Stephen Schwartz prefers to write in the morning. For the composer and lyricist behind some of Broadway’s most beloved musicals (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), the first few hours of the day offer fresh perspective. “I find that I get a lot done while I’m sleeping,” says Schwartz. “Problems that seemed intractable to me, when I wake up, I feel refreshed.”
Schwartz calls his process “project-oriented,” and this particular moment is full of projects. In addition to adapting Wicked for the big screen, he’s currently preparing the stage version of the animated The Prince of Egypt for its October premiere at TheatreWorks in California, and he’s got a new version of his musical Rags coming to Goodspeed Opera House in the fall.
Last month, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) recognized Schwartz with the Founders Award, an honor he now shares with music industry legends such as Carly Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney. ASCAP has been Schwartz’s membership organization of choice since he was 20-years-old, when he wrote the theme song for the play Butterflies Are Free. The play went to Broadway in 1969, and Schwartz’s song was recorded and he had to join a performing arts organization. Now the icon is proud to boast him as a member for nearly 50 years.
Though he began writing Pippin in college, Godspell took the stage first, premiering Off-Broadway when he was 23. A musical theatre treatment of the Gospel of Matthew with music and lyrics by Schwartz, Godspell saw productions in London and Toronto before coming to Broadway in 1976. “That was really being in the right place at the right time,” he says of the show’s origins. “I got a call from producers who had heard me audition the score for Pippin about six months before. [They] remembered me, and then they saw this show called Godspell that they felt needed a score and they wanted a young writer.
“I would never have done Godspell on my own,” he says. “But that was a great opportunity for me at that point in my career.”
After Godspell opened Off-Broadway in 1971, Pippin came to Broadway in 1972, following a performance troupe and its Leading Player as it tells the story of a prince named Pippin and his search for meaning. Working with the brilliant but notoriously difficult director/choreographer and Broadway legend Bob Fosse was a challenge. “That’s not a secret,” says Schwartz of his collaboration with Fosse. “I know from talking to other writers who have worked with Bob that they found it challenging, as well.
“I had the added issue of being extremely inexperienced because I was 23-years-old and not really knowing yet how one collaborates with a difficult personality,” he says. “And, in retrospect, I feel now I would be able to work in a much more collaborative way with Bob than I was able to then. There was a lot of tension and friction between us, [but] I think in many ways, that tension and friction helped the show itself. The show has that tension between young naïve, enthusiastic Pippin and the much more worldly, wise Leading Player. I think in some ways that the dynamic between Bob and myself figured into the show. Now, of course, I’m at an age where I’m older than Bob was when he did the show, and I see it so much more from his point of view. So, that’s been ironic and amusing.”
After Pippin closed in 1977, Schwartz added The Magic Show, The Baker’s Wife, and Children of Eden to the musical theatre canon. The 1990s began Schwartz’s career composing and writing lyrics for movies like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt (soon to be a stage musical), and Enchanted. Wicked opened on Broadway in 2003 and will celebrate its 14th year at the Gershwin Theatre in October.
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Schwartz views his life as a story, each of these creations a chapter. “I think only writers do that,” he says. “I don’t think normal people see their lives in chapters, but I definitely do.”
And thoughout his chapters of success, Schwartz attributes his creative bravery to his true enjoyment in his craft. “You can have fun if you’re not too worried about the outcome,” he says. “There’s a difference between the result and the outcome, obviously. You want to worry about making the best piece you possibly can, knowing it’s never going to be perfect but trying with your collaborators to get as close as possible. Then you can’t really worry about ‘Is it a hit? Is it not a hit? Did they like it? Did they not like it? Is it the right timing?’ Those are all things beyond your control, and you can drive yourself crazy. If you’re just there working with your collaborators, it’s not easy, but it can be a lot of fun.”
As far as which ideas to explore and which projects to write, Schwartz trusts what captivates him. “If something really speaks to you,” he says, “chances are it will speak to other people if you can communicate enough [of] what it is about it that you find so compelling.”
Of all the projects that have compelled Schwartz, Children of Eden, his exploration of the Book of Genesis, is the one he identifies with most. “To me personally, I feel it’s my best score, and it deals with themes that are meaningful to me,” he says. “I don’t exactly know why, but I guess if there were one show that I would say ‘That kind of represents who I am,’ that’s what it would be.”
As a mentor to young composers, Schwartz pushes that mentality. “I remember Benj [Pasek] saying to me, ‘I have this idea about a show. It may be a stupid idea, but it’s based on something that happened to me while I was in high school,’” says Schwartz. He encouraged Pasek and Justin Paul to follow that feeling—he even gave them a loan earlier in their career so they could stay in New York and write. Now, we have the wildly popular and Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen.
“I think this is a very fertile time in the musical theatre and in the American musical theatre,” says Schwartz. “I think that there’s a certain kind of pop sensibility to music and a willingness for people to write from their own point of view. A bit of a courageousness,” he says, “because so many new people are coming up and having success. People say, ‘If Lin-Manuel [Miranda] can do it, I may not be as talented as he is, but he had his breakthrough, and I can have mine.’
“They see that writers are succeeding by being true to themselves as opposed to ten years ago when everybody was doing jukebox musicals or second-guessing what will work commercially,” Schwartz explains. “Now, I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s no rule about what will work commercially. What will work commercially is a personal vision that is successfully achieved.”