Several months ahead of the 2003 opening of Wicked on Broadway, its composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, threatened to quit the show and issued an ultimatum to the producers.

Although the San Francisco try-out season had captured the public’s imagination and generated strong word-of-mouth, Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Children of Eden) knew that the musical was not ready for its much-heralded New York season, much less the trenchant critics waiting to pounce.

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Composer Stephen Schwartz.

Composer Stephen Schwartz.

The pressure of script revisions, tweaking scenes and replacing songs prompted occasional screaming matches about creative ownership and the extent to which audience responses should dictate changes. At one point Schwartz told the producer, Marc Platt, and director, Joe Mantello, to take his name off Wicked, given how powerless he had become.

”I was saying to Marc, look you have three choices,” he says. ”You can close down the show and walk away. Or you can do in New York exactly the show that we ended up with in San Francisco. You have the legal right to do that, in which case you’ll never see me again, but you can do that and take your chances.

”Or Winnie [Holzman, the writer of the musical’s book] and I are going to make the changes we want to make and we’re the authors, and that’s how it goes.”

The fiery exchanges behind Wicked – one of the world’s most phenomenally successful musicals – are recounted in Carol de Giere’s recently published

biography Defying Gravity. It explores the highs and lows of the American songwriter’s career spanning four decades, beginning with Godspell in 1971, when Schwartz was 23 and facing the daunting challenge of working with the notoriously fickle choreographer and director Bob Fosse on Pippin.

Time and again the songwriter’s Broadway experiences would prove bittersweet, establishing a pattern where his musicals, including The Magic Show and Working, would strike a chord with the public despite harsh critical judgments. With Wicked, the New Yorker’s John Lahr wrote: ”The show’s 22 songs were written by Stephen Schwartz and not one of them is memorable.”

Says Schwartz: ”The thing that’s good about the biography is that it doesn’t leap superficially from one bright accomplishment to the next. It shows that writing a musical is not that easy. There are moments of doubt, disappointment, elation and depression. Having this information out there is disconcerting, yet it’s truthful.”

Schwartz is a guest speaker next month at Song Summit, part of the Vivid Sydney festival. He is also performing in concert at the City Recital Hall on June 20 with the American vocalists Liz Callaway and Michael Rose, and will be a guest at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, also next month.

He says the relative ease and enjoyment of crafting Godspell failed to prepare him for the tough road ahead when joining forces with strong-willed theatre visionaries or pragmatic Broadway moguls intent on counting costs and eyeing the box office.

”It wasn’t so much about asserting my rights as an author as my having to learn to be a collaborator,” Schwartz says. ”I had to work out how to deal more effectively with the people I was working with and learn how to make the best of it.

”The conflicts I had with Bob Fosse [on Pippin] related to his approaches to the material, and maybe my age was a factor, because I didn’t know how to negotiate difficult personalities. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to better understand where he was coming from and, ironically, I now find myself becoming the guardian of Bob’s vision.”

In the ’90s, feeling defeated and licking his wounds after disappointing experiences in London and New York, Schwartz resolved to quit the business and expand his horizons.

”I wanted to become a therapist and hoped it would be my alternative career,” he says. ”I don’t for a moment regret the career I’ve had but I do regret that I didn’t move into this area as I’m very interested in psychotherapy. I went back to school when Mickey Mouse called me.”

This is Schwartz’s reference to Disney hiring him to write the lyrics for its movies Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted. The offer came when he was semi-reclusive with his family in Connecticut but the opportunity to try his hand at something new whet his appetite.

He and the composer Alan Menken won the Academy Award for best original score for Pocahontas in 1996, the year when the seeds were sown for turning Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked into a Broadway blockbuster.

”As soon as I heard about the book and how it reimagines the Oz story from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view, I knew it was a great concept for a musical,” Schwartz says. The magic of the book, the dynamic and friendships of the two witches and notions of the outsider fuelled his imagination and quest.

”I knew it would be a hard slog and I went in with my eyes wide open. I knew the pressures and tensions of developing a show for Broadway and knew only too well that the journey would be fraught … I encourage writers to become aware of what’s gone before and cherry-pick the techniques they like, but it’s also important for them to learn as much as they can about the business aspect. There are opportunities for new voices with talent but it requires huge commitment and maybe a little serendipity.”

Schwartz says he is not looking to do another musical, mainly because other mediums are competing for his attention. The number of jukebox musicals and revivals makes him wonder where musical theatre is heading as opera opens up to innovation.

His most recent work, the opera Seance on a Wet Afternoon, premiered in California last year, getting good notices for an enthralling, atmospheric score. It will be staged by the New York City Opera next year and the Queensland Opera in Brisbane in 2012.

The Song Summit, a creative and development event for the music industry, is at the Sydney Convention Centre from June 19 to 21.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

 

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