Interview: Orchestrator Macy Schmidt Isn't Just Part of a Movement. She's a Movement All Her Own
Don't sleep on this name.
Do you hear that? It's the sound of the glass ceiling shattering all across Broadway. For once, the words and actions of young BIPOC women aren't being cast off as inconsequential because industry leaders and audience members are beginning to understand that young people can affect real change.
Twenty-four-year-old orchestrator and musical director Macy Schmidt leads the charge with the Broadway Sinfonietta, the all female-identifying orchestral collective, composed mainly of BIPOC musicians, that she founded last October with the support of Jana Shea, Daryl Roth, Mary E. Furse, and SheNYCArts.
This Egyptian-American changemaker is making a career out of instilling validation and sparking aspiration in people who haven't had opportunities to envision themselves in a Broadway orchestra pit. According to the Internet Broadway Database, out of approximately 190 orchestrators on Broadway in the last two decades, only 3.7 percent have been women, and none have been BIPOC women. BIPOC men made up 5.8 percent and the other 90.5 percent were white men.
Schmidt has worked on musicals like Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and She Persisted, The Musical at the Atlantic Theater Company and recently earned praise from the New York Times for her "classic Disney Act I finale in the brassy manner of Alan Menken" for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical. Continually being the person helping change the conversation could become tiresome. But she isn't tired — this is what she's wanted all along.
Schmidt told TheaterMania about how she's using this time to ensure this "moment" for BIPOC musicians has no end, how she's cautiously optimistic for change when Broadway reopens, and her relationship to music.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You've said on social media that Disney's Wishes fireworks display piqued your interest in orchestrations. When did you start to explore this interest and eventually pursue it professionally?
I didn't grow up taking piano lessons from age 5, like so many of my colleagues did. I taught myself to play piano halfway through high school and became very obsessive about practicing it and becoming a good sight reader. I only am now, as an adult, fully understanding how influential this show has been.
It all started after my freshman year of college. I didn't know what I was meant to do in New York or Broadway, but I would get an internship in New York and figure it out. That was a hard summer because most internships aren't paid, so I worked multiple side jobs to be here that summer. I was working an internship at Feinstein's/54 Below and I met different music directors every week and some orchestrators who generously took me under their wing.
Something that upsets me about the educational system in America, specifically in the arts, is that you aren't told how many options you have until you leave. When I was in high school, it never occurred to me to be a music director. I attended a school where adults did all the jobs except for being an actor. When I asked to shadow the music director, they declined. I went to college and started music directing, and I had no idea there were jobs like orchestrator, copyist, and arranger. I worked on a show about women who changed the world [She Persisted, The Musical], and one of the prominent quotes in it is Sally Ride, saying, "You can't be what you can't see." Seeing people doing this job [orchestrating] was very enlightening because I learned about a job that no one told me about in school. This is why I tell college students that there are more jobs than they think there are.
I've been blessed to have mentors. When I've asked many legendary orchestrators how they got their start, they say someone mentored them for decades and brought them into the fold. This was doing a piecemeal combination of different people willing to look over a score and discipline to study the craft independently.
What's your relationship to music? I often hear people talk about visualizing it. Does it take on a physical life for you?
This is what I love the most about music, and it's what I think separates me from people who live to perform. I love being in Finale on my computer and manipulating the sheet music and its relationship to the sound. Many musicians are performers or improvisers, but the actual page isn't part of their art. Being on their instrument is what makes them feel alive. For me, the relationship between the sound and the page is the coolest thing in the world!
Why do you think there aren't more female orchestrators on Broadway?
It's harder to mentor someone when you don't see yourself in them and haven't had the same life experiences. It's a less natural reach for a mentor and for the relationship to grow. We're entering a moment where people are like, "Maybe I should mentor somebody who doesn't look like me or shares my life experiences."
There's a difference in expectations for how boldness pays off as a woman. That has contributed to why there aren't more women in many sectors on Broadway, but particularly in orchestration, because there's no stepping stone. Before the pandemic, I was a music assistant on Broadway; I'd orchestrate but not on a Broadway level. There's this moment where you have to step away and be like, "I'm stepping into orchestrator territory, hire me as this, and I'm confident to compete in this field." It requires so much belief in yourself to do that and it's also completely terrifying.
What makes a song comforting?
I find comfort in music from the '90s Disney era because it takes me back to the place of sincerely believing you can do anything with your life before the intensity of being an adult responsible for yourself seeps in. Music from the Danny Troob Disney era moves me even if I'm not consciously thinking about analyzing the work. I think it's one of those jobs that if you do right, it won't stand out and be noticed, but will move people. People are moved because it's affecting them at a subconscious level.
"You're Gonna Hear From Me" is a very appropriate song choice for the Broadway Sinfonietta's debut. Where do you see its place in and responsibility to New York theater?
The messages I've received from female students of color in the US and around the world saying they burst into tears when they saw someone like them in an orchestra make me so happy! Our mission is to challenge the imagination of those who are hiring and inspiring those who want to see themselves working in those positions.
Where do you see theater? What's the biggest thing that needs to be worked on, and how do you see the progress so far?
We need to work on taking more risks, and I simultaneously understand that comes with many caveats. It's difficult to imagine myself in the position of a producer, managing that much money, where you've incubated the show for 10 years, and now it's finally getting to Broadway. You've got this budget to spend, and you get to choose between orchestrators, and then here's this crop of new artists who don't have that track record; I can empathize with why producers might go with what's tried and true.
When we look at the shows in the past decade that have shaped theater culture, they've been the shows that were the underdogs that someone took a risk on that completely transformed culture. I hope that taking more risks will result in that payoff. Being more inclusive when we take risks elevates us all, and including more diverse narratives makes the work better. At the micro and macro levels ... revivals versus original musicals and hiring more inclusively. Taking risks to achieve the future that we're all saying we want to see needs to happen more. Otherwise, we're just posting about our ideal vision of Broadway and no one is going to take a risk to help get it there.