|Subject: Liza Redfield, First female conductor on Broadway
Dead at 94
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Date Posted: Saturday, December 29, 12:41:53pm
Liza Redfield, Who Broke a Broadway Barrier, Is Dead at 94
By Neil Genzlinger
Dec. 28, 2018
Liza Redfield, who broke a barrier on July 4, 1960, when she raised her baton at the Majestic Theater to start a performance of “The Music Man,” becoming the first woman to be the full-time conductor of a Broadway pit orchestra, died on Dec. 23 in Manhattan. She was 94.
Her death, at the Amsterdam Nursing Home, was announced by Barbara Sandler, her longtime friend and caregiver.
Other women had served as assistant conductors and might have filled in on Broadway podiums, but Ms. Redfield was widely reported to be the first engaged full time when she took over “The Music Man,” the crowd-pleasing musical with a score by Meredith Willson, which had been running since 1957. She replaced Herbert Greene, the show’s original conductor as well as one of its producers, and the changeover made news.
“Woman Conducts ‘Music Man’ Today,” The New York Times announced in a headline. Time magazine, in gushingly sexist language typical of the period, rhapsodized, “With striking Titian-red hair, plus face and figure to match, Liza Redfield has the looks for anything except what she is: Broadway’s first full-time woman conductor.”
She would go on to serve as musical director for three other Broadway shows, but all were flops, and she never quite settled into the top tier of the conducting world, which was dominated by men back then and remains so today. There are few conducting opportunities in general, either on Broadway or in the classical music world, and for a woman during the prime of Ms. Redfield’s career there were fewer still.
“A lot of it had to do with the boys’ club,” Richard Riskin, a conductor and musician who knew Ms. Redfield for some 40 years, said in a telephone interview. “She crashed the glass ceiling, but there was almost nowhere to go.”
Liza Redfield was a stage name — Mr. Riskin said she once told him “Redfield” was inspired by her red hair. She was born Betty Weisman on Aug. 11, 1924, in Philadelphia. Her father, Isaac, was a tailor, and her mother, Sophie (Becker) Weisman, was a homemaker.
Ms. Redfield was a piano prodigy, performing recitals by the age of 8. She graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls and received a music degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She contemplated a career as a concert pianist, but, she said, something was missing.
“With piano I was facile,” she told Mademoiselle magazine in 1960. “I learned too quickly. I never really sat down and worked at it, and I think that’s why eventually I got so I just didn’t care.”
She took various jobs playing piano and arranging, and one day in the mid-1950s friends who were recording the songs from “The Amazing Adele,” a now-forgotten musical that never made it to Broadway. asked her to play piano at the session.
“There was a 14-piece orchestra and no one to conduct it,” she told Time in 1960. “I suddenly found myself playing the piano and conducting the orchestra, and I loved it.”
She received a scholarship to study conducting under Vladimir Brailowsky, and by the late 1950s she was getting work not only as a pianist but also as a conductor and musical director, including for the summer theater-under-a-tent operations that were popular at the time.
A few women in the middle part of the 20th century were making inroads into the male conducting world, like Nadia Boulanger, the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and the choral conductor Margaret Hillis. But the obstacles were formidable. In 1958, when Ms. Redfield was engaged for the summer season by the Music Circle Theater in Michigan, an article in The Detroit Free Press — written by a woman, Jean Sharley — inadvertently demonstrated the mind-set.
“Down the aisle, in a size 12 Oleg Cassini, will walk Liza Redfield, 27, shapely New Yorker with pale blue eyes, creamy skin, flaming red hair, a baton and entirely too much class,” Ms. Sharley wrote, imagining her debut. It added: “Every masculine eye will follow her six-step descent into the orchestra pit. Some husbands will not lift their eyes to the stage all evening.”
Her work in the regional trenches led to jobs conducting for two Off Broadway musicals in 1960, the short-lived “Miss Emily Adams” and the better-received “Ernest in Love,” a musical adaptation of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She was a few weeks into the run of that show when she got the call to take over “The Music Man.”
Despite the grating tone of much of the coverage, Ms. Redfield gamely went along with most efforts to publicize her breakthrough. “But,” Mademoiselle noted, “a suggestion from the ‘Music Man’ press agent that she pose for publicity shots in a bathing suit was one too many.”
She did appear as the guest on the television game show “What’s My Line?,” on which a panel of celebrities tried to guess the occupation of the mystery guest by asking questions. The segment ended up being particularly hilarious thanks especially to Dorothy Kilgallen, one of the panelists.
“Would you say that your services were more mental than physical?” she asked early on, a question Ms. Redfield was unsure how to answer. The panel eventually established that Ms. Redfield had something to do with a Broadway show but couldn’t figure out what. With time running out, Ms. Kilgallen, referencing another hit musical of the day, asked, “Are you one of the strippers in ‘Gypsy’?”
After “The Music Man,” Ms. Redfield was music director and conductor for the Broadway shows “Sophie” (1963), “Good News” (1974) and “Charlie and Algernon,” none of which lasted more than two weeks.
She worked steadily through the 1980s, mostly with touring Broadway shows, pre-Broadway tryouts and smaller musicals at places like the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. She was also a composer, creating works for, among other things, the 1968 gala marking the reopening of the renovated Ford’s Theater in Washington.
Ms. Redfield was married briefly to Ira Leff. She leaves no immediate survivors.
Amid all the hoopla about her 1960 breakthrough, Ms. Redfield tried to make a simple point whenever she was interviewed.
“Music is neither masculine nor feminine,” she told Time. “You don’t have to be one of the boys to be a good conductor.”
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