To celebrate Stephen Schwartz's 70th birthday, the Dramatists Guild Foundation is toasting the life and work of the award-winning Wicked composer-lyricist April 23 at the Hudson Theatre.
Playbill spoke with Schwartz about his writing process, and the experiences that shaped his work as a composer-lyricist.
How do you begin to chart the overall sound of a show dramatically? Do you scaffold it first in terms of harmonics, keys, and time signatures, or is more of an organic process as you sit down to write?
It’s a combination of both. I spend a lot of time with the book writer, and sometimes the director, figuring out the story of the show, the structure of it, and an outline or storyboard. Then it’s kind of “song-spotting” what parts of the story we feel are going to be best told through music. That's kind of an instinctive decision.
But then ask myself, “What does this sound like harmonically, how contemporary is it?” I've just come from the premiere of the stage adaptation of Prince of Egypt, and obviously, the harmonic structure of those songs—because it's Egyptian and Hebraic—is very different from say the harmonic structure of the songs in Wicked. Alan Menken likes to call it finding the palette for each project. And, uh, I think that's a very good description.
In addition to working as a composer-lyricist, you’ve also collaborated as solely a lyricist on a number of shows throughout your career—from Leonard Bernstein to Charles Strouse, and Alan Menken. What have those experiences been like, and what did you take away from them?
With Bernstein, because we wound up always working music first, it was where I really feel I learned how to write lyrics as a craft. Alan Menken is so gifted in terms of coming up with these great melodies. What I learned from working with him was how to have my lyrics support the melodies, so that the silhouette of the lyrics matches the silhouette of the music.
In your work as a composer-lyricist, what is your process like in terms of writing music and lyrics?
It bounces back and forth. It’s sort of a path of least resistance. I ask myself, “What is the story that I'm trying to tell? What does the character want? What is he or she feeling? What is that emotion? How does that emotion translate musically?” I usually like to try to find a title as quickly as I can and work from the title, and then it can go back and forth. Sometimes I do most of the music first. Sometimes I get most of the lyrics first, but more often than not, it's sort of an organic process back and forth.
Were there shows in your career that didn’t go as planned, or weren’t particularly successful, that you were able to learn a great deal from?
I think I learned a lot from each project that I do. I've been fortunate that some of the shows that I've been involved with that were not initially successful, I've been given the opportunity to revisit and revamp. Workingtaught me a great deal about structure and how the order in which things happen can make a big difference. With Children of Eden, we were able to go back and look at all the reviews and all the responses we had gotten from London and figure out where we were not succeeding in communicating what we had intended.
Do you ever find reviews helpful?
I don't read reviews on a finished show once we open in New York, but I did read all the reviews from San Francisco when we were going back to work on Wicked before bringing it to Broadway. That was very helpful because they sort of form a bell curve, and you realize that those are actual problems that need to be addressed.