Composer Sarah Hough Is Breaking Boundaries In Theater

Please introduce yourself. What do you do? Why? What do you want people to know about you?

I am a female theater composer who is breaking boundaries in forms of theater while building her career in a male-dominated field. Female composers are still largely underrepresented, especially in the genres of music that I work in – classical, choral, and folk. Women are often expected to pigeonhole themselves into writing specific narratives (anyone else tired of the rom-com?), but I’m rejecting those roles and paving my own way with stories that matter to me!

I’ve composed three musicals, Since They Left (an adaptation of the Pied Piper centering a character with a disability), Lilith and Her Demons (an exploration of the limited choices and roles historically available to women and the inner demons they create), and Ulysses Missa (an experimental musical based on Ulysses by James Joyce exploring nationalism, Trinitarianism, sacrificial relationships, and antisemitism.

What qualities make you different and unique from everyone else in the industry?

I’m simultaneously experimental with musical forms and genres as well as theatrical forms. No two of my shows look alike, but I still manage to stay true to my strong aesthetics of complex harmony, folk arts, and subverting religious imagery.

My shows are enjoyable and expansive. You’ll be laughing in your seat, shedding a tear, and you’ll walk away with exposure to musical styles and literary stories that you may not have previously been interested in.

I find inspiration in everything. I read constantly looking for new material (considering how much of my work is an adaptation). I figure out what my intentions in my music are based on something I notice in an amazing painting. And of course, I look to my real-life relationships to understand how to best portray human experiences on stage.

Describe THAT moment when you realized you’re doing what you were born to do.

I was sitting in the audience of the final performance of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet on Broadway. Dave Malloy was back on stage, playing the titular role that he had so expertly composed. I was so moved by this particular production because of its music genres which were so untraditional on a Broadway stage.

I was in awe of Malloy who not only had created this show from his heart but was making a complex novel accessible to thousands more people who may never have the chance to read it. It was unconventional in its tracking of ensemble roles in a way that rejected the primitive gender roles so often seen on Broadway. And then, in its dying moment, Malloy stepped back on stage to carry his creation to the end of its life.

I knew that I had to be that. That I needed to create something as dear to me and that musical theater was the only form that could become so important to me. I knew that I would do whatever it took to get my own music and shows to that level, and I would carry them the whole way.

I’ve devoted my life since to finding the right source material, teaching myself and findings teachers to make sure that I could make the best technically good music I could, and seeking out the opportunities that would welcome me and my work in all my weirdness.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to go through and how did you grow through it?

Transitioning to the online theater was hard for me. The pandemic was not easy on anyone, but we know especially that it was impossible for theater-makers and performers. Lilith and Her Demons got an amazing opportunity to be performed in the Polyphone Festival for New Musicals, but I and the team needed to rethink the whole thing to make it right for a screen.

We refused to do a standard Zoom Reading because we felt that it would not serve the piece. And while that was the right choice, it also was a harder one. We had to imagine a brand new form – something between feature film, music video, concert, etc but none of the actors could ever be together.

It was tough, and I wouldn’t have gotten through it without such an amazing cast and team. But in the end, I think we created something really unique and special that I love sharing with people.

Who are the TOP 3 people you’d want to meet that could elevate your career or business? Why these specific individuals?

If you couldn’t guess, I’d love to meet Dave Malloy. He’s inspired me as a composer and a performer. I think he’d have a lot to teach me about composition, and I also think we’d have great discussions about our favorite literature. I’d want to meet legendary Russian director, Yuriy Butusov because I have to credit him for opening my mind up to what theater can be and how much can be enjoyed and felt without necessarily being understood.

And I’d want to meet Tom Waits who I believe is the most theatrical songwriter currently alive. Whether he meant to or not, I think that he was influenced musical theater in a major way by keeping a certain vaudevillian personality alive in the world of songwriting.

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