Stephen Schwartz :: Enchantingly wicked with the SFGMC
With a career spanning four decades, award-winning lyricist/composer and director has given us hit musicals such as "Godspell," "Pippin," and "Wicked." On screen he has also written the songs to such animated hits as "Pocahontas," "Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "Prince of Egypt," as well as the lyrics and music to fantasy musical "Enchanted."
His trophy case includes Drama Desk, Academy and Grammy Awards, with a half-dozen Tony nominations. His hit musicals have been amongst the longest running productions in Broadway history, and major cities across the globe have seen these hits. So it goes without saying that Stephen Schwartz is one of the most prolific contributors of material to the musical theater.
Schwartz was in Los Angeles working on a new film when I spoke to him about his upcoming collaboration with community choral group the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus being presented this month, the long lasting impressions of "Godspell" and "Pippin," his transition from writing for stage to writing for animated films, making pop hits from his music, and that ever eluded Tony trophy.
One "Pippin" too many?
BeBe: As I was thinking back over the wealth of music provided for us over the last 40 years, I couldn’t help but remember that one of the first musicals I had ever performed in high school was "Godspell." I’m sure you get that a lot.
Stephen Schwartz: Oh, great! I think that’s true for a lot of people that it was their first musical.
BeBe: Of course, we have all sung "Day By Day" walking down the streets... and in the shower (both laughing)! "Day By Day" is probably one of the most sung songs ever.
Stephen Schwartz: One may imagine.
BeBe: As I was doing some research on you, I stumbled upon the fact that you had actually written the music to your award winning musical "Pippin" while still in college.
Stephen Schwartz: Well, that’s not entirely true. I began working on "Pippin" in college for a school show. I went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they used to do an original musical, a student musical every year. I wound up co-writing the show when I was there with a friend of mine during the third year called "Pippin, Pippin."
I have no idea why we had two Pippins. I’m sure I did at the time. But anyway, that was kind of the beginning of the show, but by the time it came to New York, it had a completely different score. There wasn’t really a single note or lyric left in the show from when we did it at Carnegie. That is really where the idea came from.
BeBe: So was there forethought put into scratching what already existed and starting from scratch, or did the ultimate revision, so to speak, just happen that way?
Stephen Schwartz: Well, a friend of mine, Ron Strauss, had come across a paragraph in a history text book this other Charlemagne and a plot against his life by one of his sons named Pippin, and, since we were all drama students, we were very enamored at that time of "The Lion In Winter," the James Goldman hit play and movie. I think the movie had just come out, and it had very snappy dialogue etcetera, so we thought it would fun to do that kind of a musical with a lot of "intrigue and backstabbing" (a mischievous laugh).
So, that’s where the idea came from, and it sort of evolved into this story of a young man in search of himself. The kind of historical medieval melodrama aspect of it faded away as I had worked on it in college.
BeBe: You have amassed so many awards over the years including three Oscars and four Grammys, but one award that has so far alluded you is the Tony, even though our musicals and stage shows have been performed many, many, many times all over the world. Not to mention, your shows have, for the most part, been huge hits on Broadway. Does not having the Tony but a bad taste in your mouth, or do you give it any thought at all?
Stephen Schwartz: I don’t really. Nobody goes into, I don’t think, this business or wants to be a writer so he or she can win awards. It’s not really about that. So, I don’t really don’t think about that (not winning the Tony) to be perfectly honest with you.
Well, It would have been nice (chuckling) to have one a little differently shaped there in my trophy case, but I don’t worry about it very much. I just try and do my work as well as I can, and write about what is important to me or amusing and significant or moving, and hope enough people like it that I can make a living at it.
Movies vs. the stage
BeBe: One thing that I have found interesting with your career is that you have been able to find success outside of the musical stage arena, similar to say Cole Porter. You have done well in your transition from stage to films, including animated film, or should I say in particular animated films. Tell me is there any specific transition you have to make when writing music for film versus music for a stage show?
Stephen Schwartz: Yeah, a little bit. I think you need to keep in mind that it is a movie and therefore the camera needs to be moving. You know. I think that’s the main thing that I try to keep in mind. It’s a little different way of thinking about song structure. When I was giving interviews about this kind of thing when we were doing "Pocahontas," one of my stock lines, but it remains true, on the stage where the lead is sort of in the middle of the stage singing a ballad for three or four minutes, it can be one of the most memorable moments of the show. But if you have a character in an animated film singing a ballad, she better be going over a waterfall.
BeBe: You know it is amazing when you go see a stage production, a musical, and you can walk away and say every song was wonderful. With that said, I love every song in "Wicked."
Stephen Schwartz: Oh, thank you!
BeBe: That is a rarity where the audience walks away singing or humming every song. And of course "Wicked" has been performed here in San Francisco many times.
Stephen Schwartz: That’s where we started!
BeBe: So over the course of your career you have written what I guess we would consider to be standards in that the songs stand up on their own. The song is actually good...
Stephen Schwartz: (interjecting with a laugh)... why thank you.
Writing for stories
BeBe: It doesn’t matter who sings the song, the song stands up on its own merits. Of course, you have had many people perform many of your songs with varying talent, style and what-not. Some of your songs have not only been well received on stage, and in their stage or film production version, but also as pop songs, as with "Color of the Wind" (from "Pocahontas" and recorded by Vanessa Williams), "When You Believe" (from "Prince of Egypt" and recorded by Mariah Carey and the legendary Whitney Houston) and as previously mentioned "Day by Day" (from "Godspell, " which spent 14 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart). How important would you say it is for a song to stand the test of time for that right voice, that right style to interpret and introduce your song to the world?
Stephen Schwartz: Because I am basically writing for stories, whether they are on stage or on film, my first responsibility as I see it is storytelling. I try and come up with songs that will illuminate the characters and further the stories and reveal something that is happening in the dramatic situation. So, that’s really where I am focusing. I won’t be disingenuous and say that I don’t look for at least one song with inside the work that may have a life outside of the work itself, because it is just helpful for the show or the movie. But, basically I’m trying to find the voice of the character rather than the voice of the singer who is going to do the pop version of it. That being said, obviously I’ve been pretty lucky with the ones that you have cited to have done the songs.
BeBe: now, we recently been blessed by your biography with "Defying Gravity" by Carol de Giere.
Stephen Schwartz: Yes, I wound up liking that book. I think Carol de Giere did a real nice job of it. She followed me around with a tape recorder a couple of years physically. She did some things that I really like in the book. She has these little things that are snippets that I said or others people she interviewed said which kind of have suggestions about certain creative issues any writer or actor or creative person might face. And I thought them very clever of her and actually pretty useful.
A Houdini musical?
BeBe: Now your next project that you are working on musically is stage production about Houdini?
Stephen Schwartz: I’m working on two new things, I’m in Los Angeles because I’m working on another animated feature for Dreamworks, which is sort of an animated Bollywood movie. I’m working with the composer A.R. Rahman, who wrote the music for "Slumdog Millionaire" among other things. In fact, I’m off to India for research in a few days, which is going to be exciting and a little daunting. And then, yes, I have just begun working with Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter for "A Few Good Men," "The Social Network," "Moneyball," and television’s "The West Wing") on a stage musical about Houdini. That is in the very, very early stages. I have about two-thirds of a song written for that.
BeBe: I think everyone is intrigued by Houdini and seeing a musical stage production about him will be fabulous!
Stephen Schwartz: He’s an interesting character and things that concern him remain very contemporary concerns. But to be perfectly honest the attraction for me in this particular project was less Houdini than it was working with Aaron Sorkin, for whom I have so much admiration. Given the chance to collaborate with him was pretty hard to pass up.
BeBe: Now let’s get to "Enchantingly Wicked" (we both laugh). This is a concert series you are doing in San Francisco in participation with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) on March 21 and 22.
Stephen Schwartz: I didn’t give the event the name. Someone at SFGMC came up with that.
BeBe: This concert series is not only going to feature some of your most famous songs from of your most noted stage and film works, many we have discussed here, but you have written a couple of original pieces specifically for SFGMC and guest performing group the Choral Project out of San Jose, California.
Stephen Schwartz: Both groups will be performing their respective pieces. The Choral Project piece called "Keramos" based on a Longfellow poem. It is something that the director of The Choral Project Daniel Hughes, whom I’ve known for a little while and whom I like very much, came to me with for the choral group. And I’m also going to sing some of my pop stuff with The Choral Project. And for the SFGMC, when I knew we were doing this concert, I thought maybe I should write something for them.
And I wound up writing a new piece called "Testimony" which is based on Dan Savage’s "It Gets Better Project," which I think is an amazing concept. It was really an interesting thing to work on because I wound up basically using material from various interviews from the "It Gets Better Project." Virtually all the words of "Testimony" are from what various people said in interviews. I’m pretty happy how the piece turned out. The premiere of this is the most exciting aspect of this particular evening ("Enchantingly Wicked"). And I’m also going to be doing a couple of songs with the amazing San Francisco soprano Melody Moore, whom I think is one of the finest sopranos in the country, if not the world. She is one of the best singers I’ve ever heard.
BeBe: Is this type of set up with community groups, such as SFGMC, putting together programs with your music and where you actually participate with them, is this new for you.
Stephen Schwartz: Yes, pretty much. This kind of program is new for me and that’s what makes it fun and exciting! I haven’t done anything like this, so it will be a bit of an adventure.
"Enchantingly Wicked, An Evening With Stephen Schwartz" featuring the San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus with Dr. Timothy Seelig, Artistic Director and special guests The Choral Project & Soprano Melody Moore. March 20 and 21, 2012, 2012 at 8pm. At the Davies Symphony Hall?201 Van Ness Street?San Francisco, CA. For more information, visit the San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus website. For about Stephen Schwartz, visit his website.