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Conversation with Stephen Schwartz

Want to write a Broadway musical? Then write, says one of Broadway’s best

By Judie Jacobson

In a career spanning four decades, Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz has written such hit musicals as “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked,” and has contributed lyrics for a number of successful films, including “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Prince of Egypt” and “Enchanted.”

For his efforts, Schwartz has won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics, three Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards and has been nominated for six Tony Awards.

Born in New York City, Schwartz has lived in Ridgefield for many years. He studied piano and composition at the Juilliard School of Music while in high school, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1968 with a B.F.A. in Drama. His first major credit was the title song for the play “Butterflies Are Free.” In 1971, he wrote the music and new lyrics for “Godspell,” for which he won two Grammys. This was followed by the English texts, in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, for Bernstein’s “Mass,” which opened the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Schwartz’s most recent musical, “Wicked,” opened in the fall of 2003 and is currently running on Broadway and in several other productions around the U.S. and the world. In 2008, “Wicked” reached its 1900th performance on Broadway, making Schwartz the only songwriter in Broadway history ever to have three shows run more than 1900 performances.

Schwartz has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. A book about his career, Defying Gravity, has recently been released by Applause Books.

Under the auspices of the ASCAP Foundation, Schwartz runs musical theater workshops in New York and Los Angeles and serves on the ASCAP board. He is also currently President of the Dramatists’ Guild.

Schwartz will be the featured performer at the Ner Tamid dinner on Wednesday, May 20, hosted by Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford. The Temkin and Weiner families are honorees.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Schwartz about his long, illustrious career.

Q: What was it that drew you to a career as a composer and lyricist?

A: It was something that I always wanted to do. I grew up on Long Island and my parents were theater-goers. They were not remotely involved in theater, but they did have a friend who was a composer and was working on a Broadway musical when I was a kid. I went to see that show and so I was sort of bitten by the bug very early. Essentially, it’s what I always wanted to do. I studied music as a kid and went to Julliard while I was still in high school, and then studied drama at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Q: Did any composers influence you in your work?

A: Absolutely – many, many composers that I listened to and admired. But the only one that I knew as a kid was my parents’ friend, George Kleinsinger. He was influential in persuading my parents that I had musical ability and they should consider getting me piano lessons, etc. Then, when I was in my early 20s I was fortunate enough to work with Leonard Bernstein and he was quite influential.

Q: How did you get the opportunity to work with the legendary Leonard Bernstein?

A: By that point I had gotten an agent named Shirley Bernstein, who was Lenny’s sister, and she and he were very close. She knew that he was struggling to complete the mass that he had promised for the opening of the Kennedy Center and he was looking for a collaborator. So, even though I was very young and relatively inexperienced, she brought him to see “Godspell,” which had just opened Off Broadway, and she recommended me; then he and I met and that’s how that came about. As you would imagine, for someone who was so young getting the chance to work with Leonard Bernstein and spend time with him was enormously valuable and educational in many, many ways.

Q: What was he like?

A: He was probably the most generous individual that I’ve ever known in my life. I don’t mean generous in terms of giving money away – though he was probably generous in that way too – but in terms of how he treated other people; his generosity of spirit. It didn’t matter how young or unimportant you were; Lenny was always interested in everybody, or at least he acted as if he was, and that was a really good lesson for me to learn. I found it very impressive just seeing how he dealt with other people.

My wife tells a story about when we first met him. We were just these two young kids and he took us out to dinner with his kids and he seated her next to him at the dinner table and spent the entire dinner in conversation with her, asking her about herself and what she thought about things. In retrospect, she realized just how unusual that was and how generous. It’s an example of what kind of person he was.

Q: You mentioned “Godspell.” Was that the first show that you wrote?

A: Yes, that was my first show. I actually was working on “Pippin” at the time, but “Godspell” came up quickly and I took a detour that turned out to be a good one.

Q: Are you working on anything at the moment?

A: I’m working on a new project that will be premiering in Vienna next year. We have a workshop coming up at the end of this month. It’s fun and exciting.

We also just had the stage version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Paper Mill in New Jersey and I’ve been working on that since the beginning of the year. As they say, no rest for the weary.

Q: Of all the things that you’ve written, do you have a favorite?

A: I actually try not to answer that because I feel it sort of prejudices people’s points of view about my work. But I don’t think it’s a secret to those who know me that I have quite a fondness for my show “Children of Eden.” That may be the one that’s closest to my heart.

Q: A documentary about the Jewish influence on American musical theater ran on PBS not too long ago. Do you agree there was that influence – and do you think it still exists today?

A: They asked me to take part in that film and I was happy to do so. I think it’s undeniable, empirically, that the vast preponderance of musical theater writers have been Jewish. At one time, other than Cole Porter, it was pretty much everybody. Now that’s somewhat less true, but certainly the majority of musical theater writers even today are probably still Jewish – certainly half of them.

Q: It seems today that Broadway shows open and close in the space of a minute. Is the theater a tougher business today than it was when you started out?

A: Yes, I do find that to be true. I think the economics are very difficult. It’s so expensive to mount a show. And so producers try to play it very safe; it’s become much more star-driven then when I first started out. If you can get a television star to be in your show it’s much easier to sell tickets. I guess people feel if they’re going to spend a hundred some odd dollars for a ticket then even if they don’t like the show at least they will have gotten to see Bradley Cooper or Larry David in person, so maybe that’ll be worth part of the ticket price. Not to impugn any specific shows, but the whole star-driven thing has changed the landscape.

Q: Any advice for someone starting out in the musical theater business as a composer and/or lyricist?

A: I would say to write things. I do a lot of work with aspiring writers – I do workshops under the auspices of the ASCAP Foundation – so I know a lot of the up-and-coming younger writers. Basically, what they do is write a show and then make a recording of some of the pieces from the show so they can play them for people. It’s not hard to do these days and I think that experience is very important as a writer. You have to start working and putting yourself out there. You have to try and gain attention to yourself, rather than wait for opportunities to come your way.

Q: What do you have planned for your performance at the Bushnell on May 20?

A: I’m going to be performing with a couple of really good singers: Liz Callaway, who is a very well known Broadway performer, and Michael McCory Rose, who is an excellent singer and is currently appearing in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” whom I worked with him in “Wicked” previously. The three of us will perform my songs and I’ll be telling some stories about how they came to be.

Stephen Schwartz and Friends in concert at the Ner Tamid Dinner of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford; Wednesday, May 20 at The Bushnell in Hartford.

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