The music of Stephen Schwartz has undoubtedly changed the world. But, with the closure of the Mark Taper Forum and the L.A. arts scene in crisis, Schwartz, the Award-winning songwriter and lyricist behind hit Broadway musicals and Disney films that include “Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Pocahontas” and “Enchanted,” lamented the current state of commercial theater: “It’s a pretty bleak time right now. But there have been other bleak times.”
He continues, “Post-pandemic it’s been challenging for new, more adventurous work to get produced and to find a foothold. Everything is pretty safe right now at a commercial point of view. There are a lot of brands out there… and it’s pretty difficult for interesting and original work to get through.”
Schwartz is in L.A. speaking about his latest venture, the ASCAP Foundation’s Musical Theatre Fest, where he served as artistic director. It’s a two-week program featured workshops for emerging composers, led by Schwartz.
He hopes to highlight not just up-and-coming composers, but their musical theater skills.
Schwartz shared that most people struggle with the same foundational issues when writing a show. Again and again, he emphasizes to them the importance of the basic elements of storytelling. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “The issues that people have in developing their shows tend to be the same, which have to do with how to structure a story, how to tell a story using music. Those are the basic questions I face myself every time I’m doing a new project…Who do we care about? Who are we rooting for? What’s the obstacle? Why should I in the audience care about your idea?”
As part of the program, Schwartz had the opportunity to evaluate new shows and pick the composers that were highlighted. “I’m not listening to entire scores, I’m not reading entire scripts, but what I am trying to evaluate is if it’s a project that seems unusual, seems interesting, seems ambitious in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish,” he explained.
Schwartz is known for his inventive and wide-ranging projects that fit into a myriad of genres, from the philosophical “Pippin” to the parables of “Godspell” to the upbeat whimsy of “Enchanted.” He also discussed his newest musical, “Queen of Versailles.”
The show will reunite him with “Wicked” alum Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the role of Glinda on Broadway. Their latest collaboration is an adaptation of Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 documentary of the same name. It tells the story of billionaires David and Jackie Siegel. One of the things that excites him the most about this project is the opportunity to work with Chenoweth again.
“I love Kristin. I love working with her. She’s enormously inventive,” he said. “She’s not just an actress who comes in and learns her music and learns her lines and performs them admirably. She’s very, very creative during the process of putting a show together and she has a lot of ideas and as a writer, she reveals a lot of things to you. So it’s been delightful to experience that again and work with her again.”
Schwartz is also inspired by the pertinent subject matter that the musical tackles. “The social issues and economic issues and class issues that [Greenfield] explored in this documentary through the examination of this one family are very important in our society right now.”
What inspires him? He cites a “long list” that includes, but is not limited to, Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bach, Carole King and Sting, as well as his collaborators Alan Menken and Leonard Cohen.
“I’m always collaborating with other writers because I don’t write my own books for musicals,” he explained. “That’s what I like about musical theater, is that it’s very collaborative, not just with the writers, but with the director and the designers and the actors. Everybody’s playing in the sandbox, and ideas are coming from everywhere. And if you do it well, the whole is definitely going to be greater than the sum of its parts.”
Later this year, “Stephen at 75” will honor his career in September with performances of his songs at the Lyric Theatre on London’s West End. With the event on the horizon, Schwartz reflects on all he’s accomplished thus far. At the same time, he’s still writing, and his discography is continuing to expand.
“It’s so weird. I don’t know how I got to be this number…But, you know, it’s just a number, as people say. I’m still fortunate enough to be in a position where I’m doing new projects. People are still allowing me to do this work. That was what I always wanted to do for my whole life, to write music in the service of telling stories and communicating ideas and emotions that are important to me. And I feel very lucky at this age that I still get to do this.”
Jazz Tangcay contributed to this article.
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