PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Stephen Schwartz

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Stephen Schwartz
 
Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, one of the creative wizards behind the smash Wicked, was recently in Kansas City to help bring his TV musical, "Geppetto," to the stage.
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The new stage adaptation of the 2000 TV movie is now called Disney's Geppetto & Son, and is being tested at the respected Missouri children's theatre, The Coterie Theatre, run by artistic producing director Jeff Church (who stages the new musical, playing there to Aug. 6).

The show has a libretto by David Stern, based on the writer's teleplay, and is meant for seven adult actors and any number of child actors. Eight years after the movie aired, Stern and Schwartz re-imagined the tale for the stage. Music Theater International, the licensing giant, will handle future proliferation of the script and score for stock, amateur and regional companies.

For Geppetto & Son, Schwartz, 58, wrote one new song, altered some of the existing tunes and "When You Wish Upon a Star" was interpolated to open the show (this is, after all, inspired by the 1940 Disney animated feature). The musical tells what happened to papa puppetmaker Geppetto when his puppet son, Pinocchio, was lured away by rogues.

In between rehearsals in Kansas City, Schwartz talked to Playbill.com about the genesis of the TV and stage show, and about his past and future projects.

Playbill.com: How did "Geppetto" get to TV in the first place?
Stephen Schwartz: It was David Stern's idea, who wrote the teleplay. David and I were working on another project, and his father had recently passed away. He wound up running his father's business for a little while to neaten it up, and he encountered people his father had known and worked with. [They] knew his father in an entirely different capacity than David had. He realized how much about his father and his father's life he didn't know and it started him thinking about that whole relationship. He suddenly started thinking about that story [Disney's "Pinocchio"] from the father's point of view: Rather than it be a story about a puppet who learns to be a real boy, making it about a puppet[-maker] father who learns to be a real father. So it was his inspiration, initially, and then he spoke to me about it. A year or so later when Disney started doing their television musicals, they were talking to me about doing one possibly. I remembered this idea and thought it would be a good idea for them, and a good idea for a television musical.

Playbill.com: Did you think it might eventually find a life on stage as a licensable property?
SS: Not at all at the time, we just did it for TV and forgot about it. And then about two years ago, I was at Music Theater International, the licensing agency that represents most of my shows, and we were talking about a bunch of things and at one point they were talking about shows for younger audiences. They said, "What we really need is a show with a minimum number of adults in it, and an infinite number of children." I said, "Have I got a show for you!" And I told them about "Geppetto" — I said I thought that it could be successfully adapted to the stage using the criterion they had just vocalized. Since MTI has a relationship with Disney anyway, it was pretty smooth sailing.

Playbill.com: The TV movie used "When You Wish Upon a Star" from the 1940 "Pinocchio," but it wasn't sung, and a short version of "I've Got No Strings."
SS: This [stage version] uses "When You Wish Upon a Star" pretty fully and more than once. And we do the full version of "I've Got No Strings."

Playbill.com: Those songs are pretty good company for your score.
SS: Oh, I was so thrilled to be given permission to use those songs. I think it makes a difference and rounds out the show. We actually open with "When You Wish Upon a Star."

Playbill.com: What speaks to you about this story?
SS: Writers seem to have a relatively limited number of themes they keep returning to, sometimes consciously and I think more often unconsciously. Anyone who knows my work knows that I often deal with the theme of parents and children and intergenerational relationships. And from a style point of view, I'm attracted to works that take a familiar story or familiar characters and spin it from an unfamiliar point of view. This obviously met those two criteria.

It's the "Pinocchio" story, but told form the father's point of view. Fairly early in the movie, [Pinocchio] is lured away by rogues and we track him, and the next time we see his father, he has inexplicably wound up in the belly of a whale. What started David thinking about this, as he describes it, is "how did he wind up in that whale?" That was an intriguing question. Geppetto was obviously looking for Pinocchio and he tracked him back to the moment where Pinocchio was lured away. His father just sent him out into the world to school without preparing him very much. That's not actually terribly good parenting. [David] began to think of it in those terms.

Playbill.com: How is the stage show different from the movie, other than the title?
SS: While the show follows the story of the TV movie pretty closely, David has come up with an extremely clever and amusing framing device. To me, the show is superior and funnier than the television show because of the theatrically clever idea that David arrived at.

Playbill.com: Are there new songs?
SS: I replaced one song with another. There are a couple reprises that weren't in the television show. A couple of songs that were in the television show are in shorter versions, and a couple have new lyrics. And, as I said, we use "When You Wish Upon a Star" more extensively. Other than that, it's pretty much the score for the television movie…it's not radically different…

Playbill.com: When you say "new" song, is it newly written or a trunk song?
SS: It's literally a new song. We did a reading here at the Coterie Theatre in March. It was clear that because of this new structure that David has arrived at, one of the songs from the television show — when we got to it in the stage version — it was telling us something we already knew. So I replaced it with a different song.

Playbill.com: This is your second family theatre show since Wicked. Captain Louie played Off-Broadway. And there's a recording. Is Captain Louie available for licensing?
SS: It's about to be licensable. It will be MTI. Very shortly. That is meant to be performed entirely by children. It's in two versions: One which runs about a half an hour for really younger kids, and a version that's about 55 minutes long for older kid audiences, and could also be performed by slightly older kids. Really there shouldn't be anyone in that show older than 17.

Playbill.com: But Geppetto & Son is a mixed adult/child cast show.
SS: It was designed to very closely follow [MTI] guidelines: seven adults and as many children as possible. It could be literally 100 kids.

Playbill.com: How soon will Geppetto & Son be licensed?
SS: It's a decision to be made on the part of Disney and MTI. They'll take a look at it and make some decision about what the next step is.

Playbill.com: Is it nice being able to develop something in the remoteness of Kansas City, away from New York critics?
SS: It wasn't really a question of "let's hide out." It's certainly not a Broadway show nor would it ever be. It's not something we would plan to develop there. This particular organization, the Coterie Theatre, was one that MTI was familiar with because they were the ones who did the revised Seussical. [MTI] had the experience of knowing this was very good place to work on a show for young audiences. They have a very clever and talented artistic director named Jeff Church, who directed this show. We've done quite a good deal of work in terms of revisions and cuts and changes. We knew this would be a good place to do it. It's one of the top children's theatres in the country, they're accustomed to doing new works, they understand the process of development and trying new things and cutting things.

Playbill.com: What did you learn about Geppetto & Son in rehearsals in KC?
SS: Mostly, I learned that when we started out [here] it was too long. Most of the work that we have done, has been to trim the fat. It's an issue of being careful to cut properly so you don’t lose bits of baby with the bathwater. You try to get rid of as much bathwater as you possibly can.

Playbill.com: Might there be a recording of the stage show's score?
SS: There was a recording of the television version, so that exists. Whether or not this will be done in a form that merits a recording remains to be seen.

Playbill.com: Goodspeed Musicals is producing a new production of Pippin this summer, and it will tour. Changes were made to the script in recent years. Will the Goodspeed script be different?
SS: Things have changed about Pippin over the years as different productions have been done. I came upon an ending that they were doing in a Fringe production in London several years back that seemed to me vastly superior to our original ending. That's now been instituted. When it was done at Paper Mill [Playhouse]…the way we got in and out of the intermission seemed superior to what we'd had before. And then there have been some line changes and some cuts that we've seen along the way. There haven't been a whole bunch of specific changes made for this particular production, but it assimilates a lot of things that we've learned over the years, in terms of the book, music and lyrics.

In terms of the actual text, it's pretty close to the text that was used in the Reprise [concert] version they did in L.A. last year, which went so well. It's about to be the licensed version. Basically what's been happening over the years is that the licensed version goes out with an increasingly long errata sheet. We've been waiting to re-do the [scripts] that go out until it was a little bit more definitive. We hope this is gonna be the pretty definitive version, the text itself.

Playbill.com: Is Pippin your most licensed work?
SS: There are three: Godspell, Pippin and Children of Eden. It varies from year to year. All three of them are pretty heavily licensed.

Playbill.com: Is there any talk of a Wicked movie?
SS: Actually, we haven't talked about it at all. My assumption has been that because [Wicked producer] Universal is a motion picture company that eventually they are going to get around to wanting to talk about a movie, since they have the right of first refusal on it. But at this point it's still kind of early in the game for us. We're just starting to launch some of the foreign productions and it remains to be seen the extent to which this will translate outside of he United States. We're going to learn that over next couple of years.

Playbill.com: What satisfies you most about the experience? It must be satisfying to know it was your idea to do it as a musical — and it's a smash.
SS: A lot of things satisfy me about it! [Laughs.] I heard about the [Gregory Maguire novel], and it was one of those "lightbulb" moments. That's obviously very satisfying. The response to it, and the sort of phenomenon that it's become — I'm not sure "satisfying" is the right word. We're all pretty dazzled by that. Obviously when you touch a chord like that, it's very gratifying for a writer.

Playbill.com: It's remarkable that more than 30 years after your first hits, you have Wicked as an amazing second act in your career.
SS: It's sort of a nice bookend, I feel. I've been associated with two shows that became phenomena in my lifetime. They were my first [Godspell in 1971] and, at this point, my last [Wicked in 2003]. There's a nice, neat arc to that.

Playbill.com: You won't write a musical again?
SS: You never know what you're gonna do. My big project now is that I've taken on an opera commission [Opera Santa Barbara's Séance on a Wet Afternoon in 2009]. That's certainly going to occupy the bulk of my attention for the next several years. When I come up for air from that, we'll see where we are.

Playbill.com: Never say never.
SS: Well, sure. Listen, I wasn't looking for a stage musical to do when a friend mentioned that she was reading an interesting book and it was called "Wicked." It was the idea itself that seemed irresistible to me, and particularly appropriate for me. You never know when another idea like that is going to come along, and when the medium it's going to demand is a stage show.

Playbill.com: You sought the theatrical rights to the novel and they had already been snagged…
SS: I was lucky because it was Universal, and it was Marc Platt who was running Universal. And he had an affinity for musical theatre and therefore was not deaf to my entreaties that what this needed to be was not a movie, but musical theatre. Eventually I was able to persuade him to go that route. It's been quite a ride.

Playbill.com: The novel "Wicked" has a sequel by Maguire, "Son of a Witch." Have people asked you if you're going to musicalize it?
SS: Everybody asks me that. Of course, that's not the reason I do things. I did like the sequel. And I've actually suggested to Gregory Maguire that he make that the second part of a trilogy. He said to me, and I believed him, that that had never entered his mind, but it seemed clear to me when I read it there was a third part yet to come, which I will look forward to but don't expect to be musicalizing.

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For more information about Geppetto & Son, visit www.coterietheatre.org.

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