Broadway royalty has wise words for Aussie composers

Stephen Schwartz
Composer Stephen Schwartz

Stephen Schwartz is one of Broadway’s most accomplished and influential composers. Young theatre fans may best recognise him as the composer of Wicked. But his credits include a string of hit shows including Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show to name a few.

Stephen also penned the lyrics for the hit Disney films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted, as well as DreamWorks’ animated sleeper hit The Prince of Egypt, for which he also composed the score.

Stephen is currently in Australia for Tasmania Conservatorium’s Festival of Broadway, Sydney’s Song Summit, and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and took time out of his busy schedule to chat with about his visit, his craft, industry trends, and his first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

AT: First of all, thank you so much for taking time to chat with us today. I understand last weekend in Hobart was particularly busy for you?
SS: Yes, you could say that. We had a lot of fun though. A lot of interesting stuff, did a couple of concerts, did – which I really enjoyed – some master classes with some musical theatre writers from around Australia. That was very interesting and enjoyable.

Now, of course, those workshops allowed some of Australia’s up and coming composers to showcase their work. Can you tell us a little about your involvement in that?
It’s based on workshops I do in the states, under the auspices of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and essentially it’s writers presenting a 45 minute except of a musical they’re working on and then I and a couple of other panellists sort of critique it and then discuss it with the writers and then try and help them realise what their goals are. You know, give them some ideas about what they might do to improve it and where they should be feeling confident etcetera.

And quite a range of ages and experience levels there, I understand?
There were a couple who were very experienced and had a lot of strong credits, and some who were less so and starting out. There was definitely a big range of ages.

You’re also appearing as part of Song Summit this weekend here in Sydney, including a Sunday night performance at Angel Place, before appearing at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on the 23rd. What can audiences expect from these shows?
The show on Sunday night is a combination of the two shows that we did in Hobart. Obviously, it’s going to be comprised of songs that I’ve written, for which I’ve done either music and lyrics or just lyrics with Alan Menken. I think we’re doing one of the movie songs, if I’m not mistaken. It’s myself and a couple of terrific singers that I’ve brought from New York, Liz Calloway and Michael Rose and some wonderful Australian singers as well. There’s a chorus, there’s a pretty big orchestra, so it’s a lot of personnel. Should make a lot of noise. And then, in addition to the concert itself, I will be being interviewed by the head of ASCAP musical theatre department, Michael Kerker, and so he’ll be asking questions about how some of the songs got written and other items presumably of interest.

Beyond your work for stage, you’ve also penned lyrics for numerous feature films. As a composer and lyricist, what have you found to be the biggest differences between the two?
To some extent it’s the same assignment. You’re still trying to advance a story or illuminate character using a song. Obviously, for film, particularly live action film, it’s a little tricky to figure out how to get into the song, so it doesn’t look weird that they’re singing. Also, the movie musicals tend to have considerably less songs in them. If you think about it, I think Hunchback of Notre Dame, the animated musical that I think has more songs than any of the other animated features, I think has eight songs. A stage musical with eight songs would seem incomplete. So therefore, the individual songs themselves are sort of like what we’d call tent poles – the big, big moments that hang the movie on, whereas in a musical theatre piece, far more of the moments tend to be musicalised.

In the Wicked tie-in book The Grimmerie you discuss each of the numbers in the show and describe many of them as filling a particular ‘slot’ in the narrative. Is this approach typical of how many of your works have taken shape?
Yes, I mean for me, the primary goal is always story telling. It’s not that the song is secondary. It has a job to do, which is a storytelling job. The storytelling job is more important than the individual song and therefore, if in the development process it turns out that it’s not working as well for a storytelling situation, it gets rewritten or replaced.

Film adaptations of Broadway hits have enjoyed quite the revival in the last ten years. Wicked is obviously still a few years off, but is there any word on the adaptation of Pippin that’s been ‘in the works’ for several years now?
Well, it hasn’t really been ‘in the works,’ it’s been optioned by Harvey Weinstein and I have had discussions every now and then with Harvey. That’s as far as it’s gone. There’s nothing really specific in the works at all, so who knows?

Sequels to popular musicals are also starting to resurge on stage and film right now, with mixed feedback from fans and critics. What are your thoughts on these? Should it be done?
I’m not particularly interested in sequels from my point of view. I can’t imagine that I would ever want to write one. But, you know, if someone else writes a sequel to one of their works that’s really interesting, I’ll be happy to see it. But it’s not the kind of thing that interests me. I feel like, if I’ve done – people ask me from time to time about a sequel to Wicked because Gregory Maguire wrote some other books. But I just feel like I’ve kind of said what I have to say on that topic. So that’s not something that I would be interested in doing.

So we shouldn’t expect Son of a Witch on Broadway anytime soon, then?
Well you could, but not from me.

Just finally, Séance on a Wet Afternoon…
Yeah. Coming to an opera company near you in 2012.

Yes, Opera Queensland. I understand it was your first opera?
Yes, it was commissioned by an opera company in California, Opera Santa Barbara, and had its premiere last year and then is going to be produced by New York City Opera, I’m thrilled to say, next year, 2011, and then will be coming to Opera Queensland in, I believe 2012.

That’s the information I have here. I also understand that Opera Queensland co-produced it?
That’s correct, yes. I’m very, very grateful to Chris Mangin and the folks from Opera Queensland that they had faith in this project so early and helped out with the production in Santa Barbara and obviously the set and costumes and everything that they helped to produce will be coming here to the production.

So, for people who are perhaps more casually acquainted with your mainstream musicals, how would you describe Séance?
Well, it’s an opera, for one thing. And it’s legitimately an opera – that is, written for opera voices. I think musically, it’s accessible, but it definitely doesn’t have the pop overtones that I think a lot of my shows do. Hopefully, audiences will still be able to come out singing a tune. The other nice thing about opera is that you can tell a pretty dark story. So, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a psychological thriller. It’s a pretty dark story, but audiences seem to be excited and moved by it – at least they were in Santa Barbara, so I would hope that would hold true here as well.

An Evening with Stephen Schwartz plays June 20 at City Recital Hall Angel Place. Tickets from $65. Book at

Stephen Schwartz and Friends plays as part of Adelaide Cabaret Festival June 23 at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre. This event is sold out.

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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