Julia Schade is the Music Director for SIX on Broadway and a Hell’s Kitchen resident. In a moving West Side Story, she opens up about her struggles with depression and addiction — and why November 9 2020 proved a turning point in her life.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and did all sorts of jobs, like music directing for church and playing piano for musicals. In 2007 there was a new Stephen Schwartz musical called Geppetto and Son playing at The Starlight Theatre in Rockford, and I hosted Tony Award-winning orchestrator Larry Hochman for the weekend while I was accompanying the show. I knew of him because of the work he did on the TV show Wonder Pets — my son Charlie was four and he absolutely loved it. Larry came to my apartment and did a little Wonder Pets concert.
In 2017, I decided I wanted to try my hand at musical theater and move to Chicago, but I didn’t know anyone there. I hadn’t talked to Larry in 10 years, but I decided to call him. He talked to me for an hour and a half and said, “I can’t get you a job, but I could give you some names and try out.” The next spring, one of the contractors at Chicago Shakespeare Theater called me to play a summer show. In 2018 I got hired again and decided I’d try to make it work.
Whenever I teach a masterclass, this is the part where I always tell students, “Answer your phone.” In February 2019 I was living in Chicago and freaking out because I didn’t have anything lined up. It was Monday night at 10 o’clock and I got a call from an unknown number — thank God I answered it. It was the casting director for Chicago Shakes. They’d lost three of their pianists for the auditions for SIX, and asked if I could come in the next day and play. “It’s a new show from the West End and the writers are here,” they told me.
I met Toby and Lucy [the writers of SIX] and we really hit it off. They told me they were looking for an onstage, all-female band — and I told them that I wanted to throw my hat in the ring!
Before I left that night — I was in the parking garage — they called and asked me to come back the next day. I was the associate music director in Chicago, we took the show to Boston to the ART, and then there was also a stint in Canada. When they asked if I wanted to come to Broadway — I was torn. I was struggling with being far from my Rockford family. And I knew that I couldn’t bring my son [then in high school] to New York because he was already in school in Illinois. I talked to him and he said, “Mom, you’re crazy — you have to go.”
I moved to New York City in January, 2020. I had a lot of mom guilt about being here, but was having a great experience. We went into previews — and then on our opening night, Broadway was shut down.
My dad was here from Alabama, and I was at Edison Hotel with him finishing my opening night gifts when we got the news. I got an email saying “If there’s anything you want out of the theater, come get it, because we don’t know how long we’re gonna be shut down.”
During the pandemic, I ended up getting to see my son graduate from high school. I got a lot of time with him that year, which was amazing. When I moved back in August 2021 I didn’t have any mom guilt the second time — it felt great to come back. I signed a lease in Hell’s Kitchen where I’m living now. I just haven’t left!
What was your first job? What do you do now?
My first job was probably babysitting! And as you know, now I’m the Music Director for SIX on Broadway. I also am trained in Reiki, though I haven’t practiced in a bit.
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
I always remember the day Biden won the November 2020 election. I could hear people cheering from their windows and cars honking, and it gave me chills!
The other one was probably when my dad came back out for our opening in 2021. We knew we were going to be recording our live album, but we couldn’t tell anybody. I love that I’m on a Broadway album and I know that my dad is in the audience screaming.
When we opened in 2021, the audience went fucking mental. I don’t think they could hear any of the first lines because they were going so crazy. It felt like such a relief. We also got to play at the Tony Awards last June and it happened to be my 44th birthday. I had never been to Radio City Music Hall, and it was incredible.
Everybody experienced a lot of things in those 18 months — our stage manager lost her husband. I had two friends die of suicide during that time. Even though technically on paper the show was the same show, it felt different. Because you can’t just erase people’s experiences out of live performing.
There’s also so much great representation on our stage. We have many women of color and women of different body types on that stage. The number of messages I get from female music directors, women who are of larger size or people who see me come out with the walker makes it more rewarding.
Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
So many people from my hometown were like, “New Yorkers are mean, New York is going to eat you up.” I will admit I came to New York on a bit of a cloud — I had a job already, so I get that I was coming into more of a cushy situation.
But that doesn’t change what people are like on the street — and in my experience, I know New Yorkers are hustling and bustling and getting to where they’re going. I’m not saying that they aren’t busy and shit, but look, if I fall down on the sidewalk, I know that at least 10 people will come help me.
New York has a really good sense of community — and that’s what I like about Hell’s Kitchen. I get dropped off for work on W47th and 8th Avenue, and every time I go by where they’re making pizza, there are normally two guys behind the bar that wave at me. I always say hi to Andy at Andy Deli. I get to say hi to the stage managers that are outside the stage doors. There’s a panhandler guy, Robin, and this homeless guy Chris — I see them almost every day, and Robin and I will sometimes sit and have a cigarette together. Even though I have a short commute to work, I have this community that I know I’ll see.
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
A lot of people have told me resilience and perseverance. I’ve struggled with depression since I was in high school, and have faced addiction as well — addiction and depression have always been a little intertwined. I’m about to celebrate two years and six months clean. I don’t take it for granted and I wake up every morning and make the choice to get my head right.
I hadn’t used growing up — I smoked weed for a lot of years and would have a drink here and there. But when I moved to Chicago and Charlie started spending more time at his dad’s, I started dabbling in drugs again. It was almost like that feeling when you first leave your parents’ house — a new freedom.
When I was in Cambridge [with SIX at the American Repertory Theatre] and was living alone for six weeks, I took advantage of that time. But when I got here in January 2020, I was not using anything — I was just so excited and pleased to be here. When everything fell out and the pandemic started, I went to Rockford right away and stayed with a friend. Charlie would come visit, but I felt very isolated. Being in New York had been such a high and then — bam.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how long we were going to be off, and it wasn’t like I could do anything else. Literally everything I did was shut down — even the churches weren’t having services where I could go play. I had no way to make money or do anything. Luckily we got unemployment but it wasn’t enough to pay my New York rent.
I stayed in Rockford until August, when Charlie went to start his senior year. I thought, “I have to go back and figure out what to do in New York. I have a whole apartment there. Is there any work there?” I came back here. It was so weird. I had only been here for two months and it felt so different here. I did get a really good opportunity to do a musical in concert in Connecticut, where we would rehearse outside in Central Park with masks on.
I was grateful for that experience, but that was literally all the work that I had. I was already spiraling, went to Rockford and I continued to spiral here, both in my addiction and in my depression.
It was the day after the November 2020 election — and I was having a very bad depression day. I had run out of money, I had been isolating myself. I was not really talking to my people. The only person I answered the phone for was my son. I just had gotten so depressed and had run out of my drug of choice — I was going through withdrawals and I didn’t know what that was. My body was feeling really bad, my mind was feeling really bad. And I woke up on November 9 and I just thought, “This is the day — I’m not going to live past today.”
I had a one-on-one coaching session with one of the kids from the Connecticut concert. I still went on Zoom and did the coaching session for 30 minutes. In my head, I thought: “After that I’m going to kill myself.” I sent two goodbye texts: one was to Charlie’s dad and one was to one of my best friends. I thought, “They’re far away, they can’t do anything to stop me.” And I hurt myself. But she had called the New York Police Department and they came and banged my door down — stopped me from hurting myself any further and put me in an ambulance to Mount Sinai.
I didn’t really have a support network here in New York — most of the people from my show had scattered and went back to their hometowns. One of the police officers called the bassist I had met from my Connecticut gig, Dave, and told him that I was not going to be at rehearsal that afternoon. Dave asked if I was OK and the police officer told him that I was going to be at Mount Sinai for a while. I didn’t know that when you’re in the psych ward, you can only call a local number, so I called Dave. I asked him to tell my family that I was OK.
I was in the psych ward for three weeks, and during that time, I would talk to Dave and he would get on a Zoom with my family and tell them what was going on. I had only known him for a month, and he was OK to be the go-between for my family, since I could only call local numbers and the hospital couldn’t have visitors due to COVID-19.
I kept thinking that it was amazing that this guy I’d only known for a month cares so much. The first time he was able to visit me, I said, “I don’t know why you’re doing this for me — you don’t even know me.” And he told me, “I’ve been in the psych ward before.” He shared some of his story with me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how incredible it was to have a stranger make you feel like they care that much, at a time when you really need to feel like somebody cares.
While I was in the psych ward, the doctor I saw told me I needed to go to rehab. I was resistant — I didn’t think I had a problem. But he said, “Why don’t you write down how you got here today?” And when I wrote it down, I was like, “Oh, I think I do have a problem with addiction.” I spent three weeks in an inpatient rehab in Mount Sinai. I met some great people, and I’m sad because I haven’t been able to keep in touch with most of them.
I got out right before Christmas. Dave and my friend Elena, the drummer for SIX, cleaned up my entire apartment so that I didn’t have to come back to the scene of what had happened. One of my friends drove to New York and helped me pack up my apartment and get home to Rockford in time for Christmas. I ended up doing an outpatient program in Rockford. It was a blessing for me because I had nothing to do but take care of myself and I was with friends and family. In the meantime, another one of my friends, Claudia, took care of my cat Ming for six weeks. When she needed to travel and wasn’t able to any more, my stepmom — who I didn’t grow up with, by the way — drove from Alabama to meet another friend halfway to pick up the cat. Who drives 18 hours to pick up someone’s cat?
Looking at the support I received, how could I ever want to kill myself ever again? I thought, “Oh my God, open your eyes, Julia. Look at all of this wonderful life.” Coming out of this, I felt raw and naked, like a skeleton. I thought, “What is my life now?” But the beauty of it is that I get to choose what to put back in my life, who I want to be and what I want my life to look like.
What else should we know about you?
I’m being inducted into the Rockford Public Schools Fine Arts Hall of Fame — fun fact, so is Bun E Carlos, the drummer from Cheap Trick who is also from Rockford! For their presentation, they wanted me to sum up my personal philosophy and share what others would say about me. I’ve asked the people to contribute and this is what my dad sent: “When Julia was in third grade, she was already focused on learning to read music and play the piano. That year she won an award for creating a slogan for her school Walker Elementary School. Her winning slogan was, ‘Walker: A Step in the Right Direction.’ She has since made us all so proud as her many steps have led her on a musical journey to Broadway. As her dad, and arguably her biggest fan, I believe her journey shows that perseverance and lifelong learning leads you on a happy and fulfilling path.”
I had never hurt myself before that day, and now I don’t ever want to give up. I want to believe that it’s going to get better. In that moment I felt hopeless — but all of this help came for me and reminded me that things can change.
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Julia’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
THE BEAST Speedboat Ride — Pier 83
The Beast is the best $30 you’ll ever spend. You go out to the Statue of Liberty and do these fancy circles and it’s so great. They also are handicap accessible, and have seatbelt extenders for big people. I can take my walker all the way down to the dock. Every time somebody comes to visit me in warm weather, I make them go to THE BEAST with me because I love being on the water. It makes me feel giddy like a little kid. I laugh the whole time. It’s only 30 minutes, but I’m telling you it is worth it. If I feel down, the BEAST is the best.
Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Health Center — 645 10th Avenue (bw W45/46th St)
I think community health centers are incredibly important, and the people who work there are great. I was able to get in right away for addiction and mental health services when I arrived here, and it’s still my main healthcare provider. Maybe it’s odd to have a medical place be a favorite, but for someone like me, having a place like this so close to home is something I’m very grateful for.
Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles II — 648 9th Avenue (bw W45/46th St)
The name kind of speaks for itself lol.
New World Stages — 340 W50th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
Great theater venue with different show options, with unusually good accessibility for this city. I just love going to see live theater.
Cosmic Diner — 888 8th Avenue (bw W52/W53rd St)
I love the staff there, the food is fast and good, and it’s a great place to meet up with someone for coffee. I have always loved a good diner. It feels a little like a few places in my hometown, so I think that’s another reason I like it. I love their curly fries, and they make a perfect grilled cheese. Also, the food comes out in like four minutes and it’s great, I don’t know how they do it!
Le Rivage — 340 W46th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
I had never been to a French restaurant before, and when my friends took me here for the first time, I nearly melted. The food was perfection, and the little jazz trio every night really sets the mood for a chill post-work bite and coffee. Mmmmm…. the coffee….
Andy’s Deli — 270 W47th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
I usually get lottery tickets for my band members!
You can follow Julia on Instagram @juliaschadepiano. If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself) please fill in this form — w42st.info/WSSnominations
You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.