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SGN Exclusive Interview: The wicked Stephen Schwartz
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SGN Exclusive Interview: The wicked Stephen Schwartz

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Stephen Schwartz is a double threat when it comes to the world of musical theater. His Broadway credentials of writing music and lyrics include Godspell, The Magic Show, Pippin and the smash hit Wicked, among others. He has also composed the score of the films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, and Enchanted. As Wicked approaches its sixth anniversary on Broadway and prepares for its triumphant return to the Emerald City, Stephen Schwartz prepares for the world premiere of his newest project, an opera called Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Taking time out from his schedule, Mr. Schwartz gave the SGN an exclusive interview about his illustrious career.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Your first hit was the title song, "Butterflies Are Free" used in both the play and the movie. How did you get the opportunity to write the song?

Stephen Schwartz: My agent represented actor Keir Dullea in the play and they were trying out the show in Summer Stock. They needed a song for the character, so she suggested that I write something and it was submitted.

Andrews-Katz: In 1971 you wrote Godspell, including the song "Day By Day," and won two Grammy awards. What made the Gospels of St. Matthew more of a musical adaptation than any of the other gospels?

Schwartz: Godspell was the brainchild of John-Michael Tebelak, who conceived the show. It was his idea to approach the gospels and teachings of Jesus that way. They needed a full score and I was invited to see it as a sort of tryout for its transfer to Off-Broadway. I can't take any of the credit for the concept.

Andrews-Katz: The costuming for the film Godspell was controversial. Where did the idea of hippie and harlequin-like clothes come from?

Schwartz: That was the concept for the original show, but it seems it was less controversial on stage for some reason. John-Michael based his concept on Harvey Cox's book, The Feast of Fools, a metaphorical, theological and philosophical look at the followers of Jesus.

Andrews-Katz: How does an obscure legend about "Pippin, the hunchback son of Charlemagne" become a musical that earns 11 Tony Award nominations?

Schwartz: Carnegie Mellon University presented an original yearly musical. My third year there, a friend of mine came across a little paragraph about Pippin, the son of Charlemagne, who plotted to kill and overthrow his father. I saw a musical with intrigue, betrayal and court pomp. As I continued to work on it, it evolved into a semi-autobiographical story about a young man trying to find his true self.

Andrews-Katz: Did the creative team behind The Magic Show build the production around Doug Henning's magical talents, or did he approach you with the idea for a musical?

Schwartz: Two of the producers of Godspell were in Canada and saw Doug Henning doing a show there. They thought he was an amazing performer and thought it would be fun to build a show around it. Knowing I was a "magic freak," they called me.

Andrews-Katz: The legendary song "Meadowlark," from The Baker's Wife, has achieved a cult status all on its own. Why the controversy of being cut/added-back to the show so many times?

Schwartz: The producer, David Merrick, just never liked the song. He felt it was too long, got in the way of storytelling and felt it just wasn't right for the show. There were so many changes made in both the show and the song. But in the end, the "Meadowlark" saga has endured in song and story.

Andrews-Katz: You've touched on the themes of religion and spirituality several times in your work (Godspell, Children of Eden, The Prince of Egypt). Is spirituality an important part of your life?

Schwartz: I don't think those show should be described that way. [They] are about bigger issues, and are not necessarily about spiritual themes. Some of those pieces I was offered to work on and some were from my own generation.

Andrews-Katz: Wicked premiered in San Francisco in May 2003, and on Broadway five months later. Aside from a few cast members, what were some of the major changes made?

Schwartz: We did a lot of work on the book with trying to strengthen the character of Elphaba. I replaced one song and rewrote several others changing the lyrics. It was working in San Francisco, but it just needed to be better.

Andrews-Katz: There are rumors of a film version of Wicked. Can you comment on those?

Schwartz: There will be a movie at some point, but it is not even remotely in the works at this time.

Andrews-Katz: September 2009 will see the world premier of your newest work, an opera of Séance on a Wet Afternoon. What are some differences in writing for musical theater versus opera?

Schwartz: There are a lot of them. I learn some as I go along, this being my first opera. It's been a steep learning curve for me; it's very challenging and interesting doing something so different. The task of storytelling remains the same but the style is quite different. I had to learn a lot about legit opera voices.

Andrews-Katz: Is Séance on a Wet Afternoon more in the style of traditional or contemporary opera?

Schwartz: [There are] aspects of both. The music is definitely modern and the storytelling is more contemporary. But like traditional opera, it has set pieces and moods like traditional Mozart and Puccini.

Stephen Schwartz is the winner of three Grammy and three Academy Awards. In 1974, he achieved the distinctive honor of being the youngest composer to have three Broadway musicals running simultaneously. His other Broadway shows include the highly acclaimed Working and Rags. His works have earned him 10 Tony Award nominations as well as winning four Drama Desk, three Grammy and three Academy Awards. Directing the world premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon is Stephen's son, Scott Schwartz. The opera opens September 26 at Opera Santa Barbara.

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SGN Exclusive Interview: The wicked Stephen Schwartz
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