Stephen Schwartz on the legacy of Wicked and fostering new talent
In This Episode
ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you.
I’m your host, Elysa Gardner and our guest today is one of my personal heroes, and I’m sure that most musical theater fans would exactly say the same. I can think of no composer or lyricist who has done more than Stephen Schwartz to sustain musical theater’s wider relevance since popular music changed with the advent of rock & roll. His scores are as robustly theatrical as they are graceful, with too many beautiful melodies to list here, witty and poignant lyrics, and none of the empty bombast we sometimes associate with rock-influenced musicals.
Mr. Schwartz is also beloved for his work in film, which has won him three Oscars and includes such movies as Pocahantas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt and Enchanted. He has written revues and choral works, and ventured into opera with Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and he holds four Grammy Awards and places on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, among countless other honors.
But it’s with stage musicals that Mr. Schwartz has made his most obvious and timeless impact, from musical fan favorites such as The Baker’s Wife and Working to the long-running extravaganza The Magic Show to enduring classics such as Godspell, Pippin and the show that brings him here today, Wicked, now in its 16th year as a smash Broadway hit. And he continues to write, to inspire, and to serve other artists and foster new talent, for which he was honored with a special Tony, the Isabelle Stevenson Award.
Mr. Schwartz, I am thrilled to welcome you to “Stage Door Sessions.”
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Thank you! That guy you were describing sounds so good to me, wow! [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Well he’s right here next to me! It’s thrilling. I know we’re here to talk Wicked, and I’m going to get to that in just no time at all, to make a lame reference to one of your lyrics..
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Aw, always happy with those sort of references.
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] I must ask, as someone who has always loved your music and grew up seeing it as almost a missing link between the musical theater composers I loved and the popular singer/songwriters I loved. Who were your influences? Because I imagine you came of age with musicals and folk and rock and R&B, all of which I hear in your music.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Yeah, that is exactly accurate. I started being interested in musical theater when I was six or seven years old. My parents took me to see shows because I grew up on Long Island so we were approximate and neither of my parents were remotely in the arts but they were theatergoers, and so they took me to see musicals and I was immediately smitten and knew that I wanted, in some way, to spend my life among them and working on them. And so I tried to learn a lot about musical theater not just by seeing it, but I would go to the library and take out libretti and read them and consequently, early on, the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the way they structured shows was very influential on me and continues to be to this day. Then in the 60s when I went to college, I encountered the revolution in pop music and the singer/songwriters and R&B and some of the music that you’ve mentioned, and that became the music that I was listening to instead of original cast albums. So when I began to get the opportunity actually to write musicals, I tried to bring the kind of music that I was listening to and that was now inside me into the theater but to do it within the classic musical theater structure that I had internalized from people like the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, so it’s exactly the combination that you cited.
ELYSA GARDNER: And you make it sound so easy. [laughs] Turning to Wicked—though I will reference some of my other favorites later—let’s go back to the beginning, when it was decided to adapt Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch of the West, a sort of revisionist look at that character from The Wizard of Oz. I’ve gleaned the decision was made pretty early on to focus on the relationship between Glinda, the so-called Good Witch, and Elphaba, the supposedly wicked one, rather than focus on the latter. In fact, I’ve read that the piece was developed partly as a showcase for Kristen Chenoweth—who was the original Glinda—but as things progressed, it was the dynamic between the two central characters, with Elphaba played by Idina Menzel, that became even more interesting.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Yeah, to be honest, when we first started the show, I thought it was going to be a show centered really around the character of Elphaba. A show like, you know, again, to go back to classic musicals, like Funny Girl or Gypsy, or a central female character that you were following through the show, and that the character of Glinda, Galinda who becomes Glinda, was going to be secondary the way she is in the Maguire novel. But then as Winnie Holzman, the book writer, and I worked on the show, Glinda kept coming to the fore. And very early on, we realized that the heart of the show was the relationship between the two women. We actually made a little sign for ourselves, that said “It’s the girls, stupid.” So anytime we were wandering through the thickets of the very complicated plot, and would lose ourselves in the story of the talking animals or things having to do with Elphaba’s sister, etc, we would keep reminding ourselves wait, wait, we have to get back to Elphaba and Glinda cause that’s really what our show is.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. It’s also–Wicked–one of a small handful of musicals in which two women and the bond and the tension between them are in focus, and it’s probably a healthier or more accessible bond than it is in, say, Chicago, or Side Show. I think even in the era of #MeToo, with all the change happening and the long-held injustices being addressed, the idea of two young women—independent of men, who are secondary characters in Wicked—learning to accept and celebrate themselves and each other, with all their complexities, still seems revolutionary. I can tell you I went back and saw it with my daughter a few years ago, before #MeToo exploded, and she was about seven or eight, and it moved me in ways I could not even express. I thought, boy, we can be pretty rough on each other as women, and it doesn’t have to be that way—and you don’t often see that addressed in such an uplifting and forthright way.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Well thank you, I have to be honest that when Winnie and I were writing the show, it didn’t really occur to us that we were doing something revolutionary in terms of putting two very strong and complex female characters and their relationship sort of front and center. Sort of the female version of a bromance. There must be some clever word for that that I’m not..
ELYSA GARDNER: A sorance? [laughs]
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Something like that, I’m not inventing something clever off the top of my head. But we didn’t really think of it that way. We were just telling the story, they were the two leading characters, their relationship was what we were interested in, and so that’s what we were doing. Later on, when the show was out there and so many people were commenting on how unusual it was to have female characters front and center like this, particularly as you say when they’re not.. Ultimately it’s a very positive relationship although it certainly has its ups and downs, but ultimately they both have a very positive, lasting effect on one another and people started pointing out how revolutionary that was and how contemporary that was, and you know, we can take all the credit we want for it but the fact is that we were unaware of that when we were writing it.
ELYSA GARDNER: Mm. Well, I’ve heard that Wicked, speaking of the show, is starting a new project that you call “Flying Free,”
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Yes! I love this project, I think it’s so cool.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, you and ASCAP have identified some up-and-coming songwriters who are going to write original material inspired by Wicked, is that right?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: That is exactly right. Again, I’d love to take credit for this idea but I can’t, but it was presented to me and I was so enthusiastic about it. You may or may not know that for many years now, I’ve run a musical theater workshop under the auspices of the ASCAP Foundation, and I do it in New York and Los Angeles and it’s for aspiring musical theater composers. And a lot of young, well now not so young, songwriters who’ve gone on to have success on Broadway and in Hollywood and in musical theater have come through the workshop. So the idea of taking some really young songwriters, very, very talented young songwriters who are interested in writing for musical theatre, having them come see Wicked, whether they’d seen it before or not, bringing them to the show and saying is there something that inspires you here, about which you would like to write a song? And hearing what they come up with is, I cannot tell you how fun that is for me and how exciting it is. I’ve heard the first couple of songs from this project by two really talented young theatre songwriters of whom I was already aware, Khiyon Hursey and Rona Siddiqui, and they’ve come up with two very interesting songs. And interestingly and surprisingly enough and independently of one another, they wrote about the same secondary character. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say who it is,
ELYSA GARDNER: Ahh, interesting.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: But I would’ve never expected it and they both went there. Which is really interesting to me. When I told them “you know you both wrote about the same character’ they were a little chagrined, but I said “no no, the songs are completely different.”
ELYSA GARDNER: So there was no conspiracy, they were both.. [laughs]
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: But that interests me, that both of them went to see the show in 2019, and fixed on an aspect of the show which is quite political, because of course the show is very political in a lot of ways..
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: ..but they fixed on a certain aspect of the show that wouldn’t necessarily be where you would automatically think their minds might go and wrote from that point of view.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. You mention young, and at this point not so young, are you aware at this point, as someone who’s nurtured talent, of the impact you’ve had on generations of composers and lyricists at this point?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Well, I’d like to think that. [laughs] I’d like to think that there’s been some impact–I’ve certainly been a cheerleader if nothing else, for a lot of writers now who are out there now who have had wonderful successes, you know from, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Steve Lutvak and Chris Curtis, and even way way back to Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty, although that was a long time ago, But, through the ASCAP workshop and some things I was doing a bit before that, which is where I encountered Lynn and Steve’s work, you know, the fact that so many of these writers that I’ve admired and thought right away “oh, there’s really something special there” and to see so many of them flourish is so exciting. It’s also reassuring to know that talent will find its way, more often than not.
ELYSA GARDNER: How about fans? Because Elphaba and Glinda, speaking of Wicked specifically, have been embraced at this point, I’d imagine, by young people who haven’t even necessarily watched The Wizard of Oz, or maybe they hold Wicked as a more primary reference point. And both characters have a lot of resonance for young people, young women, who may be struggling—Elphaba maybe more obviously as the outcast, but Glinda too, as this pretty, popular one who might not be as secure as people think, or might want people to take her more seriously. Can you think of feedback from audience members that’s been especially telling or moving?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Yeah, lots and lots of it, which is one of the most gratifying things about it. You know, I think for whatever reason, particularly the song “Defying Gravity” seems to speak to people and has had, I’ve been told, an inspirational effect. I think of two emails I received, both about that song and having heard that song. One was from a woman, I think she was in Alabama, she was somewhere in the southeast, who was in an abusive marriage. And said that she had felt trapped there and was unable to leave. She didn’t have skills and she had two young children and she didn’t know what to do and that she had come across the song “Defying Gravity” and it sort of got into her head and ultimately she left her husband. And she went to, I believe it was Tennessee, and she stayed with cousins for awhile, and when she contacted me, she had just secured a job and she had just changed her life. And I mean obviously I can’t take credit for that but the fact that she took the time to write to me about that and say that “Defying Gravity” and the whole character and circumstance in some way helped to trigger that, of course you can see how much that means to someone as a writer. I remember a young man, actually, who was going to a college in.. well I won’t say the state cause I won’t give it away, but he was going to a college that was run by a religious organization, and he wanted to start a gay straight alliance at the college and they said no, and made it very difficult for him when he was a freshman. And he went to see Wicked and he heard “Defying Gravity,” and he went back and brought suit against the school. And they caved. And so he was able to start that. It’s the fact that people are given courage by encountering these two characters,
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: and I think you’re very right, to mentioning Glinda as well, these two characters who have to overcome the things we all face, wanting to fit in, wanting to be popular, wanting to be part of whatever the in-crowd is, and when you go against that you endanger all those things that you think you want. But when you can find the courage to do it, it can be very fulfilling. And just hearing stories like this, as a writer, you couldn’t possibly ask for more gratifying feedback.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, two happy endings, and not only for women.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Yes, well that’s why I cited that young man as well.
ELYSA GARDNER: It’s been a huge.. Yeah, for the LGBTQ+ community I know as well, has really been inspired by that song. You’ve mentioned Rodgers and Hammerstein before. You have written, as a composer and lyricist, a number of showstoppers of the kind that I associate with that team…
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: That’s high praise. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: …and I know you’ve won the Richard Rodgers Award and the Oscar Hammerstein Award, so I’m not the only one thinking along those lines probably. But I’m talking about songs that are personal revelations for characters that sing them while also saying something so powerful and universal, in such a soaring way, that the audience feels just as intensely—something like “Defying Gravity” which you just mentioned, or one of my personal favorites, “Meadowlark,” from The Baker’s Wife. As someone who writes the music and lyrics, I’m curious, how do you determine what scale the characters and stories demand, from song to song, and balance all that?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Well I think what I do as a writer, I have to feel it’s what most theatre writers are doing, most theatre composers are doing, is that I’m trying to find the part inside me that is that character. Resonates with that character. Just as if you were actually portraying the role, though when you’re the writer you get a much wider range of roles of course, because you’re not limited to your gender, and your age, and your appearance. But then to find out, if I were Elphaba in this situation, if I were Quaismodo in this situation, what am I feeling, what am I seeing, what do I want, what am I trying to get? And how does that express itself both musically and lyrically. And I try to write that to the best of my ability. And I don’t really think about scale or issues like that. Ultimately when you’re putting the score together of course you want to think about variety, and differences in tempo so I do keep that in mind. But basically, it’s the process of writing from the inside out. It’s sort of like the writing equivalent of method acting.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, and the musicals you’ve written and been involved with have also addressed issues that never seem to stop being topical, often sadly so.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Unfortunately, in some cases, yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: I know Encores! just did a well-received revival of Working, based on Studs Terkel’s writing about the struggles and the dignity of working people, which couldn’t be timelier concerns. Godspell is adapted from the gospel of Matthew, which continues to remind us how Jesus’s teachings espoused values than some of those who use his name rhetorically or politically, might differ with that.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Thank you for saying that, I feel that so strongly, yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: When Pippin was revived a few years ago, I interviewed choreographer Chet Walker and he spoke about how relevant this Vietnam-era musical involving a long ago war was, now that we were in Iraq. And of course, Gregory Maguire’s novel that inspired Wicked was informed by Saddam Hussein’s reign and the power of media; the original Wizard of Iz had political overtones. So, do you think a lot about that kind of context when you’re writing? Does your social conscience play a big role?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: I think it does. It’s not that I go in trying to proselytize a certain point of view, but I think that the topics I’m attracted to have social relevance. I’m certainly not alone in that, you’ve cited Rodgers and Hammerstein, they are famous of course, for many other reasons but certainly famous for that. And I think a sort of social conscience and looking at what’s going on in our world and addressing some of that through the stories that I’m attracted to is definitely a part of what I do. Whether I want that or not, that’s what happens.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, Rodgers and Hammerstein certainly revolutionized Broadway in that way with their stories and themes. The Prince of Egypt is about to arrive on the West End, and I know you just revealed some new songs at a benefit last year. Since you remain so prolific, can you tell us about the material you’re working on right now?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: I can tell you some things, I mean Prince of Egypt is front burner and, in fact, in a couple of weeks I’m going over to London for a workshop for that show. But the actual production is happening in February over on the West End, it opens towards the end of February, and there are ten new, I think, ten new songs for that. And then I have what I’ve described as a lot of spaghetti thrown at the wall and we’ll see what, if any, of it sticks and what slides off. Having to do with a couple potential movie musical projects which unfortunately I don’t think I can announce at this time. But I hope at least one of them looks likely to happen. And that would be exciting and the idea of doing an original live action movie musical is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time so I’m hopeful that I will actually get that opportunity.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s great, and you juggle all of that with your continued support for developing artists, and I should say that extends to the youngest performers and audience members through your Theatre for Young Audiences program…
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Right.
ELYSA GARDNER: …which includes musicals written or adapted so they can be staged by and for kids.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: That’s correct.
ELYSA GARDNER: Tell us about that.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Well years ago, I remember a survey at a time when musical theatre seemed to be on the decline and there was a lot of concern that the audience for musical theatre was aging out. And that it was not reaching younger audiences–that of course is very very happily no longer true. But at that time I read a survey that if someone sees or is involved with a musical before the age of seven, then they become musical theatre fans for life. And that the older they get past that, the less likely that is to be. So, it seemed that it was important to help keep alive and keep healthy this art form that I loved to find ways to interest kids in musicals early on. Of course I wasn’t alone with that, Freddie Gershon at MTI created this whole idea of the “Junior Series” of musicals which was a brilliant idea and some of my shows have been able to be done with them. Inspired by that and other things, you know, I’ve really tried to put that as part of my focus.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. I interviewed you years ago and if I remember correctly, you described yourself as adhering to the “Follow your bliss” school of parenting with your son…
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: That is true.
ELYSA GARDNER: …Scott, who has turned out to be a prolific artist in his own right, as a director—he’s currently artistic director of the Bay Street Theater…
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Exactly.
ELYSA GARDNER: …which also does terrific stuff for kids along with their other great work. Then I read on your site you espouse that same philosophy, in those words, “Follow your bliss,” to people starting out in show business. Generally I have to ask, with all the shifts we’ve seen in the world in recent years—despite the progress, in the arts and elsewhere—is it a challenge to stay focused on the bliss, ever? On our potential to do great things and feel great about them?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Sure, I mean I think that it’s no secret that we’re in a very dark time right now and it can be extremely discouraging. But the encouraging element, I think, or maybe the most encouraging, several encouraging elements, is the fact that the younger generation is starting to assert itself and saying that we don’t want to live in the world that’s going to come if we just keep going along with what’s going on now. And we want change and we want things to be different. That’s not exactly following your bliss but it’s certainly deciding that you’re not just going to go along. But I still think that on an individual basis in terms of choosing how to live your life and what you want to do when you’re starting out, it’s best to find out where your passion lies and try to follow that. It’s obvious that path may not be a straight path and you may not wind up going exactly where you originally thought you were going to or hope to go but if you keep following what it is you are passionate about or care about it and want to do it will lead you to something that is fulfilling to you or is more likely to lead you to something that is fulfilling than if you try to make so-called smart choices along the way.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life right?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Exactly right, if you can do that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Do you still feel that way?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: I definitely feel that way, I still feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Wow that is so great. Well, as Wicked approaches its 16th anniversary on Broadway—to return to the hit that brings you here and wrap up—what do you see as its legacy? I mentioned its impact on a generation of writers and performers and fans, its role as a great musical and storytelling vehicle for them, its positive and nuanced look at female relationships. So, what did I miss?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: I don’t think you did miss something! I think that the emphasis on two young women as the central protagonists if you will, co-protagonists, turned out, surprisingly enough, to be revolutionary and clearly had impact on works that followed. And so, you know, I think that is, maybe its historic theatrical legacy, if you will. Other than that, it’s another story about outcasts, or people who feel themselves outside of society trying to come to terms with what compromises they are or not willing to make in order to fit in. You know that’s a theme that I write about over and over again. Clearly Wicked is part of that, that body of work.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, as are all great musicals at the end of the day, I think, at the end of the day in one way or another.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Many of them, yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: Many of them, absolutely. Well thank you so much for coming here today.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Oh, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.
ELYSA GARDNER: I really appreciate it, and I hope you’ll come by for your next big project.
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Okay! Promise.
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Excellent.
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway, and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct, your source for all things Broadway, and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.
In this podcast, we’re speaking with Stephen Schwartz on the lasting legacy of Wicked and his role in fostering new talent for the theatre in Wicked’s new project with ASCAP, “Flying Free.” Tune in to this podcast to hear about the development of Elphaba and G(a)linda, and his experiences with the effect that this musical has had on the world.