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Ask a Star: Stephen Schwartz

Wicked composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz has won three Academy Awards, three Grammy Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and a tiny handful of tennis trophies… He's also considered one of the greatest living musical theater composers think Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, Working, Rags Children of Eden and The Baker's Wife. With a strong film career Disney's Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt and a bona fide hit in Wicked, this talented man has plenty of reasons to smile. Want to know more about the man behind the witches? Read on!


From Jen: Stephen, I recently saw Wicked and was amazed by the beautiful music. Anyway, I just wanted to know how long it took you to fully write the score?

Stephen responds: The whole show took about four years to write, counting all the revisions and rewriting.


From Martin: Hi Stephen! I'm from Sweden and a fan of your music, especially Wicked! I love the whole score, and I can't wait until autumn when I come to New York to see the musical live on stage! My question is: What is your "composing-process"? Do you hear a song in your head or do you sit by the piano, trying to find a melody? Keep composing great music!

Stephen responds: Thanks, Martin. I generally write at the piano. I find I can let my fingers express the emotion I'm trying to convey, and I'm often surprised at what comes out. I have on occasion written, or begun to write, songs away from the keyboard, but those are the exceptions.


From Nadav: Hello, Stephen! First I'd like to say that Wicked is wonderful! What is the difference between writing songs for a movie and writing songs for the stage? Also, do you prefer writing lyrics or music?

Stephen responds: On the most basic level, there really is no difference--you're still trying to tell a story or illuminate character using songs. But I think in a movie, one needs to be aware of the visual demands--that motion pictures are, by definition, about motion. On stage, an actor simply standing in a spotlight singing a ballad can be the most exciting moment in the show. On film, and particularly in animation, you have to keep moving visually. If an animated character is going to sing a ballad, she better be going over a waterfall in a canoe! As for your second question, I find music easier to write, but I don't know that I would say I had a preference.


From Annaleigh: Hi Stephen! You are my all time favorite songwriter! I love it all! From Godspell to Wicked. Ahh! You're amazing! What inspired you to become a songwriter? Did you make up songs all the time as a kid?

Stephen responds: I got interested in writing for the musical theater when my parents took me to a show as a small kid. It was called Shinbone Alley and the music was by a friend of theirs named George Kleinsinger. It was not a successful show and didn't last very long on Broadway, but I loved it, and I think it's the reason I wound up writing for shows rather than pop songs like most of the other writers of my generation. The first song I can remember writing was for a puppet show my sister and I put on when I was about seven years old. It was called "Little Lullaby", and if I remember correctly, the show was entitled Hi, Dog. I think the plot concerned a dog that ran away from home. I actually still remember the tune of "Little Lullaby", but I have been wise enough not to use it in later projects.


From Robin in Portland: Dear Mr. Schwartz, I've been a fan of your work since I was in high school and thought Godspell was the greatest thing since the inception of musical theater. But, you wrote a song for Working which remains my favorite song of yours. It makes me bawl like a little baby every time I hear it: "Fathers and Sons." Such a beautiful composition. Do you have a favorite song of your own composition? Thanks, Robin.

Stephen responds: It changes. "Fathers and Sons" is certainly one of my favorites, as it is so personal. Currently, I guess, my favorite song of my own composition is "Forgiveness' Embrace", which is on my Uncharted Territory CD. But tomorrow the answer could be different.


From Composing Undergrad: Mr. Schwartz, any words of advice for composer/lyricist hopefuls fresh out of college?

Stephen responds: I assume your question has to do with young writers aspiring to write for musical theater, as opposed to pop songs. The advice I have to give seems obvious, but it is nevertheless what I have observed to be the most useful. First: write a show. That is, have some actual product you can show people, rather than simply being someone who describes him-or-herself as an "aspiring writer". Be an actual writer. It would be better if the show were something to which you eventually could have the rights, so I would advise avoiding adaptations of works which may prove problematic from a rights point of view. But frankly, even if this particular show is something you can't get rights to, it still can lead to future opportunities. I know of a specific case where a very talented writing team did an adaptation of the film Lost in America; they were unable to get the rights to go forward with this project, but it led to several other writing jobs for them and effectively launched their careers. Second: Get yourself somewhere where shows actually get produced. Most obvious of course assuming you are asking this question in North America is New York City. But there are also Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles and some other cities as well. The point is you want to be somewhere to take advantage of whatever networking possibilities arise as you try to interest people in the show you have written and in you as a writer. After that, there are many things that can happen and every individual "success story" is different. But you'll find these first two ingredients pretty consistent. If you have something you have written and you're in a place where work can get produced, with talent and perseverance, you can get yourself to the next step. I've seen it happen countless times. Good luck, and I hope this advice has not been so obvious as not to be helpful.


From Douglas Neville:I just wanted to write and say thanks for responding to an e-mail I sent you a while back and let you know things are going great. I'm curious as I'm sure many people are: What's next?

Stephen responds: Next year is the bicentennial of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, and his native Denmark is going all out to celebrate it. Among the ways is the commissioning of a musical theater piece about Andersen, which will be presented in one of the major theaters in Copenhagen. It turns out that a friend of mine, Philip LaZebnik, who was one of the writers of Pocahontas and Prince of Egypt, now lives in Denmark, and he will be writing the book for this musical. Through Philip, I have been invited to contribute some songs to the show, and I expect to write four or five.


From John: Hey Stephen. I had a question on when you write a musical how do you create a musical number for a character? How do you come up with the titles and the general feel of the songs?

Stephen responds: It's like acting. I try to "become the character"--really see through his or her eyes and internalize what he or she may be feeling. Then I investigate how that expresses itself musically, and that usually leads to the feel of the song. Arriving at the song title is a process, since the choice of title is so important I usually try to arrive at a title before beginning to write the song. It can come from general brainstorming, talking with my collaborators, writing a long prose sketch of what the song is about and seeing if a title is contained somewhere in it, etc.


From Katelyn: Stephen, as I am sure you are already aware, your works are all amazing and great successes. It is certain that your shows will always be remembered, but I was wondering what you WANT to be remembered for. Is there one theme that you want people to gain from all of your achievements?

Stephen responds: I'm not sure I would want to control that, even if I could.


From Daniel Rakowski: Mr. Schwartz, Wicked is one of the most creative and important shows Broadway has seen in years. What was the biggest musical challenge for you with Wicked? What is your favorite songs from the show? Thanks so much!

Stephen responds: Thank you. I think the biggest musical challenge was trying to come up with a coherent sound for the show that didn't sound as if it came from our world, but believably could be "Ozian" except for the Wizard's number, of course, which I thought should sound very old-time American. I experimented with trying to invent a different scale or system of harmonization, but that just became wearisome to the ear very quickly and was pretty inaccessible. So then I just tried to write in my own style, but to avoid any of the "pastiche" type numbers that I often use in my other scores like "All for the Best" from Godspell or "In Pursuit of Excellence" from Children of Eden.


From Ted Zoldan: Dear Stephen, I Just to let you know that two of your works Pippin and Wicked are on my "top 10 Broadway scores of all time" list. What I wanted to ask is how you work when you compose a song? Do the lyrics or the music come first, or do they come pretty much at the same time? Also, were there any songs that were cut from Wicked that you wish could have been left in?

Stephen responds: There were a couple of songs that I liked that I replaced, particularly Elphaba's first song, "Making Good", which was replaced by "The Wizard and I." But in all cases, I felt the replacement songs were improvements, particularly in terms of storytelling. Many people often ask whether music or lyrics come first in writing a song, but if I'm doing both words and music, the answer is that I take the path of least resistance. That can mean either music first, or part of a lyric, or an accompaniment figure. In almost every case, though, I like to start with a title--not always, but usually--because it helps to define the landing place of the lyric and the feel of the music.

Thank you all for your interesting questions and your enthusiasm for Wicked and my other work. I really appreciate it, Stephen


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