Q&A: Stephen Schwartz

We chat with Ridgefield resident and renowned composer Stephen Schwartz in the November issue of Connecticut Magazine. Here's the full interview.

 

Joan Lauren

A true musical guru of stage and screen, Ridgefield's Stephen Schwartz, 61-whose credits include the Broadway musicals Pippin, Godspell and Wicked and the Disney films Pocahantas (an Oscar winner for Best Score) and Enchanted-just premiered his first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon (based on the 1964 British film), in Santa Barbara, Calif., this fall. He's also the subject of the 2008 book Defying Gravity (Applause Books; $24.95) by Norwalk author Carol de Giere.

So tell me, are you happy with the way Séance on a Wet Afternoon turned out?

I was really happy, and extremely relieved. It was a big challenge for me; in so many ways it was terra incognita. I was on very unfamiliar ground, and had never done orchestrations on this scale before, so there was a lot to learn-but it really turned out well, and seemed to be very well received.

What drew you to do the project in the first place?

Initially, someone had pitched the idea to me as a possible musical theater project, a William Morris agent named Peter Franklin. I didn't really feel that Séance on a Wet Afternoon was appropriate for musical theater, and I wasn't particularly looking to do a musical theater project anyway, but it obviously lodged in the back of my mind. Then, maybe nine months or a year later, I got a call more or less out of the blue from Opera Santa Barbara, saying that they had heard I was interested in writing an opera someday, and that they were looking to commission a new work because they have this wonderful new theater. So they asked if I would be interested in doing something for them, and whether I had any ideas. Sort of immedicately and instinctively, I just said: "As a matter of fact, I do," and I thought of Séance again. It just seemed, for many reasons, ideal for an opera, in terms of the characters and the "size" of their behavior; it's very moody. Ultimately, I feel my instinct was borne out, because people did respond well to the subject matter.

From what I remember of the movie, it is pretty Wagnerian.

Exactly. It's a psychological thriller, and the two leading characters have a very complicated relationship. There's a great part for an older woman, and I thought, "Y'know, there are all these really good sopranos hanging around, who have gotten on in years a bit; therefore, it's really not appropriate in this new age to be casting them as consumptive teenagers anymore." Here's a role that someone could play . . . we wound up with Lauren Flanigan, the New York City Opera star, who was just perfect and really could play the part in the movie. We cast it with what I call movie casting: You don't have to suspend your disbelief at all; you don't have to imagine the character is 20 years younger and 100 pounds lighter than they are.

You said that this was terra incognita for you. What were the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge for me, as I say, was orchestration: to write for a 46-piece symphony orchestra. I had never done that before and hadn't really even studied orchestration since I was at Juilliard, which was years ago. So, I did have help-actually, another Connecticut resident, William Brohn-who was my orchestrator on Wicked. I knew Bill also had a lot of experience doing classical work and opera work; he had just completed collaborating with André Previn on Previn's new opera Brief Encounter. He came aboard and we basically co-orchestrated; beyond that, he served as a bit of a mentor to me. He'd go over what I'd done, make suggestions and comments. I sort of learned as I went along.

I also had to learn to write for operatic voices. Opera singers really use their voices in a different way, and of course, they're not amplified. I couldn't just boost the mike to have them be heard like you can on a Broadway stage, I had to write in such a way so that they could be heard and understood. It was much more technical than I expected. When I was working in the early stages with Lauren, and I was going over a piece with her, there was one high note and I said to her, "Well, I'd really like this have a very warm feeling when you sing it because of the content of what's being said," and she replied, "Well, you have me on an A note, and my A is not very warm-if you really want warmth from me, you probably want me on the G-sharp. So maybe you could transpose it down a half-step at that place, and I could give you more what you want." In musical theater, if people ask you to change a note, it's because it's too high for them, not because their voice has a different "quality." This is how well opera singers know their own voices and their own instruments. It was really fascinating to me, and this was not the only example.

You also collaborated with your son Scott on this project.

That was great. We'd worked together a bit before-I'd done some incidental music for a show he wrote and directed, My Antonia, and he had done a very well-received production of Godspell a few years back-but this was the first time he was directing a new piece of mine, and it was so great to have him on board. He sort of did exactly what you want from a director in that he realized what I had envisioned, and then he did more than I expected. My experience with directors has generally been that they did what I expected or less-and that's not really what you want-or they did more, but it was sort of off to the left or right somewhere. That's fine too, but it's not quite what one has in mind.

Here-partly because Scott had helped me dramaturgically as I was putting it together as I didn't have a book writer, but also because we share similarities in sensibility-he really gave me exactly the characters and the show the way I had sort of pictured it, but then it was full of surprises that I didn't expect and he found things in it that I didn't really know were in the piece. So it was a great experience to work with him.

And it must be great to discover that you can have such a working relationship with your son . . .

Absolutely, I'm looking forward to doing more with him. I wasn't surprised, because we've been more colleagues than parent/child for a lot of years now. Just the way we've related on other things-shows he was working on that weren't my shows that he's asked my opinion about, and vice-versa-kind of indicated how the collaboration was going to go, but you never know when it really comes down to the wire. But it worked out extremely well and I just think he did an amazing job. He told me he really enjoyed doing opera and he's hoping to do some more. I think he's actually been offered a couple.

What's next for the opera itself?

Opera's a very strange world, because it's not like a show, which you open and then you just run and hope people buy tickets. Each opera company only does a few performances of a piece, and then you have to hope that other companies to decide they want to produce it as well. There is a co-production with a company in Australia, so we know they're going to be doing it in a couple of years-they're just trying to work out the timing. But beyond that, it's simply going to be a question of if other companies have heard about it and are interested in it. Some representatives of other companies came out to see it and seem to be favorably impressed; maybe one of them will do it. Others contacted me or the executive producer and said, "We've heard very good things about this," and we got pretty favorable press. Right now, if feels as if there may be other productions; we'll see what happens.

But the thing with new opera is that almost all of them-nine out of 10-have a premiere, and then they're never seen or heard again. And I knew that, so I went into this knowing that that was the likelihood and that I had to be prepared for that. So the fact that it's starting to feel as if it may have additional life is "gravy," as they say.

When you look at your work overall, do you see a pattern to the stories and themes that appeal to you?

I think I have themes that I do return to over and over again-but this is the kind of thing that one recognizes only after the fact. 'Cause my attraction to a project is sort of instinctive and immediate. The whole thing with Wicked happened because a friend of mine, during a casual conversation on a snorkeling trip, said, "Oh, I'm reading this really interesting book called Wicked, and it's sort of the Oz story from the Wicked Witch's point of view." As soon as she said that, I thought, "That's the best idea I've ever heard and it's perfect for me." And it turned out to be. (laughs)

But it was an immediate instinct, and it was only much later that I realized, "Oh, well, it's because she's a sort of outcast figure, and that it's about moral ambiguity, and the struggle of people regarding how much they compromise." I realized all that sort of after the fact, finding in it many of the themes I've returned to over and over again. But it wasn't as if I'd analyzed it immediately. Similarly, with Séance on a Wet Afternoon, it has a lot to do with parent-child relationships-in this case, it's a mother-child relationship; I tend to write about fathers and sons, so this was a little different. It had to do with that; it had to do with people who want things too much and the destructive power of that. Just a bunch of themes that are interesting to me.

Conceptually, your work seems to exist on a different plane than, say, Hello, Dolly!

I always hope for my shows to be entertaining, but I'm not, for the most part, someone who is interested in doing things that would be characterized as "entertainments." Though certainly that was true of The Magic Show [Schwartz's 1970s collaboration with magician Doug Henning]. There was really no concept there-maybe a little bit of a story, but it really was about finding a way to use magic as part of a musical theater tale. You know, I'm not a playwright, and I'm not a novelist, so this is the medium in which I work-musical theater, musical film, and now opera-but there are ideas, philosophies and character issues that I find interesting, so I think I am attracted to material that has a bit more content, maybe. Sometimes I get criticized for that. In The New York Times review of Wicked-and I have to confess I don't read reviews, but I get told about them-I was told the critic's big complaint was that it came off as a "sermon." He just felt that musicals shouldn't have that much content. That's not my way of looking at it.

I've read the book Defying Gravity, which came out recently. The author talks about your early musical influences as ranging from Motown to Leonard Bernstein to folk songs and back again.

I feel that has to be true for pretty much everybody; one is influenced by the things that you like and they don't necessarily fit into a narrow category. Then, somehow they all get into a big mish-mosh or conglomeration in your head, and one hopes they all come out in an original and personal way. My influences go from several classical composers, to pop, to folk and world music and musical theater-it's really all over the map.

Any recent additions you can put your finger on?

I don't know that they're that recent, but certainly the rise of minimalist music-both, and I guess you'd call it classical, in the work of Philip Glass and John Adams all the way to the pop minimalism of Sting, who was extremely influential on me-has certainly crept into my work. Whenever there's an artist like Sting, or Mary Chapin-Carpenter, or Ben Folds, or anybody who I really like, little pieces of them will find their way into my psyche.

Sounds like you really keep your ear to the ground.

I do; I'm always interested in what's going on. I have to admit that the whole rap/hip hop thing just completely eluded me. I just cannot, for the life of me, understand why anyone wants to listen to rap. I just don't get it-it all sounds the same to me. I've heard it once or twice and thought, "Oh! That's interesting, but do you really want to hear that over and over again?" I can't tell the difference between one rap artist and another, and it's just really not interesting to me. But other than that, there's a lot of good stuff happening.

I was interested to learn-I didn't know this until I read the book-that you had done A&R for RCA Records.

That was my first job, and I got it slightly on false pretenses. They thought I was more knowledgeable about the recording studio than I actually was. But then I sort of learned on the job, and that's served me really well over the years. I've been able to produce my own cast albums and other albums, and I know some things about sound mixing and Eq that I never would have known if I hadn't had that job.

Was there any artist you acquired for the label who we would still know today?

Actually, I found this group called the Chapins, with Harry Chapin. He wasn't actually singing with the group, but he was writing for them. Tom Chapin-who's also gone on to have a bit of a career-and his other brothers were the singers. I tried to get them signed by RCA, but it didn't really happen. There were a few other artists-I don't know if they'd be all that well known now-including a folk/pop writer, David Buskin, who was very good. He got picked up by other labels and had some semi-hits. But I didn't discover any Bob Dylans. I was only there a couple of years, and my job was more about new artists having somebody to go into the studio with them. Nowadays everyone has his own studio in his basement, basically, where you can make not only demos but high-quality records. But in those days, you had to go into a studio, and that's what an A&R man such as myself did-I'd record a demo with the artists and they'd submit that to the record company and see if they got picked up.

I wonder if Tom Chapin still lives in Connecticut. I had heard he did at one time.

I haven't seen him for many years. Right before he died, I did see Harry Chapin a bit. He was actually going to be in a TV show I was involved with at the time, "Working," and was killed in a car crash on his way either to or from a costume fitting. That was pretty disturbing. He was a very, very good guy.

Do you have any preferences in the work you do? Do you enjoy composing a score more than, say, writing lyrics?

There is appeal and challenge to all of it. I wouldn't do something if I didn't really enjoy it or have passion for it, or feel that it was something I wanted to learn. I do find that music comes a little more easily than lyrics. But I enjoy doing both, and I enjoy my collaborations, as with Alan Mencken on the Disney films-that's been really a lot of fun for me, and you always learn a lot from people you collaborate with. But I'm also pretty happy just being on my own.

Tell me a little bit about your last Disney project, Enchanted, as I just watched it again last night.

I have to say that that was fun from beginning to end. We came in late on that project-it had really been pretty well worked out-so the screenplay that I was given to read was more or less the screenplay that got made, because the director, Kevin Lima, had been in on the project for a while. I met with Kevin before we started to work, just to see what he had in mind, and had a couple of little suggestions which he was already ahead of. It just was one of those projects where everybody was more or less on the same page and that worked out very well.

It must be more difficult writing for actors who are not typically known for singing.

That's true, although Amy [Adams] and particularly James Marsden were actually really . . . We didn't dub Amy, we didn't fake her, and she sang every single note herself. Jimmy Marsden could be on Broadway, if he wanted to. He could be in The Pajama Game, or something like that. He really sings.

And the songs were all representative of different Disney "styles."

Well, that was the idea, to make fun of and pay homage to Disney musicals through the ages.

You've earned a number of accolades for what you've done over the years-I'm just curious as to what your proudest accomplishment is.

Y'know, I'm not that big on awards, but I have to say in all honesty that I was pretty excited to win an Academy Award. Because that's sort of "the" award, unless you're going to win a Pulitzer or the Nobel-neither of which I think is in my future. So that was a thrill, just because it's something that you watch when you're a kid. But I guess if any sort of acknowledgment like that makes me feel proud, it's more the sort of lifetime things-the Theatre Hall of Fame induction which just happened, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame and the star on the Hollywood Boulevard, 'cause I feel as if that's for "hanging in there"-showing up, and continuing to do the best work that I can. Sometimes it's successful; sometimes it's not. It's a very difficult business, it's very tough and you get beat up a lot. So being able to hang in there and be Weeble-like, bounce back up after you've been knocked down over time, that is something that I do take pride in.

I imagine that what you do is difficult over the long haul not just because of the knocks you take, but just because you're always in the public eye.

It's very embarrassing to fail, because you fail in public and then no one calls you.

How does it feel to have a book written about you?

It felt strange at the beginning-Carol was sort of following me around and taping things that I said. But I wound up really liking the book. I think she did a great job. And I like it because it's not really a biography; it sort of uses me to examine aspects of the creative process. She could have just as easily written it about lots of other creative people, too. I think that most biographies are essentially a story of somebody going from triumph to triumph, except for the fact that they become drug addicts, their marriages fail, whatever. But from a professional point of view, it's just one triumph after another. And I feel that this book shows that not everything works out or succeeds; there are struggles and tough times. I think it's good for people to know that. I feel like it's the kind of book that other people who are interested in being creative in any field, whether it's writing, performing or painting, can take some comfort from. So I really liked that aspect of it; it doesn't feel to me like a literary mausoleum because it's more about the creative process than my life.

Do you still like puzzles? What kind?

I do, yes. I love them; I do them all the time. I really like these cryptic crossword puzzles, which are getting harder and harder to find but they still appear in Harper's magazine each month. There used to be one in Atlantic Monthly too, but they don't publish them any more. But I like those kind of word games. I'm a little less addicted to Sudoku than I was for awhile. Everyone was addicted to Sudoku when it first came out, now I feel like, "I get this and I've done it." The cryptic crosswords are basically lots of word games built into a crossword puzzle.

Do you do the New York Times crossword puzzles?

I don't, because they don't have the kind of puzzles that I like. I don't like regular crossword puzzles, where you have to know some island off the coast of Indonesia that has an "x" in it. I'm not that crazy about them. For some reason, acrostics-though I do them sometimes-get increasingly tedious as they go on. So they're not my favorites.

Professionally speaking, what would you like to do more of?

I like to do things-as you've already intimated-that I haven't done before. You mentioned Enchanted, which is kind of a musical, but not really, and I'm very interested in the whole live-action movie musical idea, and am trying to figure out if there's something I could do there. I'm interested in the CGI animation that's being done that hasn't really found a way to be musicalized, and if that's possible. I'm talking to Disney about possibly doing something along those lines for them. Classical opportunities are opening up because of the opera; I'm talking to a couple of choreographers about maybe doing a dance piece with them. This is just stuff that I haven't done before that I find challenging and interesting.

Are you involved with the forthcoming movie version of Wicked?

Well, at some point there will be a movie of Wicked, but that's several years away.

Ah. The Internet Movie Database makes it sound like the movie is coming out tomorrow.

Yeah, they keep announcing directors that haven't even been discussed and release dates that are completely fictional. There will certainly be a movie because Universal, being the prime backer of the stage show, is, after all, a movie company. But we don't really even have a deal with them yet. We're just in the process of talking with them about that.

The point is that the show itself is very strong right now, and still in the process of rolling out in other territories. So it's really premature for us to be considering a movie.

Is there any project you specifically in the works right now that you can tell us about?

No, because I'm trying to have a light year. The opera was very intense in terms of the work schedule-it was a lot of work and long hours. I realized that I hadn't really had a vacation since 1992. There was always some deadline looming over me. I really wanted to take a bit of a break. I'm talking about doing some things, but there's nothing that's really been decided upon or embarked upon. I'm going to try to have a pretty light 2010.

You've been living in Connecticut for quite some time.

We're real old-timers, here since 1971. We've lived in our current house, in Ridgefield, since 1974. My kids grew up here.

Is there anything about living here-beyond the obvious advantage of its proximity to New York-that you find conducive to your work?

We just love it. It's so beautiful. You're also talking to me in October, which is the month when you don't want to be anywhere but Connecticut. I feel like May and October are the two months when you don't want to be anywhere else in the world. We like the people, we like the whole sort of feel of it. I grew up on Long Island, so I sort of was a Northeastern boy to begin with. But I have always felt a real affinity here, it's a great place for me to write, y'know, because I can walk around, and it's quiet and pretty. It just speaks to me. Other people may prefer the desert, or the mountains, or the beach . . . whatever. This area has always been a place that I find very, in Zen terms, soothing.

Are you still teaching the ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre workshops?

Yes, I'm going to do them again in 2010, in Los Angeles and New York City. I didn't do them last year just because I was so overwhelmed with the opera.

Have you worked with the National Music Theater Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford at all?

A little bit. I've been there a couple of times for specific shows, and been on panels. I've never done a show that was developed there, and I haven't been there in the last couple of years. But I have been there and worked with some of the writers.

When you work with people in your own workshops, is there anything in particular you try to impart?

I just try to share what I've come to learn about structure of musical theater, and the pitfalls I've learned to avoid. Mostly I just respond to what their work is-I'm not trying to get people to write like me. The idea behind it is to take each work on its own merits and say, "It seems to me you're trying to do thus and so." And if that's what you're trying to do, here's where I feel you're succeeding and here's where I think you may need to improve or reconsider stuff-have you thought about this, maybe you should come at it that way.

It's kind of what I do when I write, where I try and get inside the characters and become the characters. In this case, I try and get inside the work and the minds of the writers and find out what they're trying to achieve. And see if I can offer any assistance-as I'm objective and don't have anything at stake-to help them past blind spots. But I never try to change something to be, "Well, if I were doing it, I would do it like this" or say, "I prefer things to be such-and-such a way." It's really a matter of trying to help people realize what their own goals are. With anything like this, I always say to people, "No matter how much you respect somebody or like their work, you still have to take what's being offered here and see what resonates for you. Make ure it's something that's in line with what you want to do. Don't just change something because somebody else said you should change it."

Q&A: Stephen Schwartz

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