From writing some of our most beloved pieces of musical theatre, including Wicked, Pippin and Godspell, to some of our most treasured songs from the likes of Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Prince of Egypt, Stephen Schwartz has touched our music-filled hearts in one way or another.
Currently in Australia for Defying Gravity, a concert celebration of his work, Stephen sat down with Leigh Sales and a live audience to chat a little bit about his life, musicals, writing, politics, luck and his exciting plans for the future. The conversation was a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the most regarded composers and lyricists this turn of the century.
Being musical from a young age Schwartz explained that he would often rope the neighbourhood kids into putting on the little musicals he wrote for their parents. His talents grew from here and soon he was writing musicals during his time at Carnegie Mellon University, one such musical being Pippin Pippin which would of course later become Pippin.
The composer is surprisingly frank about his success, commenting that having such success at a young age makes it hard not to think of yourself as king of the world. Jokingly he said that no one wants to comfort you when your complaint is that you became successful, but the road is still hard.
Hilariously he also explained that hearing his work on stage for the first time is always horrible to him, that even for Wicked he had to rush out immediately and not talk to anyone because he was so appalled. There is always room for improvement he explained, noting that particularly for some of his earlier musicals there was a great deal of revisions done before their eventual popularity. “It’s like problem solving, and when you feel you’ve solved the problems or done all you can, then that’s it”.
Continuing to talk about his processes Schwartz explained that he will shut himself out while writing, generally working from a title first as he feels that gives the song the structure it needs. Being a morning person he will usually just lock himself in a room until he’s all played-out. The chaos and commercial world of New York does not suit this particular method of style and so he explained that working there was depressing and not suited to him.
He continued by expressing the difficulties of dealing with critics, that he learnt that he simply cannot read any sort of review for his shows. That working in show business means you need to have the hide of a rhino and he finds it easiest to just shut off all the negativity and wear blinders to it. Happily receptive to constructive criticism though, Schwartz explained that he will often run his ideas by his son (a theatre director) or his wife, as he knows they have his best interests at heart and will speak truthfully.
Conversation then turned to his work in film and storytelling. Sales inquired how you know which moment requires a song, to which Schwartz replied that when you need to feel the moment emotionally, where you need to go deeper into the character, those are the moments. He explained that the difference in doing this in film is that you have to remember that your character cannot be stationary, that they will not be spotlighted at the front of the stage but moving around interacting with their world. You need to be particularly clever with live-action films, as you have to find a way of giving the characters permission to sing otherwise the audience will reject it. He continued that it’s slightly easier with animation of course, and that the process is highly collaborative. Scenes like “The Bells of Notre Dame” were originally boarded by the animators before he began to write, and ideas went back and forth between both towards the final product.
A concept that Schwartz often returned to during the conversation was this idea of the randomness of life, the significance of little things, which he feels plays a vital role in the direction of your life. One such moment that he explained was the birth of Wicked. By chance he happened to be on a snorkeling trip in Hawaii, was part of a conversation regarding someone reading a certain book (Wicked), liked the idea of background characters taking the spotlight and the wheel moved into process and we have the musical today. Meeting a person, getting a project- luck plays an enormous part in it all, the composer explains.
Interspersed throughout the discussion were strategically placed songs, each related to the topic discussed. Elise McCann (Matilda’s Miss Honey) performed a particularly poignant rendition of “Hardest Part of Love” from Children of Eden that had all of the mothers in the audience in tears. The most special of these performances however came from Schwartz himself, who sat at the piano to sing “Forgiveness is Embrace”. Introducing the song Schwartz explained that he struggled in exposing himself, but found that the more truthful he was with himself and his music the more it would resonant for other people. And the soul-bearing song definitely resonates.
Finally talk turned to current and future projects, of which Schwartz has no less than four he is currently working on- a soon to be premiering show in Vienna, a movie-musical based around Mary Poppins that he is working on with Josh Gad (the original star of Book of Mormon), a TV musical, and most excitingly for fans- an adapted stage musical version of The Prince of Egypt!
The crowd was then brought to their feet as everyone joined along with Schwartz on his piano with an enthusiastic sing-a-long of “Day by Day” from Godspell.
In Conversation With Stephen Schwartz was a fascinating and open insight into the life and thought-process of someone who is so highly regarded for the work he creates and yet continues to be so nice, down-to-earth and obviously passionate about the work he produces.
And his advice for young Schwartz-hopefuls? Follow your passion and you’ll be on the right path. And when writing? “Tell the truth and make it rhyme”.
Stephen Schwartz in Conversation with Leigh Sales was a special event that occurred as part of the Defying Gravity concert series.
The author attended the event held on the 13th February 2016 at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.