American Songbook Association Gala – For Good: A Celebration of Stephen Schwartz

From the title song of Butterflies Are Free through musical theater (most recently, the juggernaut that is Wicked), film, television, chorales, an opera, and singer/songwriter CDS, Stephen Schwartz has turned his talents to an astonishing number of genres contributing to the soundtrack of generations.

According to Wikipedia, Schwartz has won: three Oscars, three Grammys, four Drama Desk Awards, one Golden Globe Award, the Richard Rodgers Award for Excellence in Musical Theater and a self-described “tiny handful of tennis trophies.” The public side of his beneficence is reflected in roles as Artistic Director of ASCAP Musical Theater Workshops on two coasts for over 20 years and tenure as past president and current Council Member of the Dramatists Guild.

Judging by tonight’s accolades, however, it may be the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for humanitarian and mentorship contributions to the theater of which he’s most proud. Schwartz has supported and advised countless numbers of artists in and outside of his own productions. Descriptions of his selfless attention, advice, support and encouragement rained on the modest composer/lyricist during this celebration.

Highlights of tonight’s performances:

Sally Mayes; Teri Ralston

Sally Mayes offered an open-throated, joyful, persuasive “Beautiful City” (Godspell) which fanned out like a blanket. The vocalist inhabits lyrics. Teri Ralston, who played Denise in the original 1976 cast of The Baker’s Wife, performed “Chanson” from the utterly lovely musical that never made it to Broadway. In French and English, the song arrived with vocal surety, warmth and spirit. A pretty arrangement featured accordion as well as piano. Also from that original cast, Kurt Peterson, who played Dominique, sings a resonant “Proud Lady” with as much cocky flirt as he likely employed back then.

Kurt Peterson

Jim Brochu regaled us with his meeting Schwartz as students at Carnegie Melon and their sky-lark trip to New York to see the brand new Fiddler on the Roof. At dinner after the show, Schwartz declared to Brochu’s father that he would one day have three shows running on Broadway. June 1976 saw this come about with Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show. A case of ‘if you build it they will come’? (Field of Dreams).

Rising from the audience, Ben Vereen told us his agent warned him against appearing in 1972’s Pippin which was sure to fail. Rife with emotion, he described auditioning in front of several creatives including “this little kid,” Stephen Schwartz, who became a dear friend. “Because Stephen said yes tonight, we’re honoring a legacy to come.”

Christine Andreas; Liz Callaway

Paul Shaffer (33 years David Letterman’s sidekick and bandleader) described the serendipitous way he went from accompanying a friend at an audition for the Toronto production of Godspell to Schwartz, asking that he assemble musicians and conduct the show, to his coming to New York (first time out of Canada) as keyboards on 1974’s The Magic Show.

Christine Andreas unleashed her glorious voice and signature vibrato in a stirring rendition of “Children of the Wind” (Rags – music by Charles Strouse) “The inhumanity of the story is still in the news every day,” she commented sadly.  Liz Callaway shared her “favorite” song (not just her favorite Stephen Schwartz song) “Meadowlark” (The Baker’s Wife), a preference felt by a great many of us. The song flew from her heart.

John Boswell (piano); Scott Coulter; Anthony Murphy

Anthony Murphy’s beautifully restrained “Colors of the Wind” (Pochahontas) exemplified the powerful effect of emotion without unnecessary volume. Across the stage, equally understated, Scott Coulter’s rendition of “When You Believe” (The Prince of Egypt), brought both the word ‘miracles’ and his eyebrows to a point. Murphy then joined him in a refined duet. As well as director, Coulter acted as graceful, intermittent host. “Stephen Schwartz is proof that the American Songbook is not fully written – because he’s still writing it,” he noted.

President of the ASA, Michael Roberts presented the first annual Bill Sensenbrenner Dream Maker Award to James Brent White for a career centered on fighting for minorities, women and the LGBTQ communities. “It takes patience, dedication, and sacrifice to help make people feel seen and heard,” White declared from the podium. Sensenbrenner was the engine behind the ASA’s education program and a primary fundraiser. His loss is felt.

Michael Roberts and James Brent White

The ASA’s Executive Director Carolyn Montgomery told us of the organization’s worthy school outreach program which doesn’t teach music, but rather how to speak and think through the art. We’re told ASA chapters are being established in Los Angeles and Chicago. (Read my earlier interview with Carolyn.)

Two-time Tony Award winner, songwriter Rupert Holmes, began his award presentation to Schwartz with “These things mean nothing as I tell my sons, Tony, Tony, and Tony. American and Songbook are significant words in Stephen’s life,” he continued, then delivering a brief history of the artist’s professional beginnings.

Stephen Schwartz; Rupert Holmes

Admitting he’s older than Schwartz, the presenter shared that his generation thought musical theater was old fashioned and “dowdy” when the honoree came on the scene. Pippin radically changed his mind. Schwartz’s work, he went on to say, is not associated with time or trend, but rather true to the human heart. His commitment to fostering new talent is legend. It was one of the most eloquent speeches I’ve ever heard at an occasion of this kind. Smiling, Schwartz accepted with “This is a little bit like drowning, watching your life pass before you…I never heard the term ‘songbook’ until a few years ago. It’s moving to be included…”

Stephen Schwartz

Tonight’s finale was “For Good,” the last song in Wicked. In addition to internal rhymes, Schwartz has a predilection for titles that mean two things. Book writer Winnie Holzman lit the flame here by commenting Glinda and Elphaba had really changed one another for the better and permanently. Schwartz went to his daughter Jessica with a yellow pad and asked her to write down everything she’d say to lifelong friend Sarah if she was never to see her again. “Basically, she wrote the first verse of the song.”

Also featuring Jessica Hendy, David LaMaar, Debbie Gravitte, Kelli Rabke, and a heartfelt testimonial from songwriter John Bucchino (video) for a fertile 35 year-friendship.

The show is well produced, seamless in execution.

Photos by Genevieve Keddy

American Songbook Association Gala: For Good: A Celebration of Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz’ Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Rupert Holmes
Corporate Recipient of The Bill Sensenbrenner Dream Maker Award- James Brent White
Director- Scott Coulter
Music Director/PIano- Michael Roberts
Piano- John Boswell
Accordion- Rachel Kaufman

Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center    
May 9, 2022

About Alix Cohen (1635 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.