Stephen Schwartz: A neighborhood show

Stephen Schwartz: A neighborhood show




Stephen Schwartz. —Photo by Ralf Rühmeier

Stephen Schwartz. —Photo by Ralf Rühmeier

What do the Broadway plays Godspell, Pippin and Wicked have in common with the Disney films Pocahontas, The King of Egypt and Enchanted? The music and/or lyrics were all written by Stephen Schwartz. And on Saturday, April 2, beginning at 8, The Ridgefield Playhouse will present an evening of conversation and music with the multiple award-winning composer and lyricist.

Schwartz has made such appearances “very occasionally for a while, not too often” and is happy to be doing this show in the town where he and his wife Carole have lived since 1971 and raised their two children, Scott, a director, and Jessica, a teacher.

He noted that it took a long time to align his busy schedule — he was in Brazil for the opening of Wicked in early March, which followed the February debut in Australia of Defying Gravity: the Songs of Stephen Schwartz, and he just finished a play, Schikaneder, that will debut in Austria in September — with that of the playhouse, which has a full schedule of its own.

Michael Kerker from ASCAP will conduct the interview and Lindsay Mendez, who played Elphaba in Wicked and Jan in the revival of Grease, among other roles, and Derek Klena (Wicked, The Bridges of Madison County, Dogfight, Carrie) and Kara Lindsay (Wicked, Newsies, Little House on the Prairie) will sing a few of his iconic songs, accompanied by Bryan Perri (Wicked, Chaplin, Next To Normal). Schwartz will take to the piano himself and do some singing as well.

Since breaking through in 1969 with the title song for the play and movie Butterflies Are Free, Schwartz has helped create numerous movies and shows and had a string of enduring hits. The most well-known recently is Wicked, which opened on Broadway on Oct. 30, 2003, and recently passed Rent as the tenth longest-running show in Broadway history. On national tour since 2005 and playing in London’s West End since 2006, it ran in Australia for seven years and has been seen in Stuttgart, Helsinki, Copenhagen, among other cities, as well as translated into Japanese, Spanish, Korean and now Portuguese for the Brazil run.

“Going to openings has been a great way to see the world,” Schwartz said.

Godspell opened Off-Broadway in 1971, moved to Broadway in 1976, was made into a movie and is frequently performed, including a Broadway revival in 2011. Pippin debuted in 1972, had a revival in 2013 and is currently on national tour. In 1974, Schwartz wrote music and lyrics for The Magic Show, which ran for 1,920 performances. By mid-1974, at age 26, Schwartz had three smash-hit musicals playing in New York simultaneously. (Pippin is #33 on the longest-running Broadway list with 1,944 performances and Magic Show is #35.)

The trifecta was nearly repeated a couple of years ago with Wicked and the revivals of Pippin and Godspell, which did not quite overlap. Such an occurrence is always amazing, he said — and a coincidence of timing. “Obviously, when you write something, you hope it will have life, that it will communicate with audiences, but it takes a long time to do, and when initiated you don’t know how long it will take.”

Schwartz’s newest play, Schikaneder, is based on real incidents leading up to the premier of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute in 1791. Emanuel Schikaneder was the librettist for The Magic Flute and had a tempestuous relationship with his wife Eleanor, which provides fodder for good theater. The play is being translated into German and will have English subtitles. Will it be seen in the United States? “One never knows,” Schwartz replied. “It was commissioned by the theater [Vereinigte Bühnen Wien (United Stages Vienna)], but once it’s out there, it could end up other places.”

Wicked certainly demonstrates that…

An ongoing project is “juniorizing” some of his plays — helping create shorter versions and rewriting music in keys better suited for younger voices that can be performed by schools and children’s theater groups.

“Freddie Gershon [CEO of Music Theatre International] came up with Broadway Junior musicals concept about a decade ago, and I think it’s terrific,” said Schwartz. “It’s a great way to get more kids involved in theater and it gives a show’s creators more control over cuts and adaptations that are generally made to fit their timeframes, as well ways to expand to accommodate larger casts.”

Schwartz has completed Captain Louie, Jr.; Geppetto & Son, is now known as My Son, Pinocchio Jr.; and he is near completing Children of Eden, Jr., a particular favorite of his.

Also coming up on April 16, beginning at 3 p.m., is Wall to Wall Stephen Schwartz at Symphony Space in Manhattan, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street.

“It is very flattering,” he said. “They will be presenting eight hours of my material, featuring songs from shows and movies, as well as standalone songs in a variety of voices from pop to classical as well as instrumental.” Some 80 performers will take the stage at various times and admission is free. For additional information, visit symphonyspace.org or call 212-864-5400.

So how did Wicked come to be? “We were on holiday and a friend mentioned a book she was reading [Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West] and I found it an enormously intriguing idea, so I went about how to get the rights, which was a tortuous path. Universal already owned the rights and I had to convince them not to do a movie, but to let me do a play instead.” Universal signed on as joint producer of the play.

Will there be a Wicked movie? “Eventually; Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book for the play, and I are starting to gear up for it now; things should be pretty firm by the end of next year.”

In the development process, was there a point he thought Wicked might take off? “Fairly early in the staged readings it was obvious it had audience appeal, and things were clicking. We were very pleased at the audience reaction when the show opened, but I am surprised at the phenomenon it has become… it is the gift that keeps on giving. It has been a great adventure to take it to other cities.”

Asked which of his songs has been the most recorded, he replied, “I don’t really know, but I would suspect Day By Day [from Godspell]; it’s been around the longest.” But he agreed that For Good from Wicked, which has become an anthem of friendship sung at graduations, bridal gatherings, birthday and retirement parties, could be the most performed. And most frequently performed at weddings would probably be With You, a gentle love song from Pippin.

Anticipating his evening at the Ridgefield Playhouse, Schwartz reflects Dorothy’s “There’s no place like home” sentiment.

“This event is special for me. This is my hometown, full of friends and people I have known for a long time. We were part of the effort to create the Playhouse and to do this conversation here, with a bunch of friends in the audience… I’m looking forward to it.”

For tickets ($65), call the box office at 203-438-5795 or visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org. The Ridgefield Playhouse is at 80 East Ridge Road, parallel to Main Street, Ridgefield. For additional information on Stephen Schwartz, visit stephenschwartz.com