BWW Interviews: Stephen Schwartz, WICKED's Composer, Lyricist
By Rocky Christopher Fajardo
Manila, Philippines, February 6, 2014--For a truly gifted musical theater genius, WICKED's composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz is picture-perfect as the laidback, generous, fun-loving avuncular figure that is the embodiment of all the high-spirited uncles that you've had as a kid growing up. Schwartz, comfortably (and most suitably for the occasion) clad in a black and green sports shirt, dressed-down gray jeans, well-loved sneakers, and seeming much more like the genial "Wizard of Oz" than the green-skinned "Elphaba" (which ironically, he admits, he is more like the latter), was the defining image of easy composure. Ready to bigheartedly answer questions from a select few media representatives, he cheerfully made his entrance onto the plush, intimately-set ambience of the conference room prepared by Concertus Manila and co-sponsor Diamond Hotel Tuesday, February 4.
Looking well-rested, and fresh from his dinner the night before with friends, including fellow musical theater luminary, Tony Award-winning Filipina theater actress, Lea Salonga, Schwartz (a self-confessed morning person), is in a relaxed and unflustered state, even with only three hours left before leaving for his flight back to Los Angeles. With sheer delight, he shares his personal experience of the festive Filipino culture in celebrating town fiestas during his recent trip to see Tagaytay's Taal volcano, South of Manila. Continuing to recount how much he enjoyed seeing the elaborately dressed-up edifices of the town's local structures, he beams with excitement of having an excuse to finally visit the Philippines to be part of the Manila staging of WICKED.
Commending the Australasian touring production for a fantastic job (as he was present to attend a performance of WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines [CCP] last Sunday), he vigorously goes on to say, "It's especially gratifying that I think we were able to bring you a really first-rate production of the show."
Having seen most, if not all members, of this touring company in their shows in Auckland, New Zealand, Schwartz admits that this is one of his favorite companies of WICKED. Praising the strength of the entire cast and production crew, most notably the two female leads Suzie Mathers (Glinda) and Jemma Rix (Elphaba), he also shares his appreciation for the excellent work of Karen Johnson Mortimer as local director for WICKED.
"I was very, very happy with what I saw; you know of course I have some thoughts about maybe little ways to make the sound a bit better, and certain small notes, which is sort of my job. But I have come to see productions in other places where there were a lot more work to do. I felt really good about what I saw here, and the audience was extremely enthusiastic the night I came to see it," he enthuses.
According to Schwartz, the WICKED repertoire we know now took more than three years of careful planning and structuring, which is the expected length of pre-production and actual production for any show of this grand scale.
"Intricate collaborations with friend and colleague, Winnie Holzman, for the book; extensive rehearsals with the musical department; and intensive readings and run-throughs with Broadway's original Glinda and Elphaba, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, respectively, were among the many preparations they had to push through before the finalization of the complete show," Schwartz recalls.
"Many, many, many songs were cut and changed, as is commonplace with any musical in the process of production," he explains.
When asked if there was any chance that some of these songs would eventually enjoy a makeover, and ultimately find their way into a future production of WICKED, he laughs gently and says "No, they wouldn't find a way back into the show because they were discarded, they were discarded for a reason..."
One song in particular, however, "The Wizard and I" was actually a result of a lot of re-working and re-structuring from another song "Making Good," which was also written for Elphaba, according to Schwartz. He reveals that there is such a heart in the song "Making Good" that especially draws him to it, and that the song has been recorded many times by a couple of different artists. In the entire musical repertoire for WICKED, he names "Popular" and "For Good" as the literally "untouched songs," totally intact and still in their original state--music and content-wise--since the first day they were written. To the delight of the press, he further reveals that he will probably be composing a new song or two to add to the repertoire when the WICKED film adaptation comes out, in the "far, far off future."
"I'm already fairly sure that there will be some spots that will want musicalization that are new, and therefore will require some new writing."
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"We have absolutely no casting in mind at all," he smiles and says in between sips of tea, when asked about circulating rumors on the casting for WICKED's film version. He humorously adds, "I know, there are rumors about everybody, really. Obviously, eventually we'll want to figure out, particularly for the two leading ladies. But because the movie's a little way off, I think we're just not thinking about it, and some of it has to do with the age of the actors who are around at that time because they're young women, and you want to make sure that the actresses who are playing them are relatively young themselves."
In the sit-down interview with BroadwayWorld.com (BWW), as pressed for time as he was, Schwartz still manages to tease, hinting to another visit to Manila if and when a possible future Philippine staging of the Tony Award-winning revival of PIPPIN is confirmed. Looking forward to PIPPIN's US national tour set to embark in October, Schwartz, who is also the composer and lyricist of the show, confirms that as with other touring productions of all his musicals, he will also be working closely with the carnival-inspired revival of PIPPIN throughout the course of its national runs.
In an even more enthusiastic tone, his instantaneous beam was purely electric as he shares his enjoyable experiences during the production of another Broadway revival of one of his hit musicals, "Godspell." Growing even more ecstatic as he lavishes generous praises on the talents of Filipino artists Anna Maria Perez de Tagle and George Salazar, he continues: "Thank you for asking about both of them! I actually just saw George recently, we were reading something together. Both of them are so talented; they both sing well, and George in particular is very funny, and Anna Maria is just of course a lovely, lovely person, and a lovely personality. It was great and we were very, very happy and blessed to have them as part of our cast," Schwartz shares.
"I'm glad you asked me that so I can say nice things about them!" he teasingly quips.
Schwartz further reveals the special place in his heart for another outstanding Filipino talent, Lea Salonga, also mentioning his fondness for Lea's husband, Rob, and their daughter, Nicole, "who's turned into a wonderful young lady," describing Salonga's eight-year old. He initially began working on Disney's MULAN before eventually being tapped to begin his Grammy and Academy Award-winning work for THE PRINCE OF EGYPT. Schwartz originally penned the song "Written in Stone" as a demo for Salonga's Fa Mulan, which he believes she still performs in some of her shows. He goes on to recount memorable times he shared with Salonga when they had the opportunity to work together in a special concert during the inauguration of the Disney Cruise Line "The Disney Fantasy," in its maiden voyage in 2012: "When we got together that last time, we were thinking like 'What else could we do? Is there another cruise we want to take?' But we became really, really fond of each another. Well I'll speak for myself, I became really fond of her!" he continues smiling, with a faraway look in his eyes.
As a special treat, BWW instant-messaged Salonga for a special question for Schwartz, and she came back to us with an intimate inquiry on his musical influences as he was growing up and which career he would've most likely ended up in, had he not pursued musical theater. To which Schwartz delightfully replies, "I can answer both of those questions! I would've loved very much to have been a therapist! I was passionate about it and even studied it some time ago."
He then proceeds to describe huge parts of his musical background as a conglomeration of influences resulting from his exposure to an expansive list of pop and rock musicians while growing up in the '60s and '70s, and it goes without saying, further enriched by influences from an extensive roster of genius musical theater composers and lyricists.
Speaking of other musical theater geniuses, when asked about his thoughts on Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's musings on WICKED as being "the last American musical that had great music/melodies," Schwartz, instantly brightens up, "Thank you Andrew! My thoughts on that are 'thank you Andrew'! I don't know Andrew that well. We've met just maybe three or four times... He's always been very nice to me and that's really lovely of him to say. He's got a new show. I don't know if it's on yet or not in London, but I'm looking forward to it because I like a lot of his work, particularly when he's political," he says, flashing a schoolboy grin with a charmed twinkle in his eyes.
Rapt in a flurry of quick thoughts as he examines a long mental list of established composers and those who are still up-and-coming, Schwartz, in between quick flourishes of a marker as he signs DVDs and other memorabilia, was thrilled in expressing his great regard for his fellow composers and lyricists in the industry. He cites the talented team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ("A Christmas Story," "James and the Giant Peach") among his favorites. He continues, "There are so many who are new and up-and-coming, I see a work of theirs and I think they're really good. I just saw this piece by my friend Lin-Manuel Miranda, who's not really up-and-coming, he's definitely established. It's a new piece, it's just brilliant, and it's so good! I'd like to give a shout-out to Lin-Manuel, again, who's just amazing and talented!"
Schwartz, turning 66 in March, yet looking as fit as ever, admits that he doesn't write shows and movies to win awards, but acknowledges that it is certainly nice to receive them. Writing out of his love for telling stories that he is passionate about and cares a lot for, he sums up saying, "The hardware is nice, but it's not central."
He further describes his method of composition as "duly inspired" by all the people that come and go in his life. Whether he is creating music and words for characters: male or female; young or old; hero/heroine or villain, ultimately, he digs deep within himself for the core essence of the content he creates. Content-wise, he also explains his attraction to stories about people who are outsiders and are trying to find their way in.
"I'm also very interested in sort of--politically and socially-- the difference between what is perceived and what is presented to the public as--if you want to say 'spin' or 'propaganda'-- and what's really going on; in that things in real life that are much more complicated and nuanced than they tend to be presented," Schwartz explains.
On the comprehensive study and inquiry into the body of his work in Paul R. Laird's The Musical Theater of Stephen Schwartz, released January 28, Schwartz expresses his approval for Laird's keen eye for detail in his scrutiny in the exploration of the vast world of musical theater dynamics. "He's just completed some other stuff... You know, Paul is very thorough, and he comes to it from an academic musical analysis; a point of view that I find, it's gratifying to have somebody analyze things in as much detail, with as much attention as Paul does. He tries to be very meticulous about the work," Schwartz continues.
In a conversation about overtures and finales, Schwartz describes that in his usual creative process, it is extraordinary that the first song he writes for any musical would end up as the first song to be performed in the show itself. Such is the case with "No One Mourns the Wicked," he reveals. Schwartz, who has always been very vocal about his adamant refusal to name his favorite songs within any of his musicals, explains that it is hugely because he does not want to create any predetermined biases in the minds of theatergoers. But when asked which song he would then favor the most to end any special concert chronicling his luminous career, he cheerily reveals that he almost always closes with "For Good." He exclaims,"But part of that is because it's a song that I can sing!"
The Manila production of WICKED is extended until Sunday, March 9 at the CCP, presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins Enterprises, 105.9 Radio High, and Concertus Manila, alongside VISA and Smart Infinity.
Special thanks to Bambi Verzo, Anna Yulo, and Sheila Catilo of Concertus Manila for the press conference photos. - Rocky Christopher Fajardo, Oliver Oliveros