Broadway's Musical Wizard

In his extensive and varied career, from Broadway to Hollywood, Stephen Schwartz certainly knows about popular

Interview by Doug Rule
Published on May 16, 2013, 5:57am | Comments

Stephen Schwartz will make what he calls a ''guest appearance'' with the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

''I sing a song with the orchestra towards the end, and do another little thing about one of the songs in Wicked,'' Schwartz says, ''and that's kind of it.''

Stephen Schwartz

Stephen Schwartz

Of course, Schwartz is the man who wrote the music and lyrics for Wicked, the behemoth musical celebrating its first decade on Broadway this October. And while he may just show up at the end for a little singing, a little talking, the NSO Pops concert, The Wizard and I, is wholly focused on Schwartz's career -- it couldn't have happened without him. In effect, the concert, conceived of and conducted by the NSO's Steven Reineke and featuring several Broadway singers, is a retrospective -- though ''it shows a little bit more range than some of these concerts tend to do,'' notes Schwartz. For example, it includes symphonic suites from Wicked and the 2009 Schwartz opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The Washington Chorus will also perform a choral piece he composed inspired by the It Gets Better Project and now making the rounds of the gay men's chorus circuit. Says Schwartz, ''It's not just, 'Oh, here's a song from this show, and here's a song from that show.'''

Not that anyone would complain if that's all it was. From Broadway's Godspell in 1971 to DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt in 1998, to cite but two highlights of an extensive and varied career, Schwartz knows about popular.

Right now, in addition to the still-smashing success of Wicked, Schwartz is also represented on Broadway with a revival of Pippin. Schwartz worked ''pretty closely'' with Diane Paulus of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in reviving a show that hadn't seen the bright lights of Broadway in over 40 years.

The success of the revival, which has snagged an impressive 11 Tony nominations, has made for ''a pretty intense schedule'' for Schwartz. Speaking on a recent Friday afternoon from his home in Connecticut, Schwartz was hard at work finalizing production on the Pippin cast album, due for digital release June 4 and on physical CD July 9. But on that day he was also taking time out to entertain visitors: his daughter, her husband and their 9-month-old granddaughter. ''We're all very amused watching my granddaughter show off all of her tricks,'' he says. ''At that age, every day they have new tricks to do.''

Or, as her grandfather once famously put it in song, ''Magic to do, just for you.''

METRO WEEKLY: Let's start by talking about the revival of Pippin. I'm guessing you've seen the production a few times now that it's back on Broadway.

STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, just a few times. Obviously I went a lot during previews to try and help with sound issues and with the singers and take notes, as one does. Now that the show is open and running, once my responsibilities for the cast album are discharged -- because I always produce my albums, so I'm producing this one as well -- then I'll probably drop in every six weeks or so, just to check up on things, as I try to do with Wicked as well.

MW: Are you pleased with the Pippin revival?

SCHWARTZ: Extremely. I had a great experience working with the director Diane Paulus and her team, and I think she's done an amazing job. The book writer, Roger Hirson, and I, both really could not be more pleased.

MW: Was a revival of Pippin something you had been pushing for?

SCHWARTZ: No, to the contrary. Several times over the years we'd been approached about doing a revival on Broadway, and for various reasons, having to do with specific ideas, we said no. And then a confluence of circumstances, including our enthusiasm for Diane and her concept and the fact that she wanted to incorporate the Bob Fosse choreography as well as her new concept for the piece -- several things came together to make us decide this was one to give a try. And even so, of course, it started out as a regional production up in Boston. And if it hadn't worked there then it wouldn't have transferred.

MW: I realize it's very early, but has there been talk about a tour?

SCHWARTZ: Somewhat to my shock, basically two days after it opened and was quite well received, I got informed that they were discussing plans for a tour. Which seems to be awfully quick. But if it continues to do this well in New York, then I think they'll put a tour together. But, you know, the show just opened a few weeks ago, so....

MW: Of course Wicked is perennially touring.

SCHWARTZ: [Laughs.] Yes, that's a good way to put it. It does seem to be perennially touring. In fact, the team, all of us have to drag ourselves -- well, I say that slightly facetiously -- but we're all making a trip to see one of the tours in New Orleans next week, just to check up on it, because it's due for a checkup.

MW: When it has set up shop here at the Kennedy Center, both times it was a smash hit, nearly impossible to get tickets.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah well, you're not going to hear me feel sorry about that. [Laughs.]

MW: Did you say you go in every six weeks or so and see Wicked on Broadway?

SCHWARTZ: With Wicked now I tend to go whenever there's a major cast change. For instance, [in a week] we're going to change over Elphabas and Fiyeros, etc., so I'll go in and take a look at it then, and take some notes. We do what we can to try and keep the show in good shape, and make sure that the show is maintained as well as possible.

MW: I assume you didn't foresee Wicked would have the resonance and staying power it's had over the past decade.

SCHWARTZ: No. I mean that's not really something that one can foresee. We had a pretty good feeling about the show, and that it had a good chance to succeed, fairly early on. But that strange alchemy that transforms something from a hit into a phenomenon is related to timing and sort-of where the zeitgeist is -- things completely outside the realm of the show itself. That's impossible to predict, and it's not even really worth thinking about in advance.

Pippin

Pippin

MW: In addition to 10 years of Wicked, I understand this year also marks your 65th birthday.

SCHWARTZ: My 65th birthday! I'm sort of horrified to say, but these days there's no concealing any facts about things like that. You have to just be upfront about it.

MW: When is your actual birthday?

SCHWARTZ: Oh, it was back in March. But I guess they consider it the whole year. And it's nice to just sort of stretch out my birthday celebrations.

MW: How did your choral piece ''Testimony,'' first performed by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus last year, come to be?

SCHWARTZ: What happened was the SFGMC called me and said we'd like to do a program of your work. And I agreed to it. Then I said, ''Well, I like to write choral music. Maybe I should write a piece for you for this concert.'' I found very compelling and admirable the It Gets Better Project and what Dan Savage and his team had come up with. And I decided I wanted to write a piece based on that. It's inspired by and to some extent derived from interviews that people gave for the It Gets Better Project. It's a piece I'm really proud of.

MW: Along similar lines is Mika's adaptation of one big number from Wicked, rechristened ''Popular Song,'' with a strong anti-bullying message. I realize that will not be performed at the NSO show, but what do you think of it?

SCHWARTZ: I am just so tickled by that. Mika and I had tried to get together to write a couple things, and our schedules just didn't allow it, particularly with the geographical distance between us. And then out of the blue, maybe a year or so ago, he called me and said he had an idea to do something based on ''Popular,'' and would that be okay with me. And I'm a fan of his, so I said, ''Yes -- but of course I'd have to hear it.'' [Laughs.] And he did the record and when I was in London around the time he had finished it, I went over to his house and very nervously he played it for me. I just thought it was fantastic. I just love it. Really amusing and very imaginative, how he used the idea of the song ''Popular'' and converted it into a song of his own.

MW: Obviously the ''Testimony'' piece is of interest to the LGBT community, but then your work in general has a natural resonance and an appeal with the community. And yet I'm not sure whether you are part of our community. Are you gay?

SCHWARTZ: Well, the truth is that there are three topics that I don't discuss in interviews -- religion, politics and sexuality. I don't want audiences who come to look at my work through a prism -- where the extent to which who I am and what I think coincides with who they are and what they think. I like them to just come to the work on their own, and it either speaks to them or it doesn't. So those are topics I just don't discuss.

MW: But obviously, by creating ''Testimony,'' and talking about the power of the It Gets Better Project, you're clearly moved by the power of people standing up and being public about their sexuality.

SCHWARTZ: Well, absolutely. And as you probably know, the companies of Wicked were way out in front in terms of the anti-bullying campaigns, and the It Gets Better Project. We were among the first [shows] to make It Gets Better videos. And Wicked, as you also probably know -- obviously we can't do it as an official entity, but the companies of Wicked have also been very, very active in the marriage-equality campaigns.

MW: Are you working on another show that might become a Broadway show?

SCHWARTZ: Nothing that I can really talk about quite yet. If it comes together and goes forward, there's something that may show up in a year or so. But it's premature really to discuss it. I don't mean to be secretive about it, but so many of these things fall apart, that I find it's best not to talk about them too much in advance.

MW: One thing we haven't touched on is your work in film. I know Disney's Enchanted, for which you wrote lyrics, was just a few years ago.

SCHWARTZ: I've had very happy experiences working with Disney. The three films that I did with them, I did in collaboration with Alan Menken, who I enjoy working with very much and who's a very good friend of mine. Disney seems to not really be making musicals right now, so, currently I'm working on an animated feature for Dreamworks, which is sort of a Bollywood animated musical. And I'm collaborating with the Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman, who wrote the score for Slumdog Millionaire. He's probably best known for that. That's a lot of fun, and that project is in process.

MW: Has there been any talk of adapting your stage work to the big screen?

SCHWARTZ: Eventually there will probably be a Wicked movie, and there's some talk about a Pippin movie. I don't know if either of those will happen, but there is talk.

MW: And how about the other way around, adapting the animated Disney films you wrote with Menken into Broadway musicals?

SCHWARTZ: We are, in fact -- I guess I'm allowed to say it -- sometimes I don't know what I'm allowed to announce and not. But we are talking about a stage adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which as you may know was actually done for stage, but in Germany, back in 1999. And now we're talking about the possibility of an English-language version of that. And that may happen, but it's very early [in the process]. But it is in process, and I really like that score, I think it's Alan's best score. And I think it would translate very well theatrically, so I'm happy that Disney is considering it, and I hope it comes to pass.

MW: Do you see more diversity in, or different types of, musicals than when you started in the business?

SCHWARTZ: No, I wouldn't say that's the case. Things seem to come in waves. And for a while, there's one kind of musical because something succeeds and then a lot of people try to do more or less the same thing, and then that stops working. And then somebody does something else that succeeds, and so a lot of producers jump on that bandwagon. I wouldn't say Broadway is extremely diverse in terms of its musical theater, let's put it that way.

MW: Are you not enthusiastic about this year's crop of new musicals?

SCHWARTZ: Well, there weren't very many. There was a very small group of new musicals that made it this year, which is somewhat disconcerting. The last couple of years have not been great for new musicals. But I don't know that that's necessarily a trend. So one hopes that the next couple of years there will be more of them -- and more that are successful.

NSO Pops' The Wizard and I runs evenings Thursday, May 16, through Saturday, May 18, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Schwartz also sits for an ''In Conversation'' interview with ASCAP's Michael Kerker Saturday, May 18, at 5 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Gallery. Tickets are $20 to $85 for the concert, and $15 for the conversation. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

Pippin runs at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th St., in New York. Tickets are $59 to $142. Call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.

Wicked runs at the Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st St., in New York. Tickets are $105 to $170. Call 212-840-3890 or visit gershwintheatre.com.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace