'Increasing Empathy'-- An Interview with Stephen Schwartz

When the New York Musical Theatre Festival begins next week, one musical will hold a special place as something in between a premiere and a revival. Stephen Schwartz, most recently represented on Broadway by the mega-hit Wicked, will present a reading of Captain Louie, a revisiting of a short musical for children that first premiered in New York nearly twenty years ago.

"It's not a new work," Schwartz explains. "It's an expansion of an old work." Captain Louie was originally written by Schwartz and librettist Anthony Stein as a children's musical theatre piece called The Trip, based upon Ezra Jack Keats' eponymous picture book. An urban fantasy about the power of a child's imagination, the musical version of The Trip was commissioned by director Meridee Stein (one of Captain Louie's producers), who oversaw the show's production both in New York and at the Kennedy Center in 1985. After that production, however, the Steins moved to Atlanta, and the show "went into a catalogue of children's shows that one could rent, and no one heard much about it," Schwartz says dryly. Upon her recent return to New York, Meridee Stein contacted Schwartz about revisiting their work from nineteen years before. "We decided that we would expand it a bit, and improve it a bit." Schwartz wrote some new songs, Anthony Stein wrote some new scenes, and they had a new musical with a new name. The challenge, then, was not to take a rough draft and improve upon it, but to take a final project and expand it. "It was not a matter of fixing a piece that didn't work," Schwartz insists. "The old piece did work, and was very well received... Sometimes you revisit a show [to] see if you can figure out how to make something work that didn't work initially. That wasn't the case here."

Schwartz is no stranger to writing music for children. He has won Oscars for his contributions to animated movies for both Disney (Pocahontas) and Dreamworks (The Prince of Egypt), and his musicals are performed by schools all over the world. There is, he says, little difference between writing a show for children and writing one for adults. "I don't believe in condescending to children," he says simply. "I don't change any writing technique." The only difference, he admits, would be the subject matter of the show itself. "You wouldn't pick things with adult themes... or which requires a kind of knowledge that children don't have... But other than that, it's the same approach. I don't believe in making things simpler or sweeter [for children]." Captain Louie, however, is not like a Disney fairy-tale at all. "One thing that is interesting about Captain Louie, as opposed to much of children's theatre," Schwartz says eagerly, "is that it's a very urban piece. The kids live in a poor urban environment, and [the show is] very much concerned with issues they face there, as opposed to being about Indian princesses or Moses in the desert." By creating work that speaks directly to his young audience, Schwartz hopes to keep their interest in theatre active: "If they go and see something and enjoy it, they'll want to go again."

"There seems to be a lot of interest now in developing children's theatre," Schwartz continues. "I think that's encouraging, but on the other hand, the arts in general in our country are suffering from a perception that they're not as important as sports or science." People who attend theatre regularly as children are more likely, as adults, to bring their own children to shows, he says, and the many benefits of the arts can pass from generation to generation.

To that end, Captain Louie is the latest step in Stephen Schwartz's efforts to bring children into theatre, and into the arts in general. Exposure to the arts at a young age, he says, has far-reaching benefits on society. "I think the arts are very important for children growing up," Schwartz says. "I think we place far too little emphasis on that in this country. We have adults who are impoverished in a lot of ways because a lack of exposure to the arts when they were younger. That's evident in some of the leadership we have now. That's why it pleases me that there seems to be a revival of interest in children's theatre... It's good for our culture, it's good for society if people are theatregoers, if people are interested in the arts." Exposure to the arts creates better members of society, Schwartz says, because the arts themselves are about "increasing empathy, increasing in people the ability to see things from other people's points of view, and understand the world not just from your own narrow perspective but from the perspective of people in other cultures." And with their minds opened to many possibilities, children can grow up to become stronger and better leaders. "The empathy in our national life right now is sorely lacking," Schwartz says passionately, "and it's showing up in a lot of very bad decisions being made by the people in charge who I think have an extremely narrow point of view. I think exposure to the arts helps to ameliorate that."

Being part of the first New York Musical Theatre Festival is also important for Schwartz. "I think it's great that it's happening," he says eagerly, and chuckles. "It's new, so I'm sure it'll be chaotic this first time out." The NYMF, as it is being called, will present more than 30 musicals over three weeks in September. "I think [the Festival is] very smart... I hope that it will yield some results to the point that it becomes a tradition that's there every year."

With a career spanning almost four decades, Stephen Schwartz has developed a simple and humble philosophy about his work. "Every project has challenges and every project has its rewards," he says of his long list of credits. "I wouldn't do a project if it weren't a story I wanted to tell. That's rewarding in itself, as a writer, if you're working on a story that you enjoy telling."

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