For the Kalamazoo Gazette, 11-28-10
His success defies gravity
Composer says ‘Wicked’ is about relationships
Stephen Schwartz in 1971 wrote the score for the musical “Godspell” when he was only 23 years old, and the music and lyrics for “Pippin” the following year. He’s collaborated with legends such as composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Bob Fosse and director Trevor Nunn, as well as having won four Drama Desk Awards, three Oscars and four Grammys.
He wrote lyrics for a quartet of Disney projects, including “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Yet despite these creative achievements, he says he doesn’t know for certain why “Wicked,” for which he’s both composer and lyricist, has become such a long-running phenomenon.
The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2003, will perform its magic Dec. 1-12 at Miller Auditorium. Schwartz spoke about “Wicked” and his career while in Kalamazoo in August, when he also gave a talk at the Civic Theatre, ahead of its September performance of “Godspell,” and sneaked in a few matches at the U.S. Tennis Association Boys’ National Championship.
“I get these wonderful e-mails, especially from women going through difficult stages of their lives,” Schwartz says. The messages are from people who saw “Wicked,” often more than once, and found the musical “seems to speak to them.”
The song “Defying Gravity,” in particular, inspired them to confront their challenges and take action.
“Wicked,” a tale of two witches in Oz before Dorothy of Kansas showed up, is about the “difference between our perception of people and the reality,” Schwartz says. “So much today is blogs and things taken out of context, us versus them. Life is really not that simple.”
But basically “Wicked” is “the story of these two people.”
Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, who wrote the story for the stage show, hung a sign reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign to keep them focused on that concept while they developed the show — “It’s the Girls, Stupid,” it read.
“It’s about the relationship between two friends, how another person can change your life,” he explains. “That’s a story not very often told in musical theater, and not so much with women.”
The “bittersweetness of the story makes it more powerful,” he adds, and audience members seem to identify especially with the leading character. Elphaba, who becomes the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, stands up to the might of Emerald City, singing, “And nobody in all of Oz/No wizard that there is or was/Is ever gonna bring me down.”
“As our leading producer, David Stone, says, ‘All of us has that green girl inside of us,’” Schwartz says.
What first attracted Schwartz, who studied piano and composition at the Juilliard School of Music and graduated in 1968 from Carnegie Mellon University with a B.F.A. in drama, to this story?
Choosing his projects, he admits with a grin, often “is like falling in love” — a lot of it is chance. In the case of “Wicked,” he recalls he was on a snorkeling vacation in Hawaii when a friend mentioned she was reading Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.”
“I knew it immediately,” says Schwartz, who contacted his agent as soon as he returned from vacation. Universal Pictures owned the rights to the 1995 novel, and Schwartz “had to talk them out of making it into a movie” before he could launch the musical that by then was growing in his mind.
“It seemed the only place (“Wicked”) belonged in the theater,” he says. (A movie version is now in the works, he confirms.)
The coming year will be “very busy” for the composer. Fresh after being honored this past summer by the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project for his mentorship of young tunesmiths, Schwartz has turned his attention to a Chicago revival of “Working” (1978), which will boast two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Tony Award-winning “In the Heights,” and an opera.
The opera — based on the Mark McShane novel and the 1964 movie, “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” about a fake psychic and her husband who hatch a kidnap plot — is “done-ish,” he says. He was intrigued by the leading characters, a couple “who want things, very desperately.”
“And I liked the moodiness of it, and what the music could create.”
“Seance” will premiere spring 2011 at New York City Opera.
Of his career thus far, he notes, “Even shows that I had trouble with at first” — “The Baker’s Wife,” “Children of Eden,” “Working,” for example — “they haven’t just gone away. People remained interested in them” and they continue to be produced.
“I’ve been very, very lucky.”
Stephen Schwartz on:
• Timing: “Wicked” was “the right piece at the right time. Just like (the TV show) ‘Glee.’ Five years earlier and it wouldn’t have become a hit.”
• Building on the shoulders of giants: “One of our models for ‘Wicked’ was ‘The King and I,’ (which also is about) … a loving relationship, but never a romance. But both (characters) are transformed. It’s my favorite musical.”
• The novel: Gregory Mcguire, author of the dark “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” told Schwartz he had in mind an extreme form of America under the presidency of Richard Nixon.
• Working with big names: Speaking of his collaborations with the likes of Leonard Bernstein (“Mass”), Bob Fosse (“Pippin”) and Trevor Nunn (“The Baker’s Wife”), he admits, They were incredibly influential on me.”
• Music in Broadway shows: “In the ’70s, most musicals had the more traditional Broadway sound. (Producers) thought you couldn’t tell a story with pop rock. The style then was what we’d call more ‘legit.’ Now, (Broadway shows) all (have) pop scores, with a few exceptions. It is a different style.”
• The use of concealed microphones — in wigs, under collars — by performers: To those who believe they heard every lyric and note in the days before singers in stage productions wore mics, Schwartz says: “You’re misremembering. You just think you heard everything.
• Working for the movies: “I said yes to Disney, and it was somewhat the same with Pixar (Animation Studios), without knowing what the project was.”
• What attracts him to a particular project: “Sometimes it’s not for a long time after that I figure out why.”
“Wicked” will be performed Dec. 1-12 at Miller Auditorium as part of its Broadway in West Michigan series, www.millerauditorium.com, 269-387-2300 or 800-228-9858.