STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Stephen Schwartz 1997

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Stephen Schwartz 1997 Twenty-eight years ago this month, Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics were heard on Broadway for the first time.

Twenty-eight years ago this month, Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics were heard on Broadway for the first time.

Now before you start E-mailing me and saying, "Dear Mr. Filichia, I'm afraid you've made a terrible error. Godspell opened in 1971, which is only 26 years ago, and that was off-Broadway. Mr. Schwartz made his Broadway debut with Pippin, and that was 25 years ago this month."

No. Stephen Schwartz may have had the one and only song in the comedy Butterflies Are Free -- the title tune -- but it got him to Broadway at the age of 21. When the sleeper hit was made into a movie in 1972, his song was in that, too.

By then, Schwartz was a musical theater force with which to be reckoned. Godspell was still selling out, and its "Day by Day" had been a Top 40 hit. Schwartz, who'd just collaborated with no less than Leonard Bernstein on Mass, which opened the Kennedy Center, was about to return there with Bob Fosse, who'd direct his new show, Pippin.

Reminiscing about it last month in his New York studio, Schwartz said, "When Butterflies Are Free was starting to happen, I was still a student at Carnegie-Mellon, but I'd come to the city and got an agent, Shirley Bernstein. I think she represented Keir Dullea," he said of the actor who starred in the warm comedy. "She told me the play was about a songwriter, and they needed a song for it. 'If you want to write one with a title like that,' she said, 'go ahead and I'll submit it.' Was I surprised when they took it." He was surprised, too, when Godspell would last a total of 2,651 performances on and off-Broadway. Or that for one solid year, from June 1976 to June 1977, Stephen Schwartz would have three shows on the Main Stem. The Magic Show would have the shortest run of the three -- and that racked up 1,920 performances.

No, it's never been as good since then in musical theater, but few would fault Schwartz for that. If you've heard his score for The Baker's Wife, his songs for Working, or his lyrics for Rags, you know he's done quality work. In recent years, of course, Hollywood has showcased his lyrics, in both Pocahontas (Oscars for that), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both with Alan Menken.

But Schwartz makes a return to the American stage with Children of Eden, the musical that had a short run in London in 1991. It's at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

"Angelo [Del Rossi, the theater's executive producer] has been interested since we did a presentation at Playwrights Horizons a few years ago," Schwartz said. "John [Caird, his librettist and director] and I didn't feel we were really ready then. We wanted to get the show a few productions where the changes were really in, and be secure that we had a final version. Recently when M[usic] T[heatre] I[nternational] picked up the show [for stock and amateur rights], Paper Mill came back and asked again. And we said, 'Well, it's out there, so let's have the guts to do it in the metropolitan area.'"

He gave a shy smile when discussing Eden's theme. "I don't know how to put this in anything but '90s terms, but it's about dysfunctional families, and how the errors of one generation get handed down to the next and the next. The mistakes become repeated and finally, and if all is ever to be well, somebody of a generation has to break that cycle, and then everyone can heal. And if that sounds like '90s psychobabble, well, there you have it."

Schwartz also has written the score to The Prince of Egypt, the first animated feature from the new DreamWorks studio. "It's basically a brother story between Moses and Rameses. It's very daring for an animated feature because there's no villain. It's not like Moses-good guy, Pharaoh-bad guy. Both characters are sympathetic and flawed. They're two men who think they're brothers, who love each other, but life, circumstance and their responsibilities force them to be adversaries. They literally find a gulf between them -- the Red Sea."

He touched on an issue that came up in many reviews for his Hunchback of Notre Dame: "There are no singing camels or talking scorpions in it. It's more adult in its point-of-view, and the complexity of its characters is greater than you've seen before. It kind of picks up on what we were trying to do with Hunchback of Notre Dame before the singing gargoyles came in."

On Hunchback's critical reception: "Some felt that we were hedging our bets a little, playing it a little bit safe, that we didn't entirely have the courage of our convictions. I'm not sure I agree, but I can understand the argument. Still, it's the project I've been associated with that I'm proudest of, and I think it's Alan's best score -- so of course it's the one he didn't win the Academy Award for."

"But Prince has the courage of its convictions right now. We'll see if a year from now -- it opens in November, '98 -- if it retains that.

As for the sound of the music: Schwartz paused four seconds before the right description occurred to him. "It's sort of Middle Eastern pop. There are some Arabic overtones, some Hebraic overtones, a bit of that Biblical Cecil B. DeMille-Alex North sound, and my thing, whatever that is."

Whatever that is? There is a Stephen Schwartz sound. The vamp to, say, "Corner of the Sky" certainly lets us immediately know who the composer is.

Schwartz is working on another Biblical project. "I'm doing the segment of a show called Miracles which Sheldon Harnick and Joe Stein are putting together. It's to be the Old Testament answer to A Christmas Carol, built around Chanukah. They're taking a few Bible stories set to music by different composers. I'm doing Esther, Marvin Hamlisch is doing Moses, David Shire is doing Maccabees. Sheldon is doing all the lyrics. I took it because Sheldon was one of my early heroes, and because I like Joe Stein so much." (Nice to know that Rags didn't do them in.)

"But after that," he swore, "that's it for the Bible."

Those rumors that his writing for DreamWorks caused Disney to banish him from its garden aren't quite true. "It's precluded me from doing animated projects with them, because they want you to be exclusive. But I am working on Gepetto, a television musical for The Wonderful World of Disney. It's Pinocchio from the father's point-of-view. A man who thought he wanted to have a child finds it's not as easy as he thought. He tells the Blue Fairy, 'Y'know, I don't think this is working out. Maybe you should take my wish back.' Eventually, though, he learns what it is to be a father."

Schwartz is excited by the project for another reason. "It's one of the two media I haven't worked in -- the original made-for-television musical. The other is the live-action movie musical, which still remains a goal. That's a tough nut to crack. You're allowed to sing on television, but it's harder on the screen -- unless you're a drawing."

If all this isn't enough, Schwartz recently released Reluctant Pilgrim, an album of pop songs. Though he produced it with arranger extraordinaire Martin Erksine, it's really up-and-coming composer John Bucchino who's "the godfather of this album.

"I first encountered John's work because I went to a cabaret and heard a singer I knew do one of his songs. I asked her who the writer was, and if he'd done any others, and she said, 'Hundreds. Here's his tape.'

"I listened and liked what I heard, so I just called the number on the tape to say, 'I think you're terrific. I think you should do a show.

"Eventually, we became friends, and he said, 'I've been writing songs about my life, and you're always hiding behind your characters in shows. I'll make a deal with you. I'll write a show if you write some pop songs.'

"So I began. A couple of people started singing them, then people asked me for demos, so I made a few, doing the vocals. It was a lot of trouble, because once you start, you say, 'Gee, this'd really be nice with guitars,' and 'This ought to have back-up vocals.' They started to get more and more produced.

"When I sent the demos out, I got calls from producers saying, 'I really like the guy you have singing. I'd like to use him sometime.' So I thought, maybe somebody's trying to tell me something. Let me put it out there. "Having decided that," Schwartz said immediately (Schwartz often doesn't take a breath when switching gears), "it still took a year-and-a half to get it done. Finding pockets of time wasn't easy. What was easier was that I didn't have to run it by Jeffrey Katzenberg or Michael Eisner, smart and contributive as they are. It was just nice to do what I felt like."

And for us stagestruck, we get one show song: "The Hardest Part of Love Is Letting Go," from the aforementioned Children of Eden.

Has Bucchino lived up to his part of the bargain? Schwartz beams with godfatherly pride. "His show is called Urban Myths, which is pretty self-explanatory. Some are scary, some funny, some sad. He's developing it with my son Scott."

Scott Schwartz is a director who did such good work on No Way to Treat a Lady last winter. And if you think Schwartz is proud of his 'godson' Bucchino, imagine his pride over his son. "I've seen everything he's directed, aside from Black Comedy when he was in the 10th grade and I was in England. When he did On the Verge at Harvard, he did this visual thing where he lowered all these silver implements on three or four lines, egg-beaters, CDs, and there was a mirror ball in the middle, and all this light glittered so much that the audience went 'Ahhh' in the type of gasp moment you usually get from Hal Prince. That's when I said, 'Oh, my goodness, he's a director.'"

A writer needn't be a son or godson to get Schwartz's encouragement. Once again, he'll helm the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop this winter. "So I've suddenly become very hopeful, said cynical-bitter-ol'-Stephen," he said mock-disparagingly. "I predict a big renaissance this season with Ragtime, and Side Show, and Footloose, which I loved in Walter Bobbie's workshop, and Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party.

And maybe, he and we hope, Children of Eden.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com