December 20, 2006
Broadway Legend Stephen Schwarz: It's a Wicked Wonderful Life
Grammy and Academy Award-winner Stephen Schwartz was walking along the beach in Montauk last year when he found a baby seal that had washed ashore and was stranded.
| (click for larger version)|
"It was lying on its side but still breathing," said Schwartz, who called a rescue organization and waited by the seal's side until help arrived. "I was just standing guard." The baby seal was treated for a viral infection and, ultimately, set free into the sea once again.
For anyone familiar with Schwartz's work, it's not surprising that the story comprises his favorite Hamptons memory. Schwartz, 58, an award-winning composer and lyricist, has followed his calling since he was a child, writing music that has touched the hearts and souls of audiences for years. And although he's best known for his Broadway hits Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show, as well as for the lyrics to such Disney hits as "Color of the Wind" from Pocahontas, anyone who has ever left a Schwartz show on Broadway singing knows that his music whispers universal truths about life, love and nature.
Schwartz's innate sensitivity to human travails touches a chord in his fans; his work transcends time and place and transforms reality for those whose lives he's touched.
Take the letters. Schwartz receives scores of missives from fans worldwide, more so since the advent of the Internet.
"For some reason, Wicked, and particularly the song 'Defying Gravity,' has seemed to be inspirational to some people who are going through things in their life that require courage. I got a letter from a woman who told me that she had been in an abusive marriage; she had kids and she was very unhappy. Then someone gave her the soundtrack for Wicked and she heard the song. She got out of her marriage, took her kids, moved to another state and got a job."
Another story involved a young gay man in a religious college who wanted to start a gay/straight alliance but was forbidden because of the school's religious affiliation. After seeing Wicked he sued the school – and won.
Perhaps Schwartz did not know when he was a young boy growing up in Roslyn Heights that he was meant to alter destinies, but he was certain he was Broadway bound.
Growing up, the Schwartz family lived next door to a composer, George Kleinsinger. Only Seven, Schwartz picked out tunes on Kleinsinger's piano until his parents bought a piano and signed him up for lessons.
Schwartz's first Broadway experience was Kleinsinger's play, Shinbone Alley, and from that moment, Schwartz was "bitten by the bug."
During high school, Schwartz was accepted into Julliard's preparatory division. "Every now and then, I would play hooky and go to a Broadway show."
Next Schwarz enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University's drama program, where he wrote four shows, including the early score for Pippin.
Graduating at 20, Schwartz was referred to agent Shirley Bernstein and worked for two years at RCA in a recording studio. Schwartz's first major credit came when he wrote the song "Butterflies Are Free" for the stage and film productions.
In 1971, Schwartz wrote the music and new lyrics for Godspell, the enormous Broadway hit that garnered international acclaim, two Grammys, and sent him soaring to the pinnacle of success. "Godspell was a very happy experience but we were all so naïve and completely inexperienced. None of us understood the consequences of what we were doing. It was really like getting together in a barn and putting on a show."
Only later, when Godspell had a sold-out run and spawned traveling companies worldwide, did the enormity of the show's success dawn on Schwartz. "I didn't appreciate how unusual that level of success was until I realized that it doesn't happen every time out."
During the ensuing years, Schwartz wrote music and lyrics for shows including Working, The Baker's Wife, and Children of Eden, as well as music for a one-act children's musical, Captain Louie, and his own CDs Reluctant Pilgrim and Uncharted Territory. He collaborated with composer and friend Alan Menken on scores for Pocahontas, for which he won two Academy Awards and another Grammy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Prince of Egypt.
But it was only with the advent of Wicked did Schwartz experience that over-the-top success he'd tasted early on. "It's been very interesting now, maybe toward the end of my theater career, having my last show be once again that kind of phenomenon. I appreciate it much more."
Schwartz, whose son, Scott, is a well-known director and whose daughter, Jessica, is an art teacher, has always strived to impart one lesson gleaned from Joseph Campbell to his children: "Follow your bliss."
Running musical theater workshops, Schwartz imparts life lessons learned to his students: "Tell the truth. Make it rhyme."
Currently, he is working on his first-ever opera. Every year, he makes an annual pilgrimage with his wife, Carole, and their kids, to their timeshare at Gurney's Inn, where he walks on the beach, relaxing and undoubtedly finding inspiration for songs that span generations.
Writing music, said Schwartz, means facing inner truths. "You can hear something written 400 years ago by someone whose life has nothing to do with your life in any way, and yet you hear it and burst into tears. There's a human connection, something that speaks to all of us. I've learned to trust that if I reach down into myself and try to do something that feels meaningful to me, then hopefully it will speak to others."