Guest Blogger: Carol de Giere is the author of Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked. Today, we are celebrating Stephen Schwartz’s 65th birthday!
A small upright piano arrived at the home of Stan and Sheila Schwartz on Long Island when their son Stephen was seven years old. It wasn’t long before the boy started goofing off from his piano lessons so he could improvise new tunes. No one imaged his creative “noodling,” as he calls it, would become one of his strategies for writing songs for Broadway and Hollywood, including the megahit musical Wicked.
Now, at age sixty-five, Stephen Schwartz still centers much of his work around his pianos, including his two grand pianos at home in Connecticut and one in his New York City office/condo. While writing scores for musicals, he almost never writes notes on paper as a first step. And even though his lyrics have won awards, when he feels his way into a character’s psychology, he likes to keep his hands on the ivories. “It’s my belief that music has a certain internal emotional logic, and therefore it should rule the song,” he says.
Schwartz’s credits to date include numerous stage musicals, such as the Broadway hits Wicked, Pippin, The Magic Show and Godspell. His movie credit list is not too shabby either, including lyrics for Disney’s Enchanted, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and songs for DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt.
As he marks his sixty-fifth birthday on March 6, 2013, even with his many achievements he still has no desire to retire. After all, one of his collaborators, Joseph Stein, with whom he worked on The Baker’s Wife and Rags, continued working up until his final days at age ninety-eight. Schwartz is currently penning lyrics for a DreamWorks animated feature as well as songs for a Broadway show about Houdini. (To keep up with his activities, subscribe to The Schwartz Scene newsletter.)
While the songwriter keeps busy writing new musicals, he also takes time to help up and coming composers, lyricists, and librettists through his role as Artistic Director for the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop and as President of the Dramatists Guild.
When I was writing his biography, Defying Gravity (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2008), I noticed that Stephen was especially good at talking about his creative process. I decided to include many of his perspectives and tips in a series of “Creativity Notes” so that other writers and fans could enjoy the insights.
For example, one of the challenges that every writer faces is deciding how to work with feedback while maintaining his or her vision for the piece. This is especially critical for success in collaborative arts like musical theatre. As Wicked developed, Schwartz and his collaborator, Winnie Holzman, found it challenging to sort through feedback when everybody around them had opinions. In my Creativity Note about this I included one of Stephen’s reflections about this process: “Ultimately, I think you have to take everything in and understand what in your show is communicating and what’s not—and then write what you think you would like to see, informed, of course, by what you have learned. My experience has taught me that when I write what truly moves, amuses, or interests me, it usually communicates with others.”
As many millions of owners of his cast albums will testify, what Stephen Schwartz writes seems to touch on their own life experience. That’s the magic of creativity at its best.
Defying Gravity takes readers into the creative world of Broadway and film composer Stephen Schwartz, from writing Godspell‘s score at age 23 through the making of the megahit Wicked. For this first authorized biography, de Giere draws from 80 hours of interviews with Schwartz and over 100 interviews with his colleagues, friends, and family. Her sympathetic yet frank narrative reveals never-before-told stories and explores both Schwartz’s phenomenal hits and expensive flops. The book also includes a series of “Creativity Notes” with insights about artistic life, and more than 200 photographs and illustrations.
Robert Viagas is the editor of The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012. Below, StageNotes.net asks Mr. Viagas, “How would you describe the 2011-2012 Broadway season?”
Given the economy people expected a contraction of both the number of productions and the amount spent on tickets. Suprisingly, it was exactly the opposite. Broadway had another season in which it sold more than a billion dollars with of tickets, and that’s billion with a “b.” Yes tickets are expensive—but there seems to be plenty of people willing to spend the money.
As I wrote in the preface to the 2011-2012 Yearbook, it was a richly diverse season of tuneful new musicals, delirious comedies, hard-hitting dramas and exuberant dances, plus revivals of some of the greatest works in the American theatrical canon: “Death of a Salesman,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Porgy and Bess,” in versions that earned their share of controversy, criticism…and several key awards.
Composer Stephen Sondheim, who turned 82 this season, rattled Broadway in summer 2011 by blasting Diane Paulus’s new shortened and punched-up version of “Porgy and Bess,” not just for assuming the vanity title “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (elbowing out librettist and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward, Sondheim noted), but for bringing in Pulitzer laureate Suzan-Lori Parks to rewrite the libretto and even to change the show’s ending. Sondheim—a Pulitzer-winner himself—excoriated these maulings of the classic. But the result was pleasing enough to win “TGPaB” a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, incidentally beating a noteworthy revival of Sondheim’s own “Follies.”
The 2011-2012 season will be remembered for a pyrotechnic display of bravura performances, not least Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning turn as Bess. Audiences were thrilled by Danny Burstein’s heartbreaking performance as Buddy in “Follies,” Christian Borle as a Groucho-Marxian proto-Captain Hook in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Nina Arianda as a fake (or maybe not) dominatrix in “Venus in Fur,” Ricky Martin as an audience-pleasing Che in “Evita,” Raul Esparza as a charismatic con-man in “Leap of Faith,” and Jeremy Jordan in TWO brightly etched lead performances in “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Newsies,” et al.
Even with all these, the showstopper performance of the season was James Corden’s brethless clowning turn in “One Man, Two Guvnors.” How good was Corden? In the Tony contest for Best Leading Actor in a Play Corden beat heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella, John Lithgow and James Earl Jones, who were themselves giving stage-shaking performances.
It was a season packed with romance (“Once”), politics (“Newsies”), adventure (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) race relations (“Clybourne Park” and “Stick Fly”), families in crisis (“Other Desert Cities,” “Stick Fly”) and religion. Lots of religion. Two shows depicted the crucifixion of Jesus, “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “Leap of Faith” enacted a tent revival. Holdover show “Sister Act” rocked a convent full of nuns singing gospel. Another holdover, “The Book of Mormon” continued to have fun (and earn a million bucks a week) with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
“Once” won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, not just because the bittersweet Irish love story touched so many hearts, but because the show had a unique look and sound. In 1960 Richard Rodgers wrote “No Strings,” a musical that used virtually no strings in the pit. “Once” did the opposite: with a supporting cast of street musicians, it used only strings (plus an accordion).
And yet, 2011-2012 will be remembered as the season without a blockbuster—unless you count Hugh Jackman’s solo show that was so solidly sold out that they passed on the chance to be nominated for a Tony Award because they didn’t want to give out free tickets to all the potential voters. They sold them instead, kept the money…and watched as Jackman was given a special Tony Award anyway. But that show was only a limited run, as was the other SRO show, “Death of a Salesman.” “Once,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Newsies” were some of the biggest hits of the season, but none was solidly sold out until after the Tony Awards. There was no new “Book of Mormon,” “Jersey Boys” or “The Producers” this year.
Which is not to say that Broadway didn’t sell a lot of tickets. Though the number of tickets sold was down slightly, the overall gross for the season was a new record–$1.14 billion.
Keep reading this article on StageNotes.net.
Many of the people who work on Broadway keep scrapbooks of their experiences: photos, signed posters, ticket stubs, and, of course the Playbills. These are treasured keepsakes, something to be savored over a lifetime, and then passed on to friends and descendants. Playbill Books, a division of the iconic 128-year-old company that designs the programs for every show on Broadway, has expanded this idea into an annual project that has become a Broadway institution: The Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Taking the form of a high school or college yearbook, the eighth edition is packed with photos (more than 4,000 of them, many in color) and memorabilia from the entire 2011-2012 Broadway season.