New Organization MUSE Is About to Level the Playing Field for BIPOC Artists in Theatrical Music Departments

Interview   New Organization MUSE Is About to Level the Playing Field for BIPOC Artists in Theatrical Music Departments
Kenny Seymour and Stephen Oremus talk MUSE’s founding—plus, information on the November 14 free event.

“There is a much-needed consciousness shift taking place,” says Broadway music director Kenny Seymour. The devastation of the current theatrical shutdown (particularly on Broadway) has also laid fertile ground for a refresh to change industry systems. In this shift, including a reconciliation with racism in theatre, industry leaders on the music and orchestral side founded MUSE (Musicians United for Social Equity).

Co-chaired by Seymour (Ain’t Too Proud, Amazing Grace, Memphis) and two-time Tony Award winner and fellow music director Stephen Oremus (The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots), the new organization commits to “creating diversity within the music departments of the theatre industry by providing access, internships, mentorships, and support to historically marginalized people of color,” according to their mission statement.

Ain't Too Proud_Broadway_Opening Night_2019_X_HR
Kenny Seymour Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“Having been fortunate to work with many musicians all around the world in the recording industry, I did notice a lack of representation of people who looked like me in the pits and on the theatre projects I have worked on … unless it was a genre-specific show, and even then there was still an under representation,” says Seymour. “Many musicians of color that I would come in contact with throughout my career would often mention they would love to play a Broadway show, but were unsure of how to gain access.”

Following the example of their colleague Georgia Stitt, who founded Maestra in order to achieve gender parity in theatrical music departments, MUSE features an easy-to-use directory of qualified artists of color. Gone are the days of saying, “I’d hire a person of color, but I don’t know who they are.” With parallel missions, Stitt describes Maestra and MUSE as siblings.

"Maestra and MUSE are two distinct organizations,” she says. “Maestra is a 501(c)3, and MUSE is operating under the umbrella of ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty). That means the infrastructures of the two groups are different, including programming and fundraising and identifying who the stakeholders are. But the missions of the two groups are aligned, and even more than being community partners.

“When you’re trying to tackle something as large and tentacled as systemic bias within an entire industry, partnering with the other organizations that are doing similar work in the same space is crucial,” Stitt continues. “If someone is looking at the MUSE Directory and happens to discover the Maestra Directory, that’s only good for everyone involved. There’s truly no need to compete or to duplicate efforts. Providing opportunities for women and people of color is all part of the same work, and we’re thrilled to be doing it together.”

Stephen Oremus

A unified collective, the founding members include artists of all colors. “I think it’s important that within our group we mirror the equity we seek in the industry,” says Oremus. “Our coalition is stronger because of our diversity and inclusion. The founding women and men of MUSE are all music directors, orchestrators, arrangers, composers at the top of our fields.”

Those connections will help bridge the gap for up-and-coming talent through networking events, skill-building workshops, and more. In fact, on November 14, MUSE hosts “Accessing Your Skills,” a free conversation with five of the founding members about the foundations that set themselves up for success.

As theatre tackles equity and equality, Seymour looks to the big picture goal: “That musicians of color are musicians and are not just useful for ‘stylized musical situations’ but are musicians that are just that: musicians for all music. And to provide access to and create opportunities in an industry many have thought to be inaccessible.” That’s a musing worth making a reality.

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