Performances by Michael McCorry Rose and Ciara Renée
Conversation with Frank DiLella
Stephen Schwartz is, in part, the composer and/or lyricist of such as Godspell, Pippin, Working, Rags, and Wicked on stage and Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Enchanted and The Prince of Egypt on screen. In person, the artist is modest, articulate, knowledgeable, and wry.
Frank DiLella and Stephen Schwartz
September 14, 2021, Wicked reopened on Broadway. It’s first (and original) spoken line, Glinda’s “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?” elicited a roar of audience enthusiasm. Acknowledging the moment, our host chooses to rewind.
Stephen Lawrence Schwartz fell in love with musical theater at nine when his parents took him to see the concept-album-turned-into-a-show Archy and Mehitabel, about the relationship between a literary cockroach and a provocative alley cat. (It’s a wonderful piece.) Reviewers excoriated it. “Who would possibly want to see a show full of dancing cats?!” the artist exclaims implicitly referring to the huge success of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s much later Cats.
The word that comes to Schwartz when recalling Godspell is “joy.” Though Pippin had been optioned, Godspell was his first produced show. Having come out of his time at Carnegie Mellon, it was playing at La Mama Off Broadway when a producer (who ironically had turned down Pippin) saw and became interested in it. Not yet a musical, it needed work. According to its author, the process was surprisingly smooth. “It was sort of a genius idea, to take `The Gospel According to St. Michael’ and have it be funny without making fun of it.”
“It is a whimsical view of Jesus, who is made into pure simpleton clown, with red nose, a red heart painted on his forehead and a Superman shirt. All his followers and disciples are also clowns…People wanting to see the contemporary relevance of the Christian ethic should not be surprised to find it here. Young churchmen looking for ways to fill their empty pews might well find hope at this seemingly hip Christian message, with its perfectly contemporary and perfectly vulgar concept of peace and goodwill to all men.” New York Times Critic Clive Barnes
Pippin also started its journey at Carnegie Mellon during Schwartz’s years writing musicals for The Scotch and Soda Club, “absolutely the best training.” In his junior year, he came across a paragraph in a history text about Charlemagne’s son trying to overthrow his father. “The film Lion in Winter, a medieval Virginia Woolf, was popular. So we did Pippin, Pippin.” (He has no recollection why the name is used twice.) When a New York producer came across “the little vanity album we made,” the show’s torturous six year trajectory would begin in earnest.
DiLella asks Schwartz about working with Director Bob Fosse. “My feelings about Bob have been colored having seen the recent television film Fosse/Verdon (depicting infidelity and self-destructive character) …I was 24 and had no idea what was going on…The truth is that tension between us might’ve made the show what it was…Now I’m kind of the guardian of his work in it. I said to Director (of the revival) Diane Paulus, ‘Somewhere Bobby is looking up and laughing,’ Schwartz comments.
The composer/lyricist accompanies vocalist Michael McCorry Rose on Pippin’s “Corner of the Sky,” the ‘I want’ song: Rivers belong where they can ramble/Eagles belong where they can fly/I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free/Got to find my corner of the sky. Rose is almost completely still but for a hand on his heart. He has a fine tenor but withheld exhilaration keeps the song tamped down. A surprising high C soars. I remember young, skinny John Rubinstein (in the original) exploding with universal angst.
“An amiable and racy musical, Pippin, which arrived at the Imperial Theater last night, has three great things to commend it. It is one of the best musical stagings to be seen on Broadway in years, it is most beautifully designed and it might well do for the actor Ben Vereen what Cabaret did for Joel Grey.” Clive Barnes
When asked about his favorites, Schwartz says he’ll never tell. Years ago he heard an interview with Stephen Sondheim, in which the great man replied “Someone in a Tree” was his favorite song. “I could never listen to it again without being busy analyzing why it was his favorite,” Schwartz remarks.
“You were kind of done writing musicals when Wicked came along, weren’t you?,” asks DiLella. When Alan Menken’s collaborator Howard Ashman tragically died, he called Schwartz who was “no longer having fun” on Broadway. He and Menken immediately worked well together. Vacationing in Hawaii during this period, a musician friend spoke about the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire. “The hairs on my arm stood up. It was the best idea and me in so many ways,” Schwartz says.
The iteration that tried out in San Francisco was “way too long and a mess.” After a meeting during which the creatives yelled at one another, Schwartz emerged to see a mass of people near the front of the theater. “I thought there’d been a terrible accident.” The crowd was, in fact, lined up at the box office. “I think we shouldn’t have been fighting so much,” he says wanly smiling. “We thought we might have a hit, but had no expectation it would be a phenomenon.” He points out a zeitgeist of women’s issues helped buoy success.
At the piano, Schwartz plays several versions of what became Elphaba’s “I want” song, “The Wizard and I,” explaining why each was jettisoned. It was Schwartz’s son Scott who finally said flat out that earlier renditions weren’t working. “Have her do something that gives her the right to sing,” he suggested. Outcome? The character’s inadvertent magic was celebrated. Fascinating. Vocalist Ciara Renée performs. Wowza. This is an actress. Phrasing is impeccable and moving. Vocal is controlled soaring. The striking young woman’s voice is along the lines of Idina Menzel (who created Elphaba) but warmer.
We close with “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.” He then plays and sings with great tenderness. It ends: Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?/I do believe I have been changed for the better/And because I knew you/Because I knew you/Because I knew you/I have been changed/For good.
A terrific evening.
The film of Wicked is in the works. Prince of Egypt is up in London. A sequel to the delightful Enchanted will be out shortly.
Composer/Lyricist Stephen Schwartz won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics, three Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards and The Special Isabel Stevenson Tony Award for commitment to serving artists and fostering new talent. “I’m not big on awards,” he says when these are cited. “They’re political; luck and who’s against you that year are both involved. Alan Menken won for everything except his best score, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Frank DiLella is the Emmy Award winning host of On Stage on Spectrum News NY1, the news channel’s weekly half-hour theater program.
Photos by Michael Priest
Opening: Stephen Schwartz, Michael McCorry Rose, Ciara Renée, Frank DiLella