When the hit Broadway comedy Butterflies Are Free opened in 1969, there was a press story or two noting that the title song—a tuneful ditty sung by the blind hero, with guitar—was written by a precocious 21-year-old songwriter. Said songwriter is now 65, and his catalogue—catapulted by the megahit Wicked—earned him a birthday concert at Carnegie Hall last night, with Stephen Reineke and the New York Pops guiding us through The Wizard and I: The Musical Journey of Stephen Schwartz. Four top Broadway names—Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, Julia Murney and Jennifer Laura Thompson—took the stage along with Judith Clurman's Essential Voices USA to join the celebration.
The festivities started with an 11-minute overture, "Wicked: A Fable for Orchestra," a concert piece arranged by Schwartz and orchestrator William David Brohn. The stars came on for "The Spark of Creation," from Children of Eden, leading one to wonder whether this musical—which had a disastrous London premiere in 1991 and has never braved Broadway—might work with voices of this caliber. This notion was seconded when Jordan immediately followed with what would be a highlight of the evening, "Lost in the Wilderness."
Jordan (Newsies, "Smash") noted, with excitement, that this marked his Carnegie Hall debut. This was echoed soon thereafter by both Murney (Wicked, The Wild Party) and Thompson (Urinetown, Nice Work If You Can Get It). Murney described an early audition she had for the Schwartz-revue Snapshots when she came to town in 1996; the composer himself asked her to sing the treacherously difficult "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife. She did, got the part, and sang the song in the show. She reprised it at Carnegie, to great effect.
This was followed by "West End Avenue" from The Magic Show, from Thompson, and two Pippin songs: "Magic to Do" from Lewis and "Morning Glow." Jordan sung the latter better than ever we've heard. The act ended with a somewhat out-of-place medley from Godspell. "All for the Best" sung by the 86-voice strong Essential Voices to an accompaniment of sandpaper blocks, tambourine, and 47 strings playing pizzicato sounded somewhat foreign in the 2,800-seat Carnegie Hall. The second act began with an evocative orchestral suite from Schwartz's 2009 opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Then came four selections from animated films, "Out There" (from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") and "Colors of the Wind" (from "Pocahantas"), both with music by Alan Menken; and "Through Heaven's Eyes" and "When You Believe," from the Schwartz-composed "Prince of Egypt". These were sung, respectively, by Jordan, Murney, Lewis and Thompson.
Lewis had some lyric trouble on "Magic to Do" and "Through Heaven's Eyes," but the evening rebounded with one of its strongest moments, with Essential Voices presenting the New York premiere of Schwartz's highly effective Testimony. This piece, derived from the "It Gets Better" project, was written for a 2012 concert by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Now available in an S.A.T.B. arrangement, it deserves wide exposure. Essential Voices, which participated in half the vocal numbers, did a fine job throughout.
Schwartz himself then came on and offered a fascinating seven-minute demonstration of the craft of songwriting, concentrating on the process of writing an introductory "I Want" song for Elphaba in Wicked. The composer and his librettist Winnie Holzman came up with the idea of their heroine getting on a train to go to school and bidding goodbye to her old life in a song called "Making Good." Not quite satisfied with the song after several readings—and inspired by the addition of Idina Menzel to the mix—Schwartz wrote a second, altogether different "Making Good." (He performed extended sections from each).
After which, he confessed to his "very smart director son Scott" that he didn't feel the song was working like it should. Scott Schwartz agreed, explaining to his seasoned father that the notion of bringing her to school and the train journey was too old-fashioned and should be "junked." Stephen explained why it was necessary, but nevertheless tried this different approach, which resulted in the final song in the slot, "The Wizard and I." Murney, who spent time on Broadway as Elphaba, sang the song in full, followed by "For Good" with Thompson (one of the Broadway Glindas).
The two-hour evening ended with Schwartz—assisted by the four singers and the chorus—performing the little-known "Can You Imagine That?" Schwartz wrote this song about the creative process for My Fairy Tale, a 2005 Danish musical about Hans Christian Andersen, and it is quite lovely.