Witches, Indians, hunchbacks –Stephen Schwartz knows them well
Stephen Schwartz – the creative force behind “Wicked,” “Godspell” and “Pippin,” not to mention a host of Disney movies – finds the theater difficult? Well, that’s as likely as the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West being roomies. Oh, wait a minute.
“To me, there are a lot of miseries about doing musical theater,” the composer-lyricist says between sips of chai latte outside a coffee shop in Ridgefield, the town he’s called home since 1971.
“You know, when you’re alone by yourself and you have to come up with something and then sometimes putting the show on can be an enormous struggle and very difficult,” he acknowledges.
“But, the collaboration when you’re in the room with your collaborators and just bouncing things back and forth is so exhilarating and so much fun. That’s my favorite thing about it, and I like that it is a medium where ideas come from everywhere and basically, the best idea wins.”
The Manhattan native’s career began with one of those best ideas when he wrote the music and new lyrics for the 1971 hit musical “Godspell” the year after he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drama.
He followed his debut with 1972’s hit “Pippin,” which will be revived late next month at Boston’s American Repertory Theater.
Schwartz’s writing and composing has earned him three Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics and six Tony Award nominations.
This month he’s looking at his theatrical beginnings, choosing repertoire for The New York Pops’ April 12 retrospective of his work, “The Wizard and I: The Musical Journey of Stephen Schwartz.”
“It’s for my – cough, cough – birthday. I’m horrified,” he says with a chuckle. “But they’re going to do some of the classical stuff and there’s going to be a big chorus, really good singers and, of course, the orchestra. And that’s what’s exciting to me, because you don’t really get that big orchestra on Broadway.”
The Pops’ concert title comes from the mega-hit “Wicked,” which premiered in 2003 and has made Schwartz the only songwriter to have three shows run for more than 1,900 performances on the Great White Way. Like many “best ideas,” its genesis was unexpected.
“We were on a snorkeling trip,” he recalls, “and a friend of mine just said in passing conversation while we were hanging out on the boat on the way back, ‘Oh, I’ve been reading this really interesting book called ‘Wicked’ and it’s kind of the Oz story from the Wicked Witch’s point of view.’ And I just thought that that was one of the best ideas I’d ever heard and felt for many reasons that it was right in my territory.”
After five years – an average time for most musicals to be developed, according to Schwartz – “Wicked” became a fairy tale of its own, with productions and touring companies around the world while still going strong on Broadway.
Tropical vacations aside, “Connecticut is where I get the bulk of the writing done,” in a Tudor-meets-contemporary home that he and wife Carole, a singer-actress, built in 1974. It’s where they raised their two children – Scott, a theatrical director, and Jessica, the mother of the Schwartzes’ first grandchild, Hannah Lucille.
At home, the multiple Oscar and Grammy winner says, “the whole house is my writing room. …Obviously, I have a studio that I can go into and slide the doors closed, and so that’s kind of where I’ll park myself when I’m writing.”
He explains the process. “I try to get inside. Who is this character and what is his or her world? What does he or she see when their eyes open and what do they hear and what do they smell and what do they want and what are they trying to do and what’s their frame of reference? I try and be true to that and it just makes your job easier for one thing.”
In writing the lyrics for “Pocahontas,” Schwartz read tons of Native American poetry.
“My sort of mantra is, ‘In lieu of inspiration, do research.’ I find the more I learn about something and the more I immerse myself in it, the more I have to draw upon. I’m not just pulling things out of the air.”
Friendship, the perfect blendship
“Pocahontas” – which Schwartz describes as a “surprise hit” – was a collaboration with his “very good friend” and Westchester neighbor Alan Menken, with whom he teamed on the animated “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the live action/animated film “Enchanted.”
“Our collaboration was always easy from the beginning. But the rule sort of is that we both have to be happy with everything. If there’s something that he doesn’t like, I may ask him to live with it for a while. But ultimately, I will fix it or just change it, because there’s always another solution. And he’ll do the same. …I feel like if you and your collaborator have the same big goal, if there’s something that’s troubling him or her, there’s probably something wrong with it and, as I say, there’s always another solution.”
His collaboration with Leonard Bernstein on “Mass” when Schwartz was only 23 was more of a teacher-student relationship that taught him not only about music but how to treat people.
“He was so generous of spirit and he would really be attentive.”
When Schwartz met Bernstein for the first time to discuss “Mass,” the famed conductor-composer took the young Stephen and Carole – as well as his own teenage children – out for a casual, family dinner, “just somewhere like the Clam Box.” Sitting at the head of the table, Bernstein asked Carole about herself and her opinions on several subjects.
In that moment, Schwartz realized, “If I ever become famous – I mean no one is ever going to be as famous as Leonard Bernstein – but if I ever become successful and well-known, I want to remember that, to treat people like this. So that’s the kind of thing that is just beyond the musical education of working with him.”
Perhaps with Bernstein in mind, Schwartz returns to Carnegie Mellon at least once a year to teach master classes to writers and drama and music students. For the past 15 years, he’s regularly participated in ASCAP musical theater development workshops in New York, Los Angeles and other cities. And he makes it a point to offer insight to young composers and lyricists like Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose show “A Christmas Story: The Musical!” comes to Broadway Nov. 5.
It’s no surprise, then, that he’s a big supporter of increased funding for the arts.
“For individual kids, obviously, it promotes a way of creative thinking, a way of approaching the world. I think that we live in a time in society which is very sadly short of empathy and any appreciation for anybody’s way of living or point of view but one’s own, and I think that the arts are always about empathy.”
Schwartz is applying his own gifts for empathy and critical thinking to a new musical about Harry Houdini, set to star Hugh Jackman.
His “method writing” approach has spurred him to consult several mediums to learn more about the spiritualist character he’s developing.
That same process led him to India this year for a Dreamworks’ animated Bollywood film, a collaboration with composer A. R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”) to be released in 2015.
Schwartz is also bringing “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” – his 1996 collaboration with Menken for Walt Disney Pictures – to the stage.
“I’m always pleased, because one likes to think that there’s a shelf life and it’s always a good sign if a show has a life beyond its initial production and just is out there in the world. And you know, I’ve been pretty fortunate with that.”
Though his work is highly commercial and kid-friendly, Schwartz says, “I just write what I write and I really don’t think about that. …You want to make sure that the basic story is something that can be understood and invested in by younger audiences. But it’s definitely not being written for them. I actually never think about the age of the audience,” he says.
“I’m not a big fan of ‘being entertained’ – you know, just going and seeing something that’s sort of mindless and silly and frothy. I actually find that incredibly tedious. And I’m just not a fan of those musicals. I know some people are and the critics seem to love them – you know, the stupider, the better. But for me, I find them really boring. I actually would rather see a play than a musical.
“If I’m seeing a musical, I’d like it to have some content. …So since I have things that I care about philosophically and intellectually, that’s going to show up in whatever medium I’m working in. And since musical theater is the medium I’m working in, it’s going to show up there.”