PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Stephen Schwartz

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Stephen Schwartz Composer Stephen Schwartz has earned two Academy Awards for his film songs, five Tony Award nominations for his Broadway musicals and is about to make his New York City operatic debut with Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Schwartz began his Broadway career with the title song to the 1969 Leonard Gershe play Butterflies Are Free. His five Tony nominations came for the scores to Pippin, Godspell, Working, Wicked and his lyrics for Rags; while his lyrics for the animated feature "Pocahontas" and his score to "The Prince of Egypt" garnered Academy Awards. The prolific writer also earned three Academy Award nominations for his work on "Enchanted," and Grammy Awards for the recordings of Wicked, Godspell and "Pocahontas."

His latest venture, the opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon, based on the 1964 film, premiered at Opera Santa Barbara in September 2009 and arrives at New York City Opera April 19 for a run through May 1. His son, Scott Schwartz (Golda's Balcony, Jane Eyre, Rooms) directs. We caught up with the busy writer.

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Had you been an opera fan growing up? Were you a buff?
Stephen Schwartz: Yeah. I always have been. Particularly starting in college. When I was in college at Carnegie Mellon, one of my roommates my freshman year was a big opera fan. I had seen some opera before that, but that's when I really got into it, and always thought that maybe someday I would like to try to write one. And, in fact, at Carnegie, I used to write an original school show every year, my senior year I wrote a really bad one-act opera. [Laughs.] The point merely being that this wasn't something that sort of came out of the blue. Obviously, my career went other ways, and I didn’t really think about it. But, I guess I had mentioned to friends of mine that maybe, someday, I'd like to write an opera and one of these friends who was living in Santa Barbara at the time, mentioned it to Opera Santa Barbara when he knew that they were looking to commission a new work, so that's how the commission arose.

How did you select Séance on a Wet Afternoon? Had you been familiar with the novel or the film?
SS: I was familiar with the film, and what happened, which I think is kind of a nice story, is that shortly after Wicked opened, the agent Peter Franklin called me and invited me to lunch and pitched some ideas to me — things he thought I might be interested in for future musical theatre projects. One of the things he mentioned was Séance on a Wet Afternoon. I had a very distinct memory of the film, which I had seen when I was a kid when it first came out, but I didn't feel like it was right for musical theatre, so I sort of forgot about it. Maybe a year later, when I got a call from Opera Santa Barbara about the possibility of commissioning an opera and I said I would be interested, they said, "Well do you have any ideas?" and, more or less, instantly, I thought of Séance. It just seemed, for many reasons, not appropriate for musical theatre for me — it seemed ideal for opera. So, I called Peter Franklin, these many moons later and said, "I don't know if this would be O.K. with your clients, but I know you talked to me about Séance on a Wet Afternoon as a possible musical-theatre piece, but I think I might actually like to do it as an opera. Do you think your clients would be O.K. with that?" And he said, "I don't represent it. I just thought it was a good idea for you!," which was so interesting. But anyway, that’s how that came about. It was really put into my head by him. The title alone has lots of mystery. It's a great title.
SS: It's a great title isn’t it?

Lauren Flanigan in the Santa Barbara premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon
photo by David Bazemore

What made you say, "This is not a music-theatre piece, this is an opera"? 
SS: Well, I think for several reasons, one of which you just sort of described — the title. It sort of suggests a certain mood, which the movie has and the novel as well, but the movie in particular. So, I thought that a sort of sustained mood is, I think, much more the sort of purview of opera than of musical theatre, and particularly a sustained mood like this. Musical theatre, I feel, is much higher energy, and also the characters are quite needy. They have very, very strong needs and emotions, which is great for musicals, but, given who these characters were, I thought they would be a little over the top for musical theatre, whereas not for opera. And the last thing about it, for me, was that so much of the story is so textual. The characters are saying things, but actually, underneath, a lot else is going on, and they have secrets from one another and they have secrets from themselves, and so music is very helpful, obviously, in telling that story and conveying the subtext. But I think you are much more able to do that in opera — musical subtext — than you are in musical theatre.

You've worked primarily as a composer-lyricist, but in this case, you are doing the entire libretto. Does it truly require putting on a different hat? Do you start to write it and follow the inspiration or do you say to yourself, "I'm writing an opera as opposed to just following where this takes me?"
SS: There were a lot of differences in the writing process, which I didn't necessarily anticipate in advance, but it turned out as I was proceeding that there were. And again, you sort of suggested a couple of them. Normally, for a musical, the first step with my collaborators is to figure out the story and the outline and really be clear about the structure. But then, by that point, ideas for musical numbers will have emerged and I can pretty well start on musical numbers. Sometimes I need to wait a little bit for a scene or two to be written just to see how the characters speak, what their location is, so it all sounds in the piece, but basically, I am able to start writing musical numbers. I start [with] what I call the path of least resistance: the number that seems most clear to me and it's not usually at the very beginning. With the opera, I tried to do that and it didn't work. I just couldn't get anywhere and what I discovered was — from stuff that I've read about other opera composers — was that I had to write the libretto from start to finish before I could start composing. And that is not to say that the libretto didn't change a little bit, or that there weren't sections that went from being essentially setting prose to being more lyricized and having a song structure or an aria structure. I can theorize as to why that is — it has to do with the development of musical motifs and all that stuff — but, basically, I found I had to work that way. The approach to the music and setting the voice was different, I discovered, for many reasons, but primarily because traditional opera, which I suppose this is, is meant to be un-amplified. So you can't depend on the guy at the soundboard to kick the voice above the orchestra. You have to make sure that it is composed in such a way that the voice is supported and there is musical excitement. But, basically, you have to be able to hear the voice above a much larger orchestra than traditional musical theatre orchestra. Séance is an orchestra of 46 players — and one little singer, no matter how powerful, has to be heard above that, and you have to understand what he or she is saying. So that effected how I was composing, also. There were a lot of adjustments.

One of the reviews from the Santa Barbara production did say that it is more melodic than most traditional or classic operas. Your melodies are, and I mean this as a compliment, they are like "musical worms." They are really great songs with a hook, that essentially, get stuck in your head.
SS: I take that as a compliment, thank you.

Is that a challenge for you, as you are writing? Are you drawn to take a motif or theme and develop it in that way?
SS: Yeah, absolutely. I suppose it was certainly an unconscious intention, but in this case, a conscious intention — I guess I had two conscious intentions in regard to this. In terms of writing a new opera and comparing it to some contemporary operas — though there are many contemporary operas out there that I like very much — one was really to concentrate on story telling and put a lie to the myth of, "When you go to the opera, just ignore the story. The stories are silly, pay no attention to them, just listen to the music." I thought, no. This is a really good story, and opera, I feel, is the ideal medium — pardon the pun — the ideal musical medium for telling the story. One of the things I wanted to do was tell a compelling story with this medium and in fact, not have the audience ignore it. And the other is, I feel that — though this has been changing in recent times — I felt that modern opera, as opposed to the more traditional operas of Puccini and further back than that, had real tunes. Some of them became sort of the pop tunes of the day and then for a while there seemed to be this attitude that if the audience can pick out a tune then somehow you weren't writing well enough. It wasn't sufficiently serious. It wasn't sufficiently important. Only academics and music critics should be able to understand what you are doing musically and there shouldn't actually be memorable tunes, and I just felt that that was wrong. In fact, in telling the story and supporting the emotions of the characters, the emotions of the piece, having things work more melodic were actually helpful in achieving that. That is not to say the music is not more harmonically complex than much of my theatre work, because it is, but it is still melodic and accessible. I may get criticized for that, but that's the way it is.

Scott and Stephen Schwartz
photo by Aubrey Reuben

You did all the orchestrations for Séance. I know you touched on this before, and truly in opera, the orchestrations inform a lot of the subtext. They do in music theatre as well, but more so in opera — was that something exciting for you?
SS: Yes, exciting, but extremely challenging because people who are accustomed to doing orchestrations are very fast at it. Because this isn't something that I have done professionally — you know, I've studied it a long time ago — but to actually orchestrate and do it for such a large group and to use it as an essential component to the storytelling was quite challenging for me in terms of the time that it took. I had real help with it because I asked Bill Brohn, who was the orchestrator for Wicked, and who's done a lot of classical orchestration and worked with other opera composers on their operas, if he would assist me and really mentor me, which he did, and it was invaluable. I really don't think I could have done it without his assistance. You're also working with your son, Scott, on this, too, which I think is a really cool thing. I don't know that people are really familiar with this aspect of your collaboration. What is this collaboration like?
SS: It was fantastic. It was great. Scott, obviously, has a very credible career as a director, completely apart from me, which he quite consciously strove to achieve. Right at the beginning, when he was getting started, he made the conscious choice that he was not going to do my work, or he was going to try and go make a reputation and do work that had nothing to do with me. But, I think he is a very, very good director, and I know just from the past in terms of him being of assistance to me on my projects, I know that he is very strong dramaturgically. And because I didn't have a book writer, or a collaborator — I used so much of Bryan Forbes' screenplay for the libretto — it's not as if I wrote from scratch. I think well over 50 percent of the actual words are directly from Bryan Forbes' screenplay, but, that being said, there were still structural issues and some things that I wanted to change about the story. As I said, the storytelling was very important to me, so I wanted to work with a director, who not only I knew would ultimately stage it beautifully and get good performances, but could actually help me a lot dramaturgically and that is why I asked Scott to do it. It turned out to be very beneficial because he was very helpful. It's strange because, obviously, we are father and son, but our professional relationship bares no resemblance to that. He is the director and I am the writer and that's how we relate to one another. It is a very compatible or friendly relationship. We don't fight. But, definitely, the lines of demarcation are clear, and as the director, I feel he is really in charge of the production, and I will have my opinions about certain things. In fact, someone came up to me just yesterday because I went to the first sing-through with the full cast, which was pretty encouraging, I have to say. It is an amazing cast. But at one point, there was somebody who sung in a scene and I said to Scott, "Oh, I wanted to ask you about the staging here from what you did in Santa Barbara because there was this moment that I wasn't so crazy about," and he said, "Really, I really liked that." [Laughs.] So I said, "O.K.! I'm just telling you that maybe you can look for another way to do it, but if you like it, then so be it. It's up to you." And that is my point. He had very helpful suggestions for me about dramaturgy and where he felt the structure of the libretto wasn't working as well as it might, or where the music wasn't doing sufficiently the storytelling or the emotional job that I was hoping it would, and pretty much in every case, I made changes as I was composing, but I always felt that if I didn't agree with him I would say, "Well, I like it. This is how I like it." And he would back off, but that didn't happen very often, because he usually had very good points. The point being that it was a professional relationship, but a good one.

Have you re-explored anything since Santa Barbara?
SS: Yes, I did. I wrote a new aria for Lauren Flannigan, basically for the leading role, which would be sung by Lauren Flannigan for the second act because I felt that one moment hadn't been sufficiently explored and delivered strongly enough. Having heard it sung in context yesterday, I do feel that it is a significant improvement. And I did some re-orchestration in places where I felt that I hadn't successfully really achieved the orchestration as well as I might. So there are some changes, but more or less, it is the production that was done in Santa Barbara. It is the same physical production — basically the show is the same show, but there is nothing that can't be improved. We were trying to improve it and in each department I think we've hopefully improved it a little bit.

Lauren Flannigan has been involved in this since the beginning. Were you familiar with her before? Did you write with her in mind?
SS: I did. I was advised by friends of mine who are opera composers, and who by the way were extremely helpful to me, and very, very generous in their support and advice. It is really interesting to me: It is a much more generous group in terms of supporting each other than Broadway composers tend to be, frankly — which is surprising because it is a much smaller pie. You would think they would guard their turf much more zealously, but in any event I was advised that it was good, if you could, to write with somebody in mind. And I had seen Lauren in a production of Mark Blitzstein's Regina and thought that she would be really good for Séance. And it was just when I was thinking about starting it and so I met with her and she was interested in the project. She didn't say immediately, "I'll do it." But she was interested enough that I could bring stuff to her and show her what I was doing and she became more enthusiastic as it went along. As it evolved, I really wound up writing with her voice in mind.

Is there any chance you might record it?
SS: I was so hoping that that would happen, and I am actually quite disappointed about this. It has to do with a certain union situation with New York City Opera that is still in flux, and it is really unfortunate because New York City Opera is set up to do it. There is a whole studio there. They are set up to do live recordings, but they don't have the contracts in place to be able to do it, and it was very disappointing to me because a record company was interested, people who were ready to help with the financing of it if it was circumstances that were reasonable, and it just didn't happen. That's a real disappointment to me because I feel that there are ten performances over the course of two weeks, and the people who see it will see it, but the people who don't — there is no record of it so I just have to hope for more productions.

Are there plans in place for future productions?
SS: There is one other production which is due to happen at the end of next year — the end of 2012 in Australia — in Queensland. And there are many other opera companies which have expressed interest and will come and see it, but to be perfectly honest, I think if it goes well in New York — if it is well received, then there will be several other productions over the next, whatever it is with opera, five or six years. But, if it doesn't do well then that will be harder to come by, and that is just the truth of it.

Lauren Flanigan (center) and the Santa Barbara cast of <i>S</i>
Lauren Flanigan (center) and the Santa Barbara cast of S Photo by David Bazemore
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