02 August 2018

Stephen Schwartz

by Kirk Woodward

[Soon after I got out of the army in 1974 and moved to New York City, I started trying to catch up on theater.  After almost five years of active duty, including 2½ in West Berlin, Germany, I was woefully behind.  I had one advantage when I got to New York: my family was connected to a business headquartered here—just a few blocks up 5th Avenue from where I ended up living—that had a ticket broker on retainer and allowed members of the owners’ families to take advantage of this perk (intended for sales reps to entertain buyers) on the company.  I decided I’d go to as many shows as I could manage—and, when I started classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I treated my classmates with a freebie, too. 

[I started making my way through the ABC’s in the New York Times, crossing off shows as I saw them.  I started with productions that had been running for a while, feeling that I ought to get to them before newer show in case they closed soon.  I think the first Broadway play I went to was the musical Raisin and I went on to such productions as Scapino, Thieves, Clarence Darrow, and Equus, as well as musicals like The Wiz and Candide, and each of them offered some special impression and a lasting memory.  But one I remember particularly well was Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s musical play Pippin, which had opened in 1972 under Bob Fosse’s direction and was still running when I got to the city.  Everything about Pippin attracted me—the characteristic Fosse choreography, Tony Walton’s abstract expressionist scenic design, Patricia Zipprodt’s mod-inspired “medieval” costumes, Hanson’s smart-ass, hip book (enhanced by Fosse’s uncredited assistance), and, most of all, Schwartz’s wonderful, fanciful, knowing, and delightful songs.  I loved the characters, including Pippin and Berthe, his wise—and wise-ass—grandmother, and the amazing idea of the non-representational Leading Player.  (I can’t recall whom  I saw in all those roles, and I seem to have misplaced my Broadway Pippin program, but I'm pretty sure Ben Vereen had left the show by then, as had Irene Ryan.  I think John Rubenstein was still doing Pippin because I had never liked him much, but revised my opinion on the basis of this performance—so I must have seen him.)  

[When I started taking voice lessons some years later, I chose to work on “Corner of the Sky” as a potential audition piece.  It seemed to describe me—or my view of myself.  (Remember, I was still just around 30 at the time—though moving up fast!)  I also saw several other Pippin productions, including one directed in 1983 by my friend Kirk Woodward—who just happens to be the author of this article for Rick On Theater based on his recent reading of Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, a “creative biography” of the composer-lyricist by Carol de Giere.  Kirk’s better situated to tell you about a musical artist and his work, so I’ll just let him take over from here.  ~Rick]

In 1972 or ’73 I went to Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, DC, to see a matinee performance of what I believe was the first national company production of the musical Godspell (which had opened in New York City in 1971), about which I’d heard good things.

Those reports underestimated the effect of the show on me: I was amazed, overwhelmed, thrilled by the audacious theatricality of the piece, by its commitment to the ideals of love and community, and by the fact that as a piece of theater it seemed to succeed in actually reinforcing those ideals – something I wasn’t certain that theater could do.

The cast of that production spoke a few months later to the drama department at Catholic University in Washington, where I was then enrolled. The Jesus in that production was Dean Pitchford (b. 1951), who later became a successful songwriter. I remember the obvious camaraderie of the cast – being in Godspell often seems to create that effect. Since those days I have both directed and musically directed the show myself.

In 1972, the musical Pippin opened in New York City, directed by the outstanding choreographer Bob Fosse (1927-1987), and I remember hearing a professor at Catholic University say that Fosse had told him, during the Washington out-of-town tryout for Pippin, that he was scratching his head trying to think of staging ideas for some of the songs in the show.

Pippin became “my show” in New York City, where I was living by that time – I saw the original cast and the first replacements perhaps a dozen times. I couldn’t get enough of – well, its audacious theatricality.

The link between these two shows, Godspell and Pippin, is, of course, that both musicals included scores written (or mostly written, in the case of Godspell) by the songwriter Stephen Schwartz (b. 1948). Schwartz was brought in to write a replacement score for the original production of Godspell; Pippin was conceived by Schwartz and a classmate, Rob Strauss, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and Schwartz nursed it along all the way to Broadway.

I learned those facts, and many others, from a used copy I picked up recently of an excellent “creative biography” of Stephen Schwartz titled Defying Gravity, written by Carol de Giere and published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in 2008.

Carol de Giere is an admirer of Schwartz’s work – she has edited a “fanzine” about him – and the tone of the book can occasionally be a little breathless. However, the book is not a hagiography; she keeps it at the level of the factual and the objective.

A list of Schwartz’s musical theater work includes Godspell (1971), Pippin (1972), The Magic Show (1974), The Baker’s Wife (1976), Working (1978), Rags (lyrics only, 1986), Children of Eden (1991), and Wicked (2003), among other shows.

Of those listed, three had initial runs of over nineteen hundred performances each on Broadway (Pippin, The Magic Show, and Wicked), and Godspell had a similarly long run Off Broadway. Over time Schwartz has reworked many of these shows, which have gone on to be produced frequently around the country, internationally, and again on Broadway.

Wicked, still thriving on Broadway, has so far achieved overall earnings of over three billion dollars, illustrating the maxim of the playwright George Axelrod (1922-2003) that on Broadway you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.

Schwartz has also written the lyrics for songs in the movies Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Enchanted (2007), and music and lyrics for the film The Prince of Egypt (1998). In addition, he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) on Bernstein’s Mass (1971). He has won Tony, Academy, and Grammy Awards for his work.

Schwartz cooperated on the book Defying Gravity, with the proviso that it be about his creative, rather than his personal life, so we only meet his wife, Carol, as an intelligent and supportive voice, and his son Steve as a successful director. Some basic themes emerge from the book:

Schwartz is a definite “personality.” He comes across in the book as focused, knowledgeable, opinionated, and sometimes, for those reasons, a real pain to work with.

As I mentioned above, the book is called a “creative biography,” which means that its focus is on the process of building a musical, rather than on the personalities involved. Still, personalities can’t be avoided. A musical is very much a group endeavor, which means there is always potential for conflict between song writers and book writers, the producer, director, choreographer, musical director, scenic designer, and so on.

With such dynamic tensions, and with a great deal of money at stake (Wicked’s initial cost was estimated at $14,000,000), two things are likely to happen: most of those involved in a show are likely to have to take subordinate roles, and some – usually one – is likely to be the dominant voice, or, as William Goldman labels it in his great book on Broadway The Season, “the muscle.”

Carol de Giere makes it clear that Schwartz was always prepared to be “the muscle” in his shows; however, this did not always happen. The trait can be traced to Schwartz’s childhood:

There was one language-based trait Schwartz seemed to be born with that sometimes got him in trouble: he spoke his mind. His mother reports on problems at school related to her son’s willful expressions. “He would speak out of turn, and maybe want to talk without giving other people a turn. He didn’t do anything seriously delinquent in any way, but he was not a docile little boy in class.”

Carol de Giere describes how this trait worked out in adult life (in this case with Wicked):

Schwartz’s inner game was perfectionism – something he found hard to release even in those stressful times. When the fussing over changes got out of hand, it could drive cast members a little crazy. “For the most part, we all respected Stephen a great deal,” says [performer] Robin Lamont. “And if we worked hard, he worked three times as hard. We would leave at midnight, come in the next day at nine in the morning to rehearse after having done a show the night before. And he would have been up half the night. He was always, always, always working.”

“We had terrible fights. I remember feelings running very high. There was frustration. We’d ask ourselves, ‘Why isn’t this playing as well as it should?’ We’d come in and Stephen would say, ‘I want to try this; I want to try that.’ I think sometimes there was the feeling that, ‘We’re sick of this, we don’t want to try it one more way. We want to go home and sleep.’”

And this was for a musical where the working process went fairly smoothly! By contrast, when Bob Fosse (1927-1987) was hired as director and choreographer for Pippin, Roger Hirson (b. 1926), who wrote the book for the musical, told Schwartz, “This is our last happy day on this show.“

Schwartz had worked on Pippin from the beginning; it was “his baby.” But Fosse was by this point “the muscle” in any show he worked on. Carol de Giere writes that

Bob Fosse may have believed he was doing Broadway beginner Schwartz a favor by directing his show. [David] Spangler [a friend of Schwartz’s] suggests, “Fosse was truly interested in keeping current with trends that were beginning to happen, like rock music, which was starting to enter the vocabulary of Broadway. He just thought he’d whip Stephen into shape.”

Between Fosse’s ego and Schwartz’s, a collision was bound to occur, and it did. Interestingly, years later Schwartz commented that for the amateur version of the show, he and Roger Hirson had removed a number of the additions that Fosse had made to the script, and

In recent years, I’ve come to feel that the show is better with them, and we’ve put the majority of them back in. It’s ironic that I’ve become the champion of Bob’s vision. When asked about the revisions I sometimes joke, “I know somewhere Bob is looking up and laughing.”

I would guess, then, that at a minimum Schwartz is no pushover in the case of a difference of opinion, and that this characteristic can make him a formidable force to reckon with. He is aware of this:

If someone says to you that a song isn’t working, you think, well, maybe they’re right. So when do you stand up and believe in yourself? When do you say, “I don’t care what you’re saying, I know this is right” – when is it stubbornness or arrogance, and when is it [appropriate] conviction? It’s a tricky thing.

The impression of Schwartz’s potential for “digging in” is reinforced by another major theme of de Giere’s book:

Schwartz has plenty of technique to help him in his work. He is a conscious, thoughtful, and fundamentally methodical worker, so there is no need for him to feel insecure or self-conscious about his ideas.

As I said above, de Giere calls her book a “creative biography,” and much of the book describes in detail how Schwartz puts together his scores.  For me, there are few subjects more interesting than how an artist goes about creating her or his work. Schwartz’s processes are fascinating.

I could quote numerous examples, but here are two. Talking about working on the score for the film Pocahontas (lyrics by Schwartz, music by Alan Menkin, b. 1949), Schwartz says:

Because I didn’t think I was good casting as lyricist for the project, I consciously thought about who would have been better casting and then modeled my work on theirs . . . . I decided on Oscar Hammerstein II and Sheldon Harnick [the lyricist for Fiorello, She Loves Me, and Fiddler on the Roof], because they wrote for ethnic people and folk people, and they dealt with issues of prejudice and cultural misunderstanding. And so as I wrote, I consciously tried to assimilate their styles. When I wrote “Colors of the Wind” I thought, “What would Oscar do? What would Sheldon write?” I just recalled their sensibility. It was just a matter of adjusting my mindset to think how they would approach a song. I didn’t steal anything specific from them. I just took in their sensibility and filtered it back out again.

And here is an example about structuring a song from Wicked. Schwartz describes how, in the musical A Chorus Line, there is no “kick line” of dancers until almost at the end of the show, making the audience wait for an obviously obligatory event until the last possible moment.

So I started thinking about this new song, and the fact that we now had Idina Menzel in the cast as Elphaba. People who knew her would be expecting her to come out and do this great big belt. I thought that as long as I was writing this song again [he was writing a replacement for an existing song], what if I saved the big belt until the very end of the song? So I really tailored the song to Idina in that way. Notice that the big belt section comes way late, at the very end of “The Wizard and I.”

Schwartz’s songwriting process is in many respects a highly conscious one. This aspect of his technique brings to mind Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930), who has said that he doesn’t have the instinct to just sit down and write a song – he needs a situation for it to come out of. Schwartz works on a show the same way:

For me, when I am working on a musical number for a show, the story I am trying to tell comes first. It is a little like an acting exercise – I try to become the character, think about what the character’s action is (what he or she is trying to ‘do’ at that moment), and then express myself as that character would.

However, Schwartz may or may not be restricted to that way of working. He has released two very fine solo albums of songs, only three of which were written for shows. (He has co-writers on a number of the songs; collaboration is a frequent aspect of his work.)

The album Reluctant Pilgrim was released in 1997. I don’t know how it sold, but the title of the second album, Uncharted Territory (2005) may be an indication. (Schwartz, incidentally, has a career background as a record producer.)

I mention these albums, full of lovely songs that would make excellent material for cabaret artists, to point out a third aspect of Schwartz’s career:

His musical style has been the biggest obstacle to full acceptance of his work. When the book Defying Gravity was published, in 2008, Schwartz had not yet been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame (he has now) – this for someone who by that year was clearly one of the most successful Broadway artists of all time.

Why? Largely, I suspect, from an initial impression that he wasn’t really a “Broadway” composer at all but a “popular” composer. He is, of course, both, but many of his primary early influences were pop rather than musical theater – he feels particularly indebted to the singer-songwriter Laura Nyro (1947-1997) and the Motown songs written by the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Brian Holland, b. 1941; Lamont Dozier, b. 1941; and Eddie Holland, b. 1939). 

It should be mentioned that another of his childhood listening enthusiasms was opera! However, when composing the score of Godspell, a popular music sensibility was called for. That score has been criticized for its lack of sophistication in comparison with, for example “golden age” Broadway musicals. This criticism ignores the score’s intent – a mix of pop and folk music is what it’s meant to be.

The score for Pippin also is highly pop-influenced (and its cast album, produced by Schwartz and released by Motown Records, was a big seller); the same is true for compositions in subsequent shows, but Schwartz is not limited to one musical style. His reviewers, however, have often been limited to one musical vision.

The battle between “popular” (often meaning “rock”) and “Broadway” music is no longer worth fighting after the success of the rock-oriented musicals Hair (1967) and Rent (1996), and in an era when the most successful musical of our time – Hamilton, which opened in 2015 – is predominantly rap. [See Kirk’s article “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” posted on ROT on 2 October 2011. ~Rick] The times they were a-changin’ – to quote a Bob Dylan song – when Schwartz emerged on the musical theater scene, and they continue to change.

Schwartz contributed to that process, and in addition his work has held up well on its own. For me, his songs are such an integral part of my musical knowledge that I can hardly imagine doing without them.

Defying Gravity is rich in detail; I have only skimmed the surface of a book invaluable for anyone interested in Steven Schwartz, in musical theater, in Broadway lore, and in the writing process. It’s a book worthy of its subjects.

[Kirk  told me that when he received Schwartz’s Defying Gravity from Amazon, he “happened to open the front cover of the book and found that he’d signed it.”  What a nice little lagniappe!

[I told you above how I responded to Schwartz’s Pippin, and you see that Kirk and I essentially agree in our assessments of that ground-breaking musical.  I might add, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I don’t respond to Godspell quite as enthusiastically.  Whenever I’ve attended a performance of Godspell, I always feel like I don’t really belong there—as if I’ve wandered surreptitiously into a church and sooner or later, everyone’ll turn around and point at me and shout: “INTERLOPER!”  (You see, I’m not Christian.  The gospels are someone else’s holy texts, but not mine.)  Jesus Christ Superstar makes me feel similarly uneasy—plus I’ve never been crazy for Andrew Lloyd Webber.)]

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