"You're Gonna Be Popular": The Top 14 Songs by Stephen Schwartz

News   "You're Gonna Be Popular": The Top 14 Songs by Stephen Schwartz Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a collection of the essential songs by Tony-nominated composer Stephen Schwartz.
Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz Photo by Jeremy Daniel

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Stephen Schwartz is arguably the most successful songwriter in theatre today. Wicked is still raking in millions upon millions of dollars, well into its second decade on Broadway and around the world, and his 1972 hit Pippin is enjoying an enormously popular renaissance in Diane Paulus' acclaimed 2013 revival, in New York and on tour. And of course, Schwartz's seminal musical, Godspell (along with Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, part of a trifecta of groundbreaking works from 40-ish years ago that left an indelible mark on musical theatre) is a staple of amateur, stock and regional theatres everywhere.

There were long years when Stephen Schwartz was largely absent from Broadway, but that can be blamed more on the state of the musical theatre at the time than anything else, and Schwartz was still prolific, finding other avenues for his work, particularly animated film — most notably writing songs for Dreamworks' 1998 blockbuster, "The Prince of Egypt," including the hit Whitney Houston-Mariah Carey duet, "When You Believe." A hallmark of Stephen Schwartz songs is a unique type of vamp that establishes a driving beat under even the most soaring and legato of ballads. This captivating effect has allowed much of his work to function not only as dramatic showtunes, but also to resonate with more contemporary pop aesthetics. In fact, within his generation, Schwartz is peerless as an American Broadway songwriter whose sound translates outside the context of musical theatre.

Click through to read my selections for the Top 14 Song by Stephen Schwartz.

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14. "Stranger To The Rain" from Children of Eden

Stephen Schwartz's 1991 musical, Children of Eden, has yet to play Broadway, although it came close with a 1997 Paper Mill Playhouse Production. The epic pop opera charts the biblical (Book of Genesis) stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Flood. Schwartz's lush melodies and impassioned lyrics have drawn many singers to perform songs from this show out of context, and the most worthy of them is "Stranger To The Rain," the character Yonah's dramatic ballad about facing exclusion from the ark.

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13. "Lion Tamer" from The Magic Show

The somewhat obscure "Lion Tamer" from The Magic Show deserves to be heard more often. Actually, The Magic Show itself has been nearly forgotten, despite its long, successful original Broadway run in the 1970s. Perhaps younger people assume it was just a magic show on Broadway or a star vehicle for magician Doug Henning. That may have been true to some extent, but it also featured some dynamite songs, particularly the two sung by Dale Soules as Cal, "West End Avenue" and "Lion Tamer."

Kyle Dean Massey in <i>Pippin</i>
Kyle Dean Massey in Pippin Photo by Joan Marcus

12. "Morning Glow" from Pippin

Talking strictly of music alone, "Morning Glow" may be Stephen Schwartz's greatest composition. The lyrics are fine for their context in the show; they make total sense and do their job. But the music takes this song to another level. It truly communicates the indescribable yearning at the emotional heart of Pippin, what makes the entire show — especially its score — so compelling.

Idina Menzel in <i>Wicked</i>
Idina Menzel in Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus

11. "Defying Gravity" from Wicked

Wicked's stunning Act One closer, "Defying Gravity," lives up to its name as Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West, ascends to the rafters and belts out stratospheric notes beyond the range of the average Broadway belter. The goosebumps caused by "Defying Gravity" are not soon forgotten after seeing Wicked — or after hearing the song in thousands of club acts, concerts, solo recordings and auditions.

Andrea Martin in <i>Pippin</i>
Andrea Martin in Pippin Photo by Joan Marcus

10. "No Time At All" from Pippin

This out-and-out showstopper from Pippin has reached a new level of musical theatre magic in the show's current revival. Diane Paulus has taken a number which was already a theatrical powder keg when it was just a veteran actress taking the stage to offer hard-won wisdom in hearty song and upped the ante more than a few notches. By putting her senior cast member through acrobatic choreography atop a trapeze, the audience's adulation of this performer is brought to a level of near hysteria, and we are putty in her hands when she sings this clever, funny and life-affirming song.

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9. "It's An Art" from Working

Another nearly forgotten song, this gem from Working could be the official theme song of waiters and waitresses everywhere. It's ripe for plucking out of context, as we all know what a waiter does and nothing else is necessary to understand the point. Of course, the bouncy tune transcends all language barriers, although I suspect deaf people would still enjoy the lyrics in sign language.

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8. "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife

One of the most popular smash hit cult flop musicals — and a page-turning chapter in both Ken Mandelbaum's book "Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Flops" and Patti LuPone's autobiography, "Patti LuPone: A Memoir," The Baker's Wife has lived on strong beyond its aborted pre-Broadway tour thanks to its winning cast album. Everyone who has ever played that LP or CD or downloaded the MP3s and started from the beginning of the album is immediately struck by the gorgeous, haunting ballad at the top, "Chanson."

Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in <i>Wicked</i>
Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus

7. "For Good" from Wicked

Less flashy than many other songs in Wicked, "For Good" is a unique ballad about the ways friendship causes us to grow. "For Good" is also powerful in that it offers meaningful insight into the relationships between women — one of the most powerful aspects of Wicked, particularly in Winnie Holzman's book.

Carly Hughes in <i>Pippin</i>
Carly Hughes in Pippin Photo by Joan Marcus

6. "Simple Joys" from Pippin

One of the most scintillating moments on stage anywhere has to be the seductive "Simple Joys" from Pippin, which goes beyond the standard come-hither fare and promotes a sensual relishing of all life has to offer. As irresistible as "Simple Joys" is in the current revival, the original Leading Player, Ben Vereen, whose singular presence is exalted in Stephen Schwartz's luscious creation, takes the proverbial cake.

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5. "Bless The Lord" from Godspell

It was almost impossible for me to choose numbers from Godspell for this list, as Stephen Schwartz wrote practically perfect music to suit the many bible verses extracted for these songs. Each song seems so right for its moment, it's really comparing apples and oranges — and I couldn't use them all! I chose "Bless The Lord" because it is the epitome of Schwartz's ability to fuse folk, rock and pop sensibilities to suit a theatrical context and like many of his songs from that era, it has a sound deliciously evocative of its time.

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4. "Where Is The Warmth" from The Baker's Wife

Stephen Schwartz's lyrics for "Where Is The Warmth" are absolutely shattering in their simple poetry.

But where is the warmth?
Since I grow feverish
with the flush that comes ev'ry time he holds me,
nat'rally you'd suppose I'd be warm when I'm hot.
Well, I'm not.

Add to that a heart-stoking melody and you have the definitive song about what's lacking when passion is all that exists in a relationship.

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3. "Popular" from Wicked

As I've said, I believe the greatest asset of Wicked is the very real relationship between Elphaba and Glinda, especially as warmly, hilariously and insightfully depicted in Winnie Holzman's book. Stephen Schwartz rises to the challenge of meeting Holzman's accomplishment in this showstopping number, surely one of the greatest character songs in Broadway history.

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2. "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife

One of the most thrilling female solos in all of musical theatre, "Meadowlark" simply soars. The story it tells is engaging and the music takes the whole thing to a visceral level, particularly when given flight by a voice that scale it long phrases with luster and gusto, as in original The Baker's Wife star Patti LuPone's definitive and unbeatable renditions on the cast album, her own solo recording and in her spine-tingling live performances.

Kyle Dean Massey in <i>Pippin</i>
Kyle Dean Massey in Pippin Photo by Joan Marcus

1. "Corner Of The Sky" from Pippin

This song is an anthem for dreamers everywhere, for anyone who ever dreamed of greatness, but didn't know how to get there or where they fit in. The lyrics are timeless and trenchant treatment of these themes and the music is peak Schwartz from the vamp to the high-flying chorus.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Nov. 6 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)

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