Behind the Scenes with Cynthia Kortman WestphalMay 15, 2023
Written By: Chelsea & Cynthia
If you're an avid reader of the BVC blog, you may remember our post in December where we featured Cynthia, which highlights her background, how she got started in the business, and an overview of the experiences she's had. If you haven't had the chance to read that episode, you can do so here!
Cynthia is a gold mine of information and experience - she brings so much expertise to what we do at Broadway Vocal Coach, and every day I (Chelsea) am so grateful to get to work with her.
Today's post will be an extension of that previous conversation, but more so digging into what its really been like as a woman in this industry, the balance of family and her career, and her best advice for aspiring performers.
Q: Let's start at the beginning - you showed up in New York City in 1995, what was the outlook for a woman in the music field at that time?
A: When I moved to New York, I expected to be an opera coach, although my journal at the time does say I just wanted to make music. I felt like my only marketable skill was opera coaching, but my very first night in New York City I saw my first Broadway show, and I saw a woman conducting. At that time, I didn't know that women could do that, which tells you the state of conducting at that time. There were so few women that it wasn't even on my radar as something that women could do or did do.
Q: When you told this story before, you shared that The Lion King was looking for folks to play in the orchestra and a more diverse pit. When you got the call to play for that show, what were you feeling?
A: I think because it almost wasn't on my radar that these jobs were even available to me, it weirdly didn't even feel like I was being excluded from them either. I knew so little, it didn't even really occur to me that what I was trying to break into was so heavily dominated by men (at the time).
I became more of an advocate as time went on because I saw and experienced what was going on. But in the beginning, I remember thinking it was really cool that Julie Taymor was advocating for a diverse pit, and I knew that I was on a shortlist. But I also knew I was the youngest and least experienced. In no way shape or form did I ever think that was actually going to come to me.
The reason it did was that two other women turned it down first, so I got really lucky. I had the skillset, I was super prepared, I had just finished my masters and my piano chops were at their peak performance level.
Interestingly enough, if I remember correctly, of the two women that turned it down, one of them took Ragtime and the other had been an associate music director, and felt taking a keyboard three position on Lion King would feel like a step down from where she was.
Q: You started at keyboard three, rose through the ranks and one day ended up conducting the show. Tell us what your first conducting experience was like on Broadway.
A: The first time was a little bit surreal. Oftentimes keyboard players and rehearsal pianists end up being conductors just because they are the ones who know the show so well. You have to learn all of the cueing to play for rehearsals and teach the singers. So for me, it was a combination of I'd had a little bit of conducting experience already and I knew the show inside and out because I was in charge of scheduling all of the rehearsals, which were upwards of 60, sometimes up to 80 hours a week to keep that show up and running.
If you know me, you know I like to feel prepared and show up early. I used to get teased for this all the time at Come From Away because I was always there before anyone else. My associate couldn't believe how early I would get to the theater, but that's what I did. I like to be there early to leave all chance behind and feel in control of the moment.
So for my first show, which happened to also be my birthday, I left really early from my Upper West Side apartment down to Times Square. I got to the subway, and if any of you have ever taken the subway, this is before they had the signs that tell you how long it will be for a train to arrive. So you're just standing there hoping a train's on its way.
I stood there and stood there, and stood there, and stood there in the middle of summer just drenched in sweat waiting for this train to come. You get to the point where you think if "I leave now, I'm going to miss it -I should just stick it out. It's going to come any second.
It must have been pushing in 45 minutes to an hour at this point, and I was rapidly realizing that I don't know how I'm going to get there. Finally, they make an announcement that all trains are shut down, no trains.
By the time I got out of the subway, all of those folks who were also waiting had already poured out of the subway and grabbed the cabs, and filled up the buses. So I start running to Times Square from 103rd Street in my pretty little dress, because you know I wore a pretty little dress to conduct my first Broadway show.
By the time I get to the stage door, I kid you not, I hear the call to places. So I go flying downstairs to get to the podium in time. I do remember I went to the bathroom, threaded my way through the pit, climbed up the ladder to get to the podium, and got on the phone with the stage manager, and off we went.
I had no time to prepare, no time to take a breath. The fact that I made it at all is shocking.
Q: You went on to conduct for years before eventually, you moved on to music directing on Broadway, which is a different level of responsibility and involvement. What was that like? What are the challenges of being a woman music director on Broadway?
A: It was tough, I'm not going to lie. It was tough in some ways because it really felt like no one treated me normally. I was either championed, ("I support you, I'm pro-women, I'm an ally") or it was, "You've got to be effing kidding me, I don't want to work under a woman. Absolutely not."
In retrospect, it's really interesting that I was surrounded by a handful of people who were highly supportive, and I would never have gotten where I was had I not had those folks. But as I look back on it, it would be nice to have it not be a thing one way or the other. And I know this is what anyone from any marginalized community feels like. But that's sort of what it was like, either active support or active sabotage. There was a fair amount of both, to be honest.
Q: Do you feel like that's changed over the course of your career?
A: Yes, I think to some extent it has. I don't always feel like the trick pony anymore when I walk into the room. On the other hand, without fail, every single show somebody mentions to me, "I've never seen a girl conduct before'. Even in my fifties, I'm still called a girl. Either from an audience member or a player in my band - "Wow, I've never had a chick conductor before".
Which I've learned to embrace, I call myself a chick conductor, if that's what it takes. I'm just gonna take ownership of that word. But even during the last big tour I did, which was just a couple of years ago, there were a handful of stagehands that gave me a really hard time when we were in previews and I finally had to do a really good clap back at them. I won't go into the specifics of what they said or what I said, but you always think of the thing you want to say after the fact when someone insults you, and for the first time in my life, I had the perfect clap back at that moment. I was so proud of myself. I said exactly the thing I wanted to say and I never had an issue with those folks again, which was great.
Q: You became a mom right at about the time you took the job at University of Michigan and you came on faculty. What was it like taking on this amazing job, continuing your professional relations within the Broadway musical theater industry, and becoming a mom?
A. I had left Lion King briefly to be music supervisor on another Broadway show (One of my students years later did research on that and said I was the first female music supervisor ever on Broadway. I'm trusting her Google searches on that. If I wasn't the first, I was one of the first). So it was kind of an exciting time.
I had a lot going on and right around that time, my mom died and it sucked the wind right out of me to the point where I just lost the hustle. I ended up going back to Lion King and I settled back in there for a few more years because I had no hustle left in me. I was so ambitious when I got there, I loved being a part of that business, I was becoming more of an advocate. I'd been so jazzed about the whole thing and then had the wind knocked out of me for a couple of years.
Right around that time, I met my now husband, and Lion King had become stressful for a number of reasons, and he mentioned to me one night, "Do you know you cry every night when you get home from work?"
Which I didn't realize, and from there I started taking note of it. I wasn't happy there anymore, and it was a good time to change So right around that time I became aware of a job at the University of Michigan, and so when I ended up getting that position, it felt like all signs were pointing to me needing to take this job.
Lion King ended up giving me a nine-month leave of absence to go do it for a year, so I thought I'd try it for a year, and if I hate it, I'll go back to Lion King. Instead, we ended up staying, and that summer I got pregnant with our first kid, and that sort of started this whole life of teaching and having kids.
At that time I sort of thought my professional life as I knew was mostly over, I'd be a teacher forever and that's okay. A friend of mine who was a Broadway actor, shared this with me, that she said, "There are times when you have to go from being a little bit important to a whole lot of people, and instead become super important to a very small number of people". That's what I felt like I did. I was a little bit important back in my Broadway days and now we'll hone in and I'm be super important to this baby, my husband, and maybe some students at U of M.
Two of the first students that I had were Justin Paul and Benj Pasek at the University of Michigan, who a couple of years later had their first Broadway show, which was A Christmas Story, again, by a long chain of wacky events, I ended up music directing the first national tour, being an associate on the next two, and then supervised on year four.
When Christmas Story came around, my husband and I decided either all of us go, or none of us go. That is what we've managed to do ever since. If anything's more than two weeks or so, they come with me or they come out for a long length of time.
Just balancing that, being out of town or taking jobs away from home, traveling with your family and living in hotel rooms or tiny apartments has just been this nonstop adventure as a family. It's been amazing and the gift that I would never have foreseen in that first year of having a baby in Michigan.
Q: Do you feel like as a mom and a professional you find balance or is it the pursuit of balance? What's actually realistic?
A: I think in the beginning, I had very little balance. When I first had my kids and I had had enough time pass after my mom passed to get some of that ambition back, so I fought that for quite a number of years and chose to suffer over it. In retrospect, I would have done some things differently, but if I have compassion, I look back at myself and know I really did do the best I could with the tools I had at the time.
As I've gotten older, I've gotten better at setting boundaries and making really clear choices that are my choice and not the choice that I feel someone else is pushing me to make or that someone else thinks I should do. I'm doing a better job at asking advice from folks who understand where I'm coming from rather than folks who would never in a million years choose my lifestyle. Sometimes I used to ask advice from those who like a very stable lifestyle, and of course, they would repeatedly tell me how bananas it was to do anything that I was about to do.
Which is great, everybody has their own path. But I do like a little of the chaotic life, but I also like stability. So finding that balance has been interesting. It is like keeping my life just interesting and chaotic enough to feed that creative side of myself and at the same time feel like I have some roots and stability.
In terms of work and kids and relationships, that is an ongoing, constant struggle. The best I can do right now is try to wear the hat for the outfit I currently have on. So, if I'm at work, I wear that hat, and I try not to let the guilt in about not being with my family. And if I'm with my family, I try not to think about all the 10 things I should be doing at work.
Q: You have really established yourself as an expert in pop-rock style interpretation and audition material. How did you get started and find that passion?
A: I'm sure it goes all the way back to when I was a kid and I wasn't allowed to listen to rock music. I grew up in a very conservative Christian environment where we weren't allowed to dance, and so I would sneak to my friend's house and we had a record player we would put in the middle of us and listen. I've always loved it.
But still, it was something I was never allowed to play. My first piano teacher refused to work on that music with me, and by the time I got further advanced as a pianist, it never even occurred to me to ask those piano teachers to work on it with me anymore because I was so far down the classical path. But it's always been very cathartic for me, so it's what I gravitate towards. It's the music I go to whether I'm in love, in a breakup, having lost somebody, confused, whatever the emotion is. It's never theater music, it's always rock-pop music.
When I moved to New York, I was able to take rock piano lessons with a really incredible person who helped me down that path. And then just having done all those years of Lion King, I was around these unbelievably incredible rock musicians night after night after night.
There's something really special about hearing the same music over and over and over, played slightly differently by these incredible musicians who improv and can just put tiny little interpretive spins on it night to night.
I think just watching years of auditions for Lion King and for all the other rock-pop shows I've done, I started to think about what is making that person sound "right"? What is making that person sound musical theater-like? And often I couldn't put my finger on it, but when you hear it, you know when it sounds authentic and when it doesn't. So there was something that I really enjoyed about trying to figure it out.
But over the years I've found ways to codify these "you know it when you hear it" kind of things so that you can teach it to someone. I think now after my years at Michigan and being in New York exposed to so many incredible musicians and actors who do it so well, I'm able to mesh it all together into something tangible and codified that I can share with people. It's just become a real passion and it's endlessly fascinating to me.
Q: What is one piece of advice to help people get started on the right foot in this industry?
A: I'm not saying this is the highest level piece of advice or the only piece of advice, but: when you audition, rather than thinking about booking the job or trying to be the right fit or playing any of that game, I really love this notion of transforming the room.
Whether that means you'll bring in a whole bunch of sunshine into the room with your sunny disposition, whether it means you're going to sing the most angsty ballad of your life, whether it means you're going to find a chair in the corner and stand up on it midway through your song, whatever that means.
The auditions that always stand out to me are the ones where people transform the room somehow, that there's some kind of energy shift when they walk in because they are so authentically who they are. They're not trying to play a game or be the right thing.
Sometimes it doesn't even feel like they're trying to book the job. They're just doing their thing and leaving the room. There's something about that that has always made me do a double take of "What just happened. That was amazing". It's easier said than done, obviously, but I love that mindset of just bringing in an energy shift rather than trying to play a game and book a job. If you can bring in new energy into that room, call it a success and move on.
We hope you enjoyed this opportunity to get to know Cynthia and her experience as a female music director on Broadway and in the classroom at the University of Michigan!
And if you’re ready to get expert mentorship and ongoing training, then you’re invited to join us inside the BVC membership. Book a free consult with us - we can’t wait to hear your story and help you take the next step in your career.
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