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Private Schwartz From...


I've known Stephen Schwartz professionally and personally for nearly 40 years. We have lots of mutual friends and my name appears in the tiniest print possible way in the back of the Broadway Playbills (very late in the run) for two of his shows Godspell and The Magic Show. So he has been (whether he knows it or not) a part of my entire professional life in the theatre. Hell, I even joined the "No Time at All" chorus on the revival recording of Pippin.

So in honor of Wicked (as it celebrates its 13 anniversary) I'm going to discuss Stephen Schwartz in the decades before the worldwide phenomena of Wicked and the films Pocahontas and Enchanted.

Godspell. I fell in love with this show before I saw it or heard it. It was the David Edward Byrd pseudo-psychedelic artwork that grabbed me. Then it was the original cast's appearance on the Tonight Show, then listening to the hit-laden cast album. I didn't see the show until I was visiting friends in Toronto and witnessed that now legendary cast (Victor Garber, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, with Paul Schaffer as musical director) that I actually "got" the show. I saw it many, many, many times in multiple locations after that and I'm constantly surprised at how over the years it manages to deliver on both a musical and emotional level. I loved the recent Broadway revival as well and that cast recording conveys the timeless energy of the show. And in choosing a favorite song from the show though I've gone with Hunter Parrish's heartbreaking version of a song Mr Schwartz wrote for the film version, "Beautiful City." Given the divisive political climate in which we live, this song is truly inspiring.

Pippin. Somewhere in the photo files of the New York Daily News there is a picture of Gwen Verdon and Neil Simon greeting one another in the lobby of the Imperial Theatre and the guy between them is me at my first Broadway Opening Night. It was never published probably because no one knew who the wide-eyed college kid in between them was. I had never before experienced the euphoria that an opening night audience brings to a show. I know better now. That knowledge doesn't stop me from truly loving Pippin and its delightful score. "Magic to Do" has got to be one of the best opening numbers ever written. It sets out the tone of the show and is catchy as hell. Whether its Ben Vereen or Patina Miller delivering it, the song is a great number and no matter what the quality of the production which follows, it's one of two numbers in the show that always connect with the audience. The other one is "No Time at All," which is seven minutes of musical comedy heaven. And while I love Irene Ryan on the Original Cast Recording, Andrea Martin's version on the revival recording is surprisingly moving.

The Magic Show. Even before this show became my employer for a couple of years I loved it. It's not great, but its job was to showcase the amazing magic of the late Doug Henning and that's what it did. Without the magic though this is a show that has basically been lost to the sands of time. Some would say deservedly so, but I have a friend (no names) who is obsessed with it. He ponders every nuance of the script (well there's not a lot of that) and at the slightest provocation can recite every lyric ranging from the lovely "Lion Tamer" to the haunting (and not in good way) "Goldfarb Variations." But if ever a show was worthy of a Feinsteins/54 Below concert staging this is it. It's a perfect example of the craft of writing theatre music. Sure the story is dismissible, and the songs are there only to provide a musical base for some stunning illusions, but they're better than they needed to be. The lyrics throughout are smart, witty, topical (for 1974) and well, good. There are some groan-worthy rhymes, but Mr. Schwartz is too smart of a guy not to have known that. Two songs have managed to break away from the show and have a life of their own in cabaret acts and at auditions when a theatrical ballad is called for, "West End Avenue" and "Lion Tamer," both were performed in the original company by the multi-talented Dale Soules. The original orchestrations have bit too much 70's Shaft in them but the score is a solid and highly enjoyable one.

I didn't see The Baker's Wife during its long ill-fated trip toward Broadway, but thanks to the posthumous cast recording, like most of you out there I fell in love with Patti LuPone's stirring rendition of the song "Meadowlark," but also at the time I was still under the spell of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and so I have a soft spot for the Brel-ish "Proud Lady," performed with studly aplomb by Kurt Peterson. I've seen a few productions of the show, and so now its flaws, which were so apparent the first time I saw it, have now disappeared. It's a charm show, with a whimsical but sad tale and a lovely score.

I've written before about why I thought, despite a terrific score by lots of really talented people, Working didn't work. So I won't go into it again but in that eclectically-written-flawed-but-moving musical Mr. Schwartz has given us one of my favorite show-stoppers, "It's an Art," sung by a waitress who takes such pride in her work that she is oblivious to her inefficiencies and as performed by Lenora Nemetz on the original cast recording it's simply smashing.

I don't know why he only wrote the lyrics to Rags, but since his composer was Charles Strouse and his orchestrator was Michael Starobin, the musical results are pretty damn wonderful. There are a lot of reasons why the show really wants to work and a lot of dramaturgical reasons why it won't. Nevertheless, the score is pretty thrilling, and there are three numbers which I absolutely adore in this show. Two are "Children of the Wind," a wall-busting anthem depicting the terror, frustration and hope of every immigrant; and "Blame it on the Summer Night," a romantic, wistful respite from the misery of the situations which befall most of the characters in the show. In the short-lived Broadway production these were performed by the singular brilliance of Teresa Stratas, for the recording made some time after the show had closed, the more full-bodied Julia Migenes-Johnson was employed, and she delivers the songs beautifully. The third song that I adore is "Three Sunny Rooms," sung with comic Borscht-belt perfection by Marcia Lewis and Dick Latessa, it's a crowd-pleasing romantic duet that never fails to make me smile.

I'm going to stop talking about the shows here and talk a bit about Stephen Schwartz the teacher. My experience with him is in this capacity is limited to 3 or 4 ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop panels of which I was a member. The format is that in the course of the evening people presented selections of what they were working on and the panel (headed by Mr. Schwartz who ran the workshop) would evaluate the work in a very frank and forthcoming manner. It's not easy for either side. If you're presenting, you're exposing your work to your colleagues and experts, and while they might be sympathetic to your situation they also have an obligation to you to be honest. If it's bad, that needs to be said and if it's good that too needs to be said. Every time I did the panel I was amazed at how Stephen could listen to something that may have had some talent but clearly was a work-in-progress or a work which probably should be abandoned, and then he could find the good in it, or at least acknowledge how challenging the road ahead was going to be for the writers involved. In his teaching, everything came from a positive place, a demanding one to be sure, but positive. I'm sure many writers left those sessions depressed, but I don't think anyone left feeling disrespected. And I think they felt that way because not only is Stephen Schwartz one of our finest practitioners in the craft of musical theatre writing, but he is also one of its greatest champions. And as the lyric in that song from Working says: "Even that is an art!" 

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