Composer and music director Georgia Stitt's new album of original songs (her first in over a decade) is a collection of tunes for our times. A Quiet Revolution features 13 tracks performed by stage favorites Kate Baldwin, Laura Benanti, Heidi Blickenstaff, Andréa Burns, Brandon Victor Dixon, Sutton Foster, Joshua Henry, Amber Iman, Jeremy Jordan, Caitlin Kinnunen, Norm Lewis, Emily Skinner, Jessica Vosk, Betsy Wolfe, and E.J. Zimmerman.
Here, Stitt shares the stories behind the songs she calls "a call to the part inside each of us that is desperately clinging to humanity and is willing to fight to protect it, and that somehow feels more important in these uncertain times than it ever has before." Read her thoughts and memories below; the album—produced by Jeffrey Lesser and Stitt, with music direction and orchestrations by Stitt— is available digitally April 10 and on CD May 1 from Craft Recordings/Concord Theatricals.
“MAYBE IT’S ME”
Early in 2019 I got a request from a TV showrunner asking if I would be interested in writing a song for a musical TV series. Because I knew the song needed to sound very pop, I called my friend Justin Goldner and asked him to help me make a demo that was more highly produced than the acoustic orchestrations I usually write. The demo we submitted was Justin’s track of my song with Jessica Vosk’s amazing vocal (which she learned overnight, by the way—and then caught a cold and lost her voice for the next week). After all of that… the studio said no. Now I had a truly homeless song that I really liked, and it was in danger of disappearing. Honestly, I think that rejection was the nudge that finally made me invest the time and money into making this long-overdue album. I hired a drummer to replace the electronic drums from the demo, I wrote a cello line to give the track some more breadth and counterpoint, and I hired Jeffrey Lesser to mix it all together. And that’s how I started making this album.
From the newest song in this collection to the oldest. John Jiler and I have been working on a musical called Big Red Sun for most of my professional life. It’s one of those shows that has won awards and been developed in workshops all over the country, but it didn’t get a production until 11th Hour Theatre in Philadelphia premiered it in 2018. Just to give you a sense of how old this song is, I have a demo that Chuck Cooper recorded for me in 2004. The show is about how much America changed between the 1940s and the 1960s— from Glenn Miller in a suit to Bob Dylan plugging in an electric guitar in two short decades. This scene is set in 1962 in New York, and our character sings about both his music and his way of life that has disappeared far too quickly. For me, the joy of this score has been writing in ways that evoke time and place but still do the storytelling work that theatre songs do best. And it doesn’t hurt to collaborate with someone as musical as Joshua Henry, who came up with all of his own scat solos.
Here begins the saga of a show called The Danger Year. I had an idea to take a number of my pre-existing songs and build a show around them, which is kind of a backwards way to make a musical. But I thought I’d try. David Kirshenbaum and I wrote a draft (didn’t work), and then my friend Jamie Pachino and I tried a different idea (didn’t work), and eventually I even took a pass at writing the book myself (didn’t work). I read the various versions at numerous theaters and even did a concert at The Garrick in the West End (starring Cynthia Erivo and Eva Noblezada!) but in every case the feedback was that the songs were stronger than the story. I think I have made my peace now with the idea that songs can’t be shoe-horned into a musical, but some of the material that came out of the process really was special. This song came pretty early in the story, and it evolved out of conversations I had with several women friends in my late 30s. We were all very busy being feminists and putting our careers first, and yet we had to admit that sometimes you’re still staring at the phone, aching for the guy to call. Dismiss the patriarchy all you want; some feminist women still dream about weddings. In fact, I’m pretty sure Betsy Wolfe and I were both wearing big, fancy ballgowns at the Opera News Gala when I asked her if she would learn and record a song of mine. Right after she took a selfie with Thomas Hampson, she said yes.
“THE GREAT AMERICAN BLACK AND WHITE”
So much credit for this song has to go to Hunter Foster, the book writer of The Big Boom, the show I’m currently writing. Hunter wrote a monologue about how divided our country is and I turned that monologue into a song. We premiered it at a benefit for the NYCLU (thank you, Sean Green, Jr., for introducing it to the world) and it remains one of the unchanged fixtures of the score even though the show around it keeps changing. Brandon Victor Dixon is one of those performers who listens in rehearsal more than he talks, so I kept trying to explain to him what I thought the song was about. Finally he said, “Oh, I get it,” and he even opted up on the high note, which is how I know he really did.
“BEFORE I LOSE MY MIND”
Originally this song was going to be a comic number for the three women in The Danger Year but then I performed it at The Lilly Awards Cabaret and that video took on a life of its own. I made a few lyric edits for this recording, which might reflect how much the world has changed since I wrote it in 2014. There used to be a lyric that said, “Gotta be the perfect debutante” and now it’s “Gotta be the perfect pioneer.” Given that I grew up in West Tennessee and now run a women’s equity nonprofit in NYC, I would say this song is more than a little bit autobiographical. There are three characters here: the ingenue (Caitlin Kinnunen), the wife (Heidi Blickenstaff), and the career woman (Amber Iman)—all are me, all are most women I know. Fun fact: There was another number in the show called “You Can’t Have It All” that was a modern-day response to Maltby & Shire’s “I Want It All,” and I wrote this song to replace it.
“THE WATER IS WIDE”
Beautiful Kate Baldwin calls me her “work wife” and it’s true: I music direct for her and she sings everything I write. It works out beautifully, and I feel as if I’ve gotten the much better part of the deal. Kate called me with one of those favor-asks; she was going to sing at a friend’s wedding and wondered if I would write an arrangement for her of this traditional tune. I said, yes, of course, but as we started figuring out what we wanted to do, we realized the traditional Irish lyrics were pretty bleak. False love, abandoned love, faded love, a broken heart! This is not wedding material! So I polished it up, which is a beautiful thing you can do with a public domain text. It only took a few new lyrics to shape the song around the idea that all things can be endured with a partner you love. And that’s true: just ask Kate about the time we were hiking down the side of a mountain when we were supposed to be at the airport boarding our plane. It’s a good thing I love her.
Yes, this is indeed a song about a booty call. Well, actually, in the show (yes, here’s another song from The Danger Year), the character is trying to work up the nerve to call the woman he loved deeply and lost, and at the end of the song he calls his booty call woman instead—because taking the risk on the thing that could be real is so much harder than reaching out for the thing that’s right there. My friend Tituss Burgess was the first to sing this song, and like everything of mine, he transposed it up into the treetops. Then Derrick Baskin sang it a few times, beautifully, but he was doing eight shows a week at Ain’t Too Proud when I was recording. So I thought really hard about the sexiest singers I know… and obviously wound up calling Norm Lewis, whose DNA is 50 percent talent and 50 percent charm. He recorded right after the “Before I Lose My Mind” women and, strangely, they all stuck around to listen to him sing. I have to say, the music for this track was really fun to write and even more fun to vocal arrange and orchestrate. I kept adding layers—piano then guitar then strings then backup vocals. The night before the session I wrote drummer Jamie Eblen and said, “You have bongos, right? Can you bring them to the session?” And he did not. So I bought a last-minute pair of bongos and now they live in my apartment, which makes for some fun underscoring of random life moments with my family.
My friend Joel Fram (music director of Company) used the word “palimpsest” in a sentence, and I needed him to define it for me. He told me a palimpsest is the marking that is left behind after something has been erased or removed, like the imprint of your pen on the second piece of a notepad once you’ve ripped off the top sheet of paper. I said, “Wow—that’s what New York City feels like. It changes so quickly that sometimes you see what it used to be before you can see what it is.” And he said, “Please write that song.” So I did, and I made sure to define the title in the lyric for all those people, like me, who didn’t know what it means. For a wistful piece about memory and the passage of time, I’m extra glad that Andréa Burns was able to sing it. Andréa is one of my oldest and dearest friends in New York. (She and Joel Fram were bridesmaid and groomsman in my wedding!) On the day of the recording Andréa had just suffered an injury that left her with a fractured ankle, and I wasn’t sure she was going to be able to make it to the studio. “Luckily, I don’t need my ankles to sing,” she said.
“ALWAYS SOMETHING MORE”
I was introduced to Kevin Townley through a collaboration with his theatre company, Waterwell. We wrote most of the first act of a musical adaptation of a very ancient play and then the project fell apart. But Kevin’s lyric-writing on this particular song was too good to abandon, and the further we get into 2020 the more I reference this song as a particularly devastating anthem of our times. Those lyrics in the bridge astound me every time. Though we wrote this song quite a while ago, Emily Skinner is actually the only person I’ve ever heard sing it. Some fun history: Emily performed a role in my graduate school thesis way back in 1997 and we’ve been looking for ways to collaborate ever since. Oh, and we once went to Australia together for a concert. I think there are photos of us and koalas? But anyway… it sure was fun to be in the recording studio with her, an absolute pro and a true comic genius.
I have a few songs in my catalog that started from an autobiographical story and then evolved into fiction. For “My Lifelong Love” I really did have a crush on a boy who played the clarinet, but he never became my teacher. And for “Life Is Not A Camera” I wrote about a woman married to a photographer, because I couldn’t find the words to write about my dad, who is… a photographer. And so I wanted to write about my grandmother, who we called Sukie. My mom told me that Sukie, well into her 90s, kept a folder beside the front door of her apartment, and inside that folder were all the documents a person would need when Sukie died. There was a medical directive, poems and hymns she had chosen for her funeral, passwords and bank codes, etc. I couldn’t imagine being that ready for death. I began to wonder… is anyone ever really ready for death? But I couldn’t write the song about Sukie (who died last year at age 97), and so I wrote it for a male character who just lost his mother. Jeremy Jordan and I had worked closely together on The Last Five Years movie, and I knew he would sing the hell out of it. The band track was actually recorded several years ago with some of my favorite LA musicians, and Jeremy added his vocal separately, much later. But I think it’s Jeremy’s performance at 54 Below that was captured on YouTube that really put this song on the map. His ability to tap into that raw emotion is crushingly difficult and achingly beautiful.
“THE BABY SONG”
When I lived in Los Angeles, I taught musical theater skills to actors at USC. I remember one pivotal moment when I was working with an actor on a song (it was Cole Porter’s “I Hate Men”) and she confessed that she was having trouble with it because it she’d never been cast in any role on stage that didn’t require her to wear a bikini. She had no idea what it meant to have agency on stage or to take up emotional space. (She does now, let me tell you. We were both changed by that semester.) On that day I made myself a promise that I would put more material into the world for women experiencing things that women really experience. (Ask any musical theater performer how many times she’s been cast as a prostitute.) I had a deeply moving conversation around the same time with a woman in my profession who was heading into her 40s. She told me she had been so busy making her career that she had forgotten to have children. Then, when she finally decided to get pregnant—after years of trying everything not to get pregnant—her body betrayed her. Throw that into the category of subjects I’d never heard songs about. So now here’s one. Laura Benanti has written so publicly and so poignantly about both her miscarriage and her motherhood that I knew she’d be the perfect person to bring truth and heartache and joy to the song. Her performance breaks my heart.
I remember Jamie Pachino and I read an article back in 2014 about an Asian woman who came to America and seduced rich and powerful men as a way to gain status herself. It made me think about Evita and how in certain cultures and times, the only way for a woman to climb a social ladder would be by attaching herself to a man who’s on a higher rung. I also remember thinking about how Gloria Steinem and Helen Gurley Brown existed in the same historical moment and had very opposite ideas about what feminism means. If success requires us to call upon all of our skills, is female sexuality allowed to be part of that? There really is a fine line between strategy and manipulation, isn’t there? So this song is a character study about ambition, specifically in how it manifests in women, even more specifically in how it manifests in this one woman who changed her entire life and culture to be part of the American Dream. E.J. Zimmerman, the fantastic singer on this track, and I spent a lot of time talking about authenticity, about giving voice to a woman and making sure she’s not a stereotype. Pearl Sun also helped me, years ago, when an earlier draft of the lyric might have been a little cringey.
This is the one that gets me the most, honestly. I wrote this song in 2012, when I think many of us were writing about how the world was speeding up too much and we were more connected to our electronic devices than to each other. It didn’t feel like such an original idea at the time. We all knew it was true: the essence of humanity is not going to be inside your phone. And yet as each year went by, I found myself getting more and more sucked into my own little cloud of digital information. I made a remark on Facebook several years ago that my tombstone was going to be engraved with the words, “She answered a lot of email.” And yet the world spun faster and faster. About a month ago I remember saying to my husband that it all was unsustainable—the schedule, the money, the pace, the obligations, the output, the expectation—and that something would have to give soon or we would break. And now look at us. Here we sit in social isolation, forced to step back from the rigors of the life we led just weeks ago, while a virus races around the globe. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a more prescient lyric.
Stop. It’s your human obligation
and the way to save a nation that’s forgotten what it needs.
I was music directing Sweet Charity Off-Broadway in 2016 on the night of the election, and so in some ways I feel like Sutton Foster and I are war buddies. We’ve been through it. A lot changed for me when the world cracked open the next day, but one thing I decided was that I want to make opportunities to create work with the people I love. That’s what it’s all about. Thank you to Sutton and to all of the amazing singers and musicians who performed on this album, to the label and the rest of my team and most especially to my co-producer, Jeffrey Lesser, without whom this album would still be a collection of homespun demos buried deep in my computer for no one but me to hear. Music is meant to be shared. Thanks to you for listening.