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Women Who Inspire

Women Who Inspire: Erin Guinup

Last month, KCTS 9 celebrated Women Who Inspire with special programming and online features, and this month we continue honoring national and local women who have changed our society and community. Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with local voice teacher, performer, conductor, and composer Erin Guinup, who is currently working on the show The Ladies of Lyric and Song. In her show, Erin highlights some of the women in musical theater history who struggled in that male-dominated world; who accomplished so much yet were acknowledged so little. With The Ladies of Lyric and Song, Erin is putting those women in the spotlight, telling their story and giving them the credit they so richly deserve.

Blog post co-authored by Sydney Friend Sifferman, KCTS 9 Marketing Intern.

What was the inspiration behind the show?
The show wasn’t planned. Initially I was asked to give a lecture on female musical theater composers and I thought I would pick up a book and pull up some information, but there was nothing. There was absolutely nothing. I was really floored by that. I had to do basically all the research myself to compile information about these incredible women—and there are a lot of them. It’s not like they are not mentioned because they don’t exist; there are a ton of women who have written for the stage, many who have been very successful. So after that lecture, everyone was telling me that I had to do more with this and write a book. I ultimately got a grant from the city of Tacoma and hired Patti Cohenour, who is a Tony Award nominee. I knew I wanted to do something theatrical, but she really helped conceive a program that is almost “educational cabaret”—that’s what I’m calling it because it has a lot of wonderful facts but it’s very entertaining, and I think brings the life to the stories of these women and how inspiring they were, in light of the tremendous odds that they faced to have their music heard.

What motivated you to want to tell these stories?
No one was telling their stories. I’ve even heard a lot of the music of these women without knowing that they were the ones who have written it, and I think it’s important for us to know about women who have succeeded. One of the quotes that I shared in the show is from Georgia Stitt; she talks about how if our children don’t see women who have succeeded, then they will never know that’s a possibility. I have really come to see that as truth. This show has helped me grow a lot and I’m seeing new possibilities that I didn’t see even for myself because of the inspiring way that these women succeeded in adversity. I probably won’t go down the same path that these women did, but seeing them stay true to their art and stay who they were in a man’s world, I think is truly inspiring.

What have you learned from the women that you highlight in the show?
I have learned that you don’t have to be limited by the perceptions that people will put upon you. I just think that sometimes they did choose to be limited and they were limited, but they pushed really hard to have their voices heard; it’s important to have those voices heard.   

So how does that relate to you? 
I am not living the life that I had planned for myself. I actually planned an anti-feminist life; I wanted to be a mom with a big family of kids. When my husband got sick, I had to support my family. So if I am going to do something, I am going to do it really well and so I started making music profitable so I could support my family since that is what I wanted to do. I guess in a lot of ways, I am like these women since they had to make it work, and it is wonderful when you get there and it does all work. 

While performing, do you try to take on the personas of the women that you highlight in your show?
I do. I share a couple of quotes and act as characters, and so that is quite fun. Trudy Rittmann, whose story is one of my favorites, worked for Richard Rodgers as his orchestrator and arranger; she was also German. So I have this persona that I take on. But what’s amazing about Trudy Rittmann is that she worked on over 40 Broadway shows and was never credited during Richard Rodgers’ lifetime. She was never credited until after Richard Rodgers died and his daughter Mary Rodgers convinced the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization to credit her. She worked on The Sound of Music, including writing part of the famous “Do-Re-Mi” song. Richard Rodgers wrote the main theme to “Do-Re-Mi,” but the “do-mi-mi, mi-so-so” part, that’s Trudy Rittmann and no one knows. It’s a real injustice, but it is also so inspiring that she kept writing, so I highlight one of her pieces in the show. 

Have there been situations that you’ve encountered throughout your career that show gender inequality?  
When I started working on the show, I contacted a lot of female composers and many were hesitant to respond to this quote by a lyricist that says “drama’s drama, what difference does it make whether women or men are working on it?” A lot of women wrote back saying that it doesn’t really matter, except for one who said that it really stinks being a woman writing in this field, but you can’t say that because those men will hold it against you and you have to play the game. So I have seen inequality in the lives of these women. Also I have been doing more conducting in the past several years and I have certainly been aware of the glass ceiling in terms of conductors. There are very few women who get on that conducting podium; it’s hard for people to trust women for some reason. It’s probably because people don’t see a woman in that role so a woman has to do the job twice as well to get the post. 

What are you hoping to accomplish with The Ladies of Lyric and Song?
I just really want to tell the story. The stories speak so much for themselves and I just want to get it out there.

You do an array of things in the music field –composer, voice teacher, performer—what made you want to pursue a career in music?
It was the only thing I really wanted to do. My dad wanted me to be a doctor so badly. He once said to me, “You’re smart; you can become a doctor,” and I replied, “I can be smart and be a musician, too.” Even though I didn’t become a doctor, I feel like I heal souls, for example, in lessons when someone discovers that they can do something that they didn’t know they could do. That’s why I love what I do; I feel like it makes a difference, and I feel super blessed that I can do something that makes a difference.

What do you hope changes or continues to grow in regards to women in your field?
Well, I hope to continue to show that anything is possible and that there are no limitations on what you can create. An example of that would be as a composer, knowing that you can write and speak your voice, no matter who you are, because all voices are valid and important; but also in a leadership capacity, or even with my students. I have a student, who has no career aspirations, but she wants to do the best that she can in the place that she’s at; those are the ways I want to make a difference, showing people that they can be better than they are today. I really believe in aiming high, setting goals, and being the best that you can.

Stay tuned for more Women Who Inspire, including the upcoming The Women’s List: American Masters , premiering September 25 at 9:00 p.m.