orchestrate a new musical on Broadway when she worked on Allegiance. Lynne was one of the original members of women’s theater supporting organization Maestra Music and in fact wrote the song “Amplify” for their gala celebration. (You may remember how obsessed I am with that song). Anyway, Lynne took some time with me recently to talk about past projects and most importantly new ones!!!!

Born in Kansas City, musical theater might not have been the first “go to” for a young woman. Lynne started, as many do, playing piano at 5 years old. It wasn’t until high school that her love of theater started taking hold. “The conductor from my school asked if I wanted to play rehearsal piano for A Chorus Line. I totally wanted to do that. It just so happened that by default I was also assistant music director to a person that had to be out for quite a few rehearsals. That was when I got the bug and realized theater is amazing!” Lynne remembers.

Throughout high school Lynne did a lot of community theater and eventually attended University of Michigan for music. “I started music directing shows simultaneously as I was working on my degree.” The first summer out of college, Lynne was music director for Theater By The Sea in Rhode Island. “At the time that company was starting a non-equity touring company as well and they were doing a tour of Music Man and they asked me to conduct it,” she said.

When she moved to New York afterwards, in the early 1990s, “being a woman in the orchestra pit of a musical was relatively new. Women conductors were few and far between, but I   honestly didn’t pay attention. Choosing the career for those reasons was not part of the equation,” she said. “There was a small group of us in New York coming up at the same time, like Mary Mitchell Campbell (most recently of Mean Girls) and Maestra founder Georgia Stitt.

Lynne’s career has always been so diverse and she continues to work on multiple projects at one time. But before I dive into her new projects, “Un-Block The Music” wants to be sure you know that the people she has worked with are at the top of their games as well. That includes artists like Chita Rivera and David Bryan. As a behind the scenes music genius, Lynne has also been nominated for two Drama Desk Awards. Now, composing has really been taking her attention. “I composed a lot when I was a teenager and into my 20s. Then I got scooped up into music direction, orchestrating an arranging. Composing went on the back burner,” Lynne said.

Then, around 2010, Lynne started working on a revival of Bare: A Pop Opera, music by (the late) Damon Intrabartolo and lyrics Jon Harmere. The story was about high schoolers and their struggles in a Catholic boarding school. “It became clear there would be a lot of rewriting in the show. The original composer decided that he wasn’t up for writing new material, but gave his blessing for Jon to work with someone else.” Lynne was already working on the show, so she asked Jon if he would be interested in writing with her…he said “yes!”

It’s funny how life comes full circle. Bare continues to impact Lynne’s life.  Her debut album is titled Bare Naked!! It features the songs Lynne and Jon Hartmere wrote for that 2012 production as well as a dozen of Lynne’s most recent songs. The album features performances by Whitney Bashor, Jenn Colella, Lilli Cooper, Katie Rose Clarke, Melinda Doolittle, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Judd, Alice Lee, Telly Leung, Cassie Levy, Lindsay Mendez, Missi Pyle, Taylor Trensch, Noah Zachary and many more.

It’s very important to mention that 50% of the proceeds from album sales go to benefit the Tyler Clementi Foundation. In 2010, Tyler was the teenager who was basically bullied into suicide. His story brought to the surface LGBTQ inequality, safety in schools, youth in crisis, higher education support systems, and cyberbullying. “We worked with the Clementi family when we were doing Bare in 2012. They were very involved with us and we did numerous awareness events with the foundation during the run of the show as the show’s themes are so in line with what they are all about. The foundation was really in its infancy then. Tyler’s death was still very fresh for them. When I made the Bare Naked album, it seemed like a natural fit to give some of the proceeds to the foundation (https://tylerclementi.org/).” The album is available on Amazon and iTunes.

Remember the downtime we talked about in the beginning of this piece…well…for Lynne…not so much! A very current project Lynne is proud to mention is a new piece for Fall For Dance at City Center in New York this month. “It was supposed to happen last fall, but ……. It’s presented by the Verdon/Fosse Legacy and will be the first piece of musical theatre ever presented at the festival. I’m super psyched about it,” she said.

Another of her projects is Postcard American Town with Crystal Stillman. “We are in the middle of a two-year development process with San Diego State University. We did two readings on ZOOM over the last year and a half. I was prepared for it to be horrible….but it wasn’t! We learned so much! The goal is to have a full production of this show debut in Spring 2022.” (Not too far away!)

Then, there is Lynne’s work with Sara Cooper. The two women met about a decade ago when Lynne orchestrated The Memory Show with Sara and Zach Redler. That is certainly a project that “Un-Block The Music” personally feels is important to mention. It is about a mother and daughter relationship when faced with Alzheimer’s. My mom suffered from Alzheimer’s and it is probably something I will never get over. Lynne’s mom also suffered from the disease. “The Memory Show was so personal and devastating to orchestrate. I also think because it was so personal…it is some of my favorite work,” Lynne said.

“Sara and I kept in touch and about 3 years ago she emailed me about something she was working on; a contemporary feminist adaptation of Helen of Troy. I looked at it, and I couldn’t put it down.” It’s called Hot and it was turned into a one act show with wall-to-wall music and it is performed by all female identifying actors…women playing all the parts!”

And that ain’t all…..another  piece Lynne is working on with Sara seems so timely: Perpetual Sunshine and the Ghost Girls. While the premise may be unfamiliar about women who worked in a radium factory in the 1920s, the theme is very relatable. It’s about the intersection of history and what happens when there is an outbreak of disease that can’t be identified and then trying to coverup what they did know …” Unbelievably timely,” she said. All of the women were part of the first-class action lawsuit in the U.S. The results were the basis of contemporary labor laws. Sadly, all of the women died of radium poisoning, but their stories are part of an amazing journey, according to Lynne.

What’s also timely are points to ponder for women these days. How important is it to network? And, how important is it to network with other women?

As an early member of Maestra, Lynne says, “Georgia (Stitt) has been pushing the boulder up the hill for so long and the organization is finally coming into its own. I went to the first ever Maestra meeting. There probably were only 15 or 20 women there. The idea at that point was to get composers together in the room so that we could know each other. It was so  joyous finding that community with a shared experience.” The fallacy that women are catty and will not help other women is totally destroyed. “It’s BS.” says Lynne. “Universally women support each other. We have to!”

So many obstacles have been faced during this pandemic, both socially and economically. What about the future of theater now that there is streaming? I have had “fights” with people on Facebook and Twitter. They say…why go to theater and spend money when you can stream? Why can’t we have it both ways? Lynne says, “We are not going back. We have discovered that there are different arenas to approach our work. The goal is to have your work seen. We are going to see more and more shows that are developed through being filmed. There is only so much space on Broadway and because of the pandemic, things are backed up for years You shouldn’t have to wait to show your work.”

We need all options. “I am all about live performance. There is nothing more important than interfacing with a live audience, but if you can stream in some fashion than I think it is hugely important and a tool,” she said.

BTW, did “Un-Block The Music” mention Lynne also orchestrated Breathe? I wrote about it a few months ago. Many of the artists I have spoken with over this pandemic were part of that show, including Douglas Lyons and Dan Mertzlufft. “Now there is an album and the show is cataloged.” Lynne says. Steaming is a great thing!.

“Un-Block The Music” hopes to enjoy Lynne’s talents first hand when she plays 54 Below in January.  Her show will be part of the New Writers Series at the NYC venue. “It’s been postponed twice due to the pandemic and has finally gotten rescheduled for January 25th 2022.”

If you liked this story, check out a few others that are related.


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