Two 10th-grade female high school students sat in the seats of a sold out concert held at Brooklyn King’s Theatre on a recent Friday evening. Aspiring musicians, they sat in awe at this evening of firsts: the first time they had seen an all-female orchestra, led by a female conductor.
Even after the concert ended—it was “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse LIVE In Concert,” which screened the hit film with live orchestral accompaniment—the experience continued on their ride home, where the teens found themselves sitting across from trombone player Jen Hinkle and drummer Elena Bonomo on the Q train.
“Their eyes fully lit up,” Bonomo recalled. “It seemed like it was so special to them that they met other women who are playing music professionally. To them it seemed like it was finally attainable.” Bonomo said the teens asked the musicians how they got into the industry and what the audition process was like, and even asked her to be a guest speaker in their high school performing arts class.
Whether or not the girls decide to pursue professional music careers, what matters is that they now know there is a room for them within the industry—that dream can in fact be reality. And one of the main reasons those girls left the concert with this message is the leadership of Macy Schmidt, the evening’s music director and the founder of Broadway Sinfonietta, an all women-identifying, majority women-of-color orchestral collective. You might say of Schmidt that she’s both what the future sounds like and one of the people making it happen. At least, that’s how Forbes magazine described her when they included her on the Forbes 30 under 30 music list in 2022. One of Broadway’s rising talents, she is changing the landscape of Broadway’s orchestras one note at a time.
Her Broadway Sinfonietta has been seen at concerts like “Carnegie Hall Citywide Concert in Bryant Park” and an International Women’s Day concert in Abu Dhabi attended by Hillary Rodham Clinton; the troupe has been heard as the soundtrack for such brands such as MAC Cosmetics and Bloomingdales, and provided the orchestral music for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical and for an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Broadway.
Schmidt is also making a name for herself in the theatre, becoming the first woman of color to orchestrate a Broadway musical, Kimberly Akimbo, for which she provided additional orchestrations. She has also worked on musicals including Tina, the Tina Turner Musical, Disney’s revival of Aida (still in development), and the musical adaptation of Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted (Off-Broadway).
Though she now has a decorated résumé, at one point it was difficult for her to even land her foot in an orchestra pit. After a year of college at the University of Florida, she had her sights set on the Great White Way. Determined to make it there, Schmidt interned at 54 Below, getting her hands on keys, sheet music, strings—anything that would keep her involved in the 16 productions a week staged at the cabaret/theatre venue. There she was able to build a network of industry contacts that eventually led her to gigs as music director, copyist, and orchestrator all across New York City. But the rat race weighed on Schmidt, especially when rejection hit.
“I constantly felt behind from my friends who learned piano when they were 4 and went to music conservatory for eight years,” Schmidt said in an interview. “I was constantly running, sprinting, and playing a game of catch-up, because I made all these decisions about theatre and playing piano three years prior, and everyone else had been doing this for 20 years. I remember feeling tired every day. I was running a race but was always behind.”
Her agents would tell her that producers rejected her for certain projects because she didn’t have the right experience. They hadn’t seen her orchestrate for larger ensembles, they said—but of course, how was Schmidt supposed get the experience they were looking for without getting the job first?
That classic Catch-22 is why she created her own opportunity and laid the groundwork to launch the Broadway Sinfonietta. She kicked it off in the fall of 2020 with an old passion project, dusting off an arrangement of the André and Dory Previn standard “You’re Gonna Hear From Me.” She then cold-called and emailed producers who at the time had projects on hold due to the pandemic and requested funding.
Next it was time to get musicians in the same room. Rather than doing the Zoom box video that was all over the internet at the time, Schmidt’s vision was to have musicians get tested and bring them together in person. From phone calls to Instagram DMs, Schmidt was able to gather a room of 17 musicians to lay the foundation of something she had never dared to imagine.
“It was just a completely different atmosphere, just to not have your guard up,” said harpist Elizabeth Steiner, one of the musicians who joined Schmidt for that session. “I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself to anyone, or have that feeling I have so many times walking into so many symphony orchestra settings where I’m the only person of color. It was such a relief, and there was magic in that studio.”
Yet that was just the beginning. Schmidt noted how the lack of diversity onstage and behind productions has affected musicians’ hiring.
“When women make advancements in the industry, it has been white women first, and when people of color make advancements in the industry, it has been men of color first,” said Schmidt, who is Egyptian American. “Women of color have always been last.”
Even when women musicians of color are hired, they can face two pernicious biases: They are often only associated with shows by or featuring other artists of color, and they are seen by some as “diversity” hires—i.e., less qualified but politically necessary. Schmidt was determined to use her platform to shift the industry when it returned. One way: to change programming. “I decided that we will never do a song about romantic love,” Schmidt said of the programming the orchestra’s content. “A group of women singing about men is played out.”
Schmidt, in short, is not only creating her own lane but a path for others to follow. Even with all of this under her belt, she is just 26 years old. The change she is both part of and is making happen for others is only just beginning.
Rachelle Legrand (she/her) is co-host of Studio 10 WILX in Michigan and is a frequent contributor to this magazine.
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