Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

The Spark of Creation: A Conversation with Stephen Schwartz

Did you know that hope and wonder have a sound? If you are one of my students, or one of many people who are familiar with Stephen Schwartz’ work, you are extremely familiar with it. The music and lyrics behind his work are sure to evoke emotion the second you begin listening. For me, I grew up singing songs he’d written, admittedly poorly, or quoting lyrics back and forth with my family. My students can identify a few composers by sound, and Stephen Schwartz is one of them.  I have many musically inclined students who wanted a composer’s perspective, and I thought it would help to round out their theatrical knowledge that they were absorbing through my speech sessions. I have been a lifelong fan of Stephen Schwartz’ work, from Pippin to Children of Eden, Hunchback to The Prince of Egypt, and of course Wicked. I don’t believe there’s a lyricist who has leant more to my vocabulary lessons or SAT word study, which I now get to pass on to my own students. We talk about how he became interested in composing, why learning the basics in any instrument is important, writing style, and so much more.

Stef: This blog of mine has become sort of a family affair, and I have to start by asking questions from my mother. I wouldn’t know your work if not for her. She wants to know how long it took you to write “What Is This Feeling,” and is it based on a sibling relationship?

Stephen: Actually, it’s funny she should ask that because it’s one of the songs I found most tricky. I had four versions of that songs over the course of the show before I figured it out. There was always going to be a song in which Elphaba and Glinda were responding to the idea of being roommates. Winnie Holzman, the book writer, had the idea of doing a falling in hate/hate at first sight song. Taking all of those love at first sight songs and rewriting them. It was not one of those songs that came instantaneously. I remember after my third version asking Joe Mantello if we needed that song there. The relationship isn’t really based on anything other than instantly falling in hate with someone. If you think about it, the clichés for love are similar— “What is this feeling? My face is flushing,” and so on, but instead of feeling love, they’re loathing each other.

S: Wow, that’s a really interesting backstory. She and I were convinced that was based on sibling rivalry.

S: No, that was Winnie’s idea about falling in hate. She had the idea and it ended up working out.

S: I am so excited to share wit my kids that songs take as many drafts as writing. I don’t think they realize that.

S: Writing a song for a musical is storytelling. Some songs come easily and some take longer.

S: The other thing my mother really wanted you to know is that she is extremely appreciative for your work with Children of Eden. My brother played the role of Father in a high school production, just as he was going off to college. She really appreciates you sharing the parent perspective in “The Hardest Part of Love,” especially as she was going through it. It was very timely for her.

S: Thank you. As parents we fear the empty nest, and that was a way of expressing it, whether or not it actually happens.

S: My students want to know how did you become interested in writing and composing for theatre?

I was always interested in music. Musical ability is genetic, and it’s something that tends to show up very early. My parents tell me that I used to ask them to play specific records as a toddler. When I was six, my parents had a friend who was a composer and he was working on a show. When we visited him, he’d play what he was working on for us, and my parents would then say that I’d go over to his piano and pick out what I heard him play. He suggested my parents put me into piano lessons, and that’s how that started. I knew at eight or nine that I wanted to write for the theatre after seeing one of his shows on Broadway.

S: How is it different for you when you’re collaborating with someone else, versus doing all of the work yourself?

S: It’s not really different in that the goal is the same. It’s storytelling using song. When I’m doing both music and lyrics, it’s maybe more fluid, and I’ll switch between mediums. These days when I’m collaborating, and mostly it’s with Alan Menken now, we still start with,” What’s the assignment? What story are we telling?” I try to come up with a title, because I think it helps with structuring the song. Alan will write music first and then I put words to it.

S: When you’re composing and writing lyrics, which comes first for you?

S: It really works fluidly and moves back and forth. Maybe I’ll write some lyrics or a chorus and that will suggest some chords. Sometimes it works in reverse of that order. It changes from song to song, there’s no set formula.

S: My students want to know if writing comes easy for you, and what happens when you get stuck?

S: Writing is not easy, I think, for anyone. There are bursts of inspiration and times when you hit a wall. You have to keep going and just get words on the page. Something to break the lock down. Stop and do something else—go outside, take a walk, something unrelated to the task so your unconscious mind can think freely. You don’t want to be at a computer, you want to be doing a physical activity. If it’s a day where I’m planning to write, I won’t start with my computer, or it ruins the flow for me.

S: Many of my students are in orchestra or band and are learning the basics and would rather just play what they want than learn what’s being taught. What would you say to them?

S: That’s how everyone feels, but the truth is you can do both! You can have time to play and explore—that’s valuable. But if you don’t do the basics and practice, you won’t get better. The more you master the tedious stuff, the more you can do what you want. This applies to practicing for anything, sports, arts, what have you.

S: How does it feel knowing you’ve shaped so many lives through your work, either in theatre, film, or both?

S: Obviously, there are reasons people become writers, and part of that is to be able to communicate. Knowing that in some cases that I have successfully communicated with someone, it’s very gratifying.

S: That’s what your work does, it communicates the message of the show very well. And I’ve used your work to teach vocabulary, social skills, you write very smart lyrics that lend themselves to these topics. I’ve had to be careful using Wicked, though, since some of those words aren’t real.

S: That’s something to explore with your students, too. Winnie brought up that the story takes place in Oz, which isn’t exactly the same as our world, so the language wouldn’t be exactly the same. She created these Ozisms that appear throughout the script, so I started incorporating them into my lyrics. The whole point of that was that it was understood that we weren’t in our world, we were in a different place.

S: And I get to use the Ozisms to have my students explore their creativity and define words on their own. Going back to “What Is This Feeling” and “I’m Not That Girl,” I’ve taught girls that it’s perfectly acceptable to be nice to each other, and to diffuse girl drama. Your songs tell stories and teach lessons at the same time.

S: Oh, that’s great!

S: Is there a difference in how you approach writing songs for film than theatre?

S: It’s pretty much the same. If I’m writing for film, I’m aware of the fact that it’s a motion picture, and that the characters aren’t standing still and singing. It’s all about storytelling through song.

S: I can tell you, the animation and music for Prince of Egypt felt like magic and so cohesive.

S: There was a lot of collaboration between myself, the people writing the screenplay, and the story artists. We aren’t always in the same room, and it’s a four-year process for something like that. There’s a lot of communication there.

S: Do you get any say when it comes to finding the vocal talent for the animated movies, because those were some spot-on choices.

S: In an animated picture, yes, I get some input. Sometimes the studio decides. But everyone has the same interest in making a good movie with voice actors who are going to deliver a solid final product.

S: I think Brian “Stokes” Mitchell was a brilliant choice for “Through Heavens Eyes”. It definitely impacts the way I hear and interpret the song. Did you have him in mind when you wrote the song?

S: No, but he’s brilliantly talented. I knew him and he was everyone’s first choice.

S: Your musical style is clearly influencing my students, who influenced you growing up?

S: I had a lot, and what people think of my style is an amalgamation of that. I played a lot of classical piano growing up, so Debussy, Beethoven sonatas, and Bach. I think there’s an influence from there. My parents had a lot of cast albums that I listened to, and also a lot of folk music I enjoyed. Then there’s The Beatles and the singer/songwriters from that era, through the eighties. It’s what I respond to that comes in my style of music.

S: My students want to know why you think arts education is important.

S: The key thing is that I feel that our society is lacking empathy. It shows up in all parts of life, politics, day to day behavior, everything. There is a lack of perspective taking, and that’s something we get from arts education. We get that from music and painting, not just performing. You have to question everything, and we lose out on that without arts education. On top of that, everyone is in their own echo chamber right now. Encountering and creating art forces you to overcome that. There’s a big focus on sports in our schools, and I enjoy playing sports, but that is the perspective of winners and losers. If there’s one thing we really don’t need more of right now, it’s that lense. Art isn’t about that

S: Every week I challenge my students to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would challenge them to do?

S: Exposure to the arts and other people’s lives and perspectives. Find a way to access that and learn about the world around you beyond what school can teach you in facts and STEM.  Talk about your observations and what that’s done for you. There’s a big world around you, go beyond the screen and notice it in different ways. Don’t necessarily eliminate anything, just go beyond it.
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I was over the moon when this conversation took place, and I’m still so fulfilled by this conversation. I am a very big fan of Stephen’s work, in case that isn’t obvious, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. My students gained a lot of insight about what goes into the process of composing a show, and the driving force of storytelling. They took a lot of comfort in knowing writing isn’t something that’s supposed to be easy. I look forward to taking on Stephen’s challenge by seeing more art that maybe I wouldn’t have exposed myself to in the first place. I look forward to hearing how my readers take on this challenge as well.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

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