Interview: Theatre Life with Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt

Review: SWEENEY TODD at Signature Theatre
Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt

Today's subjects Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt are currently living their theatre lives as the composers (Banghart and Stitt) and lyricist (Stitt) of what I consider to be one of the best new musicals I've seen in a good long while. I am referring to the Alaska-based world premiere musical Snow Child, now running through May 20th at Arena Stage.

Bob Banghart has been performing throughout Alaska, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest since the mid-70s. He co-founded the Alaska Folk Festival and Juneau Jazz and Classics, which are annual weeklong festivals in their 43rd and 30th years, respectively. He began composition work with the 1991 Perseverance Theatre production The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, directed by Molly Smith, and has since scored over a dozen theater productions, an opera, and numerous independent TV shows and films. Recent works include The Little Prince directed by Katie Jensen, Metamorphoses directed by Dave Hunsaker, and the opera Hansel and Gretel directed by Henning Hegland.

Georgia Stitt is currently writing the musicals Blue Ridge Sky, Juliette et Romeo, and a large-form choral oratorio. Other shows include The Danger Year, Big Red Sun (Arlen Award), Samantha Spade: Ace Detective (National Youth Theater Award), Mosaic and The Water. Albums include This Ordinary Thursday, Alphabet City Cycle (featuring Kate Baldwin), and My Lifelong Love. Her choral piece with hope and virtue (using text from President Obama's 2009 inauguration speech) was featured on NPR and her orchestral piece, Waiting for Wings, co-written with husband Jason Robert Brown, was recorded by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Other credits include music director for 2016's Sweet Charity (Off-Broadway), The Last Five Years (film), and The Sound Of Music Live!(NBC). She is on the Board of Directors for The Lilly Awards Foundation.

There are many reasons why I enjoyed Snow Child but one of the biggest reasons was the unique sound of the music. Read on to learn more about Alaska string bands.

Banghart and Stitt's score has as much variance as any you'll hear in any theatrical score. It features big soaring ballads mixed with bluegrass which gives the score a down homey feel. It makes the audience feel totally welcome.

With Molly Smith's excellent direction, a dynamite production design, a stellar group of performers, a lovely book by John Strand, Lynne Shankel's beautiful orchestrations, and the score by Banghart and Stitt, Snow Child is one of those shows that you all NEED to experience for yourselves.

The show will soon be leaving town and headed to Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. You only have until May 20th to experience one of the freshest things to ever hit the stage for yourself.

Snow Child is one beautiful show and Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt's score is one HUGE reason for that.

Review: SWEENEY TODD at Signature Theatre
L-R David Landstrom (Ensemble/Plow Horse/Swan), Calvin McCullough (Ensemble/Plow Horse), Christiane Noll (Mabel) and Alex Alferov (Garrett) in Arena Stage's production of Snow Child, Photo by Maria Baranova.

How did you get involved with Snow Child?

Georgia (G)- The amazing Molly Smith (Artistic Director of Arena Stage and our director) put the team together. My friend Kate Baldwin called me one day and said, "Molly Smith is trying to find you," so of course I got in touch immediately. Molly sent me a copy of the novel (The Snow Child by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey) and even before I finished it I could see my way into it musically. It was an unusual collaboration; the three of us (John Strand [book], Bob Banghart [co-music] and I [lyrics and co-music]) didn't know each other before we were thrown together in this collaboration, and we live in three different cities - Washington, DC, Juneau, and New York - so it took us a while to find the language of our collaboration. But Molly is a wizard at team-building and she filled us with a kind of mutual trust. Also, knowing that we were heading into production instead of an endless cycle of development completely changed the way we were able to be productive. Having that kind of support from a theater and its director was a game-changer for me.

Bob (B)- Art Rotch, Artistic Director for Perseverance Theatre, co-producers with Arena Stage for Snow Child, first talked to me about the idea in mid-2014. When Molly Smith came through Juneau from vacationing at her cabin in Haines in August of 2014, we met and discussed the project in more detail. Molly's vision to tell the story through an amalgam of Alaska roots music and traditional musical theater sold me right there. I signed up and we went in search of our other collaborators, which we were really fortunate to find and pull into the project.

Bob, how did you get interested in writing music?

I started playing in ensembles and groups in the early 70's and was fortunate to find opportunities to work with more experienced musicians. Through those relationships my skill base broadened and writing became a regular part of those communal processes. Scoring for theater began about twenty years after starting out and once I saw into that new world I was hooked. The obligation to create an aural image and requiring its seamless integration with of all the other theater elements, in support of story, to me is the best of what I get to experiment with...especially when one has such creative and supportive partners like Georgia Stitt, John Strand, Molly Smith, and Lynne Shankel, as in this project.

Here is a rehearsal video of the cast performing the song "Grateful". It will give you a taste of the score's unique Alaskan string band sound. Orchestration by Lynne Shankel.

How do you best describe the orchestral sound of your score to Snow Child?

G- We took a traditional string band, which is fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, and upright bass, and added a piano. Then we used all of the instruments as orchestrally as possible. In the more traditionally bluegrass moments, we use the string band authentically, with very little piano. But as the show moves more and more into musical theater territory, we use the piano for additional colors, and our pianist also plays a few percussion instruments and a small keyboard that has harp and celeste sounds. Our orchestrations were written by the amazing Lynne Shankel, and I have been extremely impressed at how much nuance she was able to pull out of this small instrumental ensemble. Plus, we have some fantastic musicians in our pit!

B- I described the end result to a friend by saying the music was like Mabel Carter meets Leonard Bernstein at Jack London's house. Georgia was able to move my traditional string band stock into musical theater without losing connection with the roots. Then Lynne Shankel, our orchestrator and Music Supervisor, worked her magic in using the traditional line up of instruments of a bluegrass band to create a very rich and original pallet of colors. Having the roots elements strongly present in the music and being able to offer the audience a unique approach to musical theater through the compositions has been wonderful to discover with this team.

Bob, can you please tell us how you first met Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith?

I met Molly in the early 70's in Juneau where we both lived. Alaska, as a state, is a one small town so you end up knowing most everyone. I had watched her create Perseverance Theatre in 1978 and followed her successes with the organization, but it was not until 1991 that we ended up working together on a stage version of Michael Ondaatje's Billy the Kid. Molly directed and invited me to lead the music team. I wrote the score, put a trio together, and performed in the production.

Here is a rehearsal video of Natalie Toro performing "The Things That Are True". Musical Supervisor/ Orchestrator Lynne Shankel on keyboard and Composer Bob Banghart on mandolin.

Georgia, it is always a delicate balance between where a song should take over from the book in a musical. On Snow Child what would you say was the most challenging section to achieve this balance?

Do you mean sections of the show itself? I'll say the Act One Finale, which was a jigsaw puzzle to figure out. First of all, there was the question of where in the story we should put the act break, and then once we were clear about that, there was the task of figuring out how to have all of characters reach moments of peak conflict at the same time - building that both musically and dramatically at once. To be honest, that's always the challenge of crafting a musical, not specific to this show, really. In THIS show, I have spent time trying to make sure that the songs feel like songs - that in addition to doing the work of storytelling and character-building, they also really feel entertaining and complete in and of themselves. Having Bob as a musical collaborator has really been helpful here. He calls me out when things in the score get too complicated or feel too inauthentic for the musical vocabulary of this world.

Bob, being a performer yourself, have you ever wanted to write a musical with a role in it for you?

I have played in pit bands and in productions on stage, but with the one exception of having had a line to say in Billy the Kid I have stayed out of the acting arena. I enjoy the process of creating a stage production immensely, but have never thought about creating a role for myself in a show...interesting idea...perhaps it might be something that comes forward one day.

What has been the most gratifying thing about working on Snow Child?

G- Through discovering and writing this show, I have really thrown myself into learning all about Alaska. I made a trip to visit Bob very early in our collaboration and he showed me around Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and many of the snow-covered roads between them. I attended the Alaska Folk Festival, I've read several novels by Alaskan authors, I've discovered Alaskan poets and musicians, I keep up with a few TV shows and documentaries set in Alaska, and I even follow Alaskan politics on Twitter. My favorite thing about writing for the theater is the way you get to immerse yourself in different worlds depending on the demands of the project. Oh, and there's the music. Oh, and collaborating with Molly Smith. Oh, and writing a magical story about a mother and a little girl. Bob and I have already said that we're going to miss this collaboration a lot. We're already dreaming up out next project - maybe there's an album in our future.

B- The whole project has been a fantastic journey but what comes to the fore when I think about it, now that it is up and running, is the creative team and relationships we have developed over the last four years of work. Molly is an amazing alchemist when it comes to putting together a crew...she is willing to experiment with how seemingly dispirit elements can be put together and comfortable with the time it takes for the team to find their feet. Add that to the generosity and patience of Georgia, Lynne, and John, and I could not have found a more powerful creative force to tie into.

Special thanks to Arena Stage's media consultant Deb Fiscella for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.



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