Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked
Carol de Giere’s power-point presentation of a book tackles more than just what its title promises. Yes, she covers the creative career of Stephen Schwartz, but in the process she does something much greater. Here is a book that explains just why it is so hard to make a musical – what “collaboration” actually means over the months and years that it takes to carry a concept from brainstorm to curtain call.
Schwartz’s life story is not exactly routine, but then what major contributor to the art form of the musical stage has had a “normal” life? It just doesn’t happen. Therefore, take as a given that the life has had tremendous highs and terrible lows, great luck and missed opportunities, wonderful collaborations and frustrating head-butting, mind-bending recognition and painful misses. Draw from that life story, however, the lessons it offers.
In Schwartz’s case, that ranges from the serendipity of a first Broadway gig providing a single song for a play that turned out to hit big (Butterflies Are Free which deGiere reports netted Schwartz $25 a week in royalties for the three years of its run) to today’s mega-hit Wicked which has begun breaking the $2 million a week box office barrier on Broadway while touring companies and sit-down productions around the world establish additional records.
In between, Schwartz composed Godspell. He teamed with none other than Leonard Bernstein, providing lyrics for Mass which inaugurated the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. He had a great Broadway hit with Pippin and another with The Magic Show, scoring the feat of one composer with three musicals on Broadway at the same time.
But he had dark days as well, with the failure of The Baker’s Wife to reach Broadway and Working lasting less than a month. De Giere relates the anguish of a former rising star who seems in the descendent what with the glorious score for Rags reaching all too few ears and the struggle to find an audience for Children of Eden.
Hollywood offered a career renewal and Schwartz worked wonders for Disney and DreamWorks with “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Mulan” and “The Prince of Egypt” before a fateful visit to Maui and a conversation with folksinger Holly Near on a snorkeling trip. Near happened to mention that she was reading “this really interesting book called ‘Wicked’ by Gregory Maguire.” Schwartz asked what it was about and when he heard the reply “It’s the Oz story from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view” he immediately saw a great musical in the property.
What do you think would be the first thing a composer would do under those circumstances? Right! Call your attorney to secure the rights. Then, and only then, did Schwartz get the book and actually read it.
Talking the author of the book into granting the rights to making a musical of his book wasn’t quite as easy as going to the store to buy a copy, but he finally accomplished it and brought in a passel of collaborators on the way from snorkel boat to Broadway stage. First and foremost, of course, was Winnie Holzman who crafted the book to accommodate Schwartz’s songs and his vision of the piece.
De Giere details the accumulation of collaboration – Joe Montello to direct, Wayne Cilento to choreograph, Eugene Lee to design the set and all the rest. She walks the reader through the decisions that resulted in a first-night cast of Kristen Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Norbert Leo Butz, Joel Grey, Carole Sheeley and the rest.
What is more, De Giere gives us a Schwartz-eye view of the give and take required to bring the show to the Gershwin Theatre that cool October night in 2003 when no one knew what they had. Who’d have thought that despite less than stellar reviews, the show would become a juggernaut that could ride out any storm including the changes in casting over the years?
It isn’t precisely the show Schwartz envisioned when he asked these collaborators on board what turned out to be a much bigger boat than the snorkeling skiff that took him, his friend John Bucchino and Holly Near to Molikini at Christmas time in 1996. When Wicked opened the night before Halloween in 2003 there were over 60 creative credits in the program not to mention the 25 members of the orchestra and the cast of 32.
This is de Giere’s first book. She’s a former librarian and a website developer which she turned to her and Schwartz’s advantage during the research for the book as she developed her website(MusicalSchwartz.com) and newsletter “The Schwartz Scene.” The book looks like the product of the digital age. It is a paper back with text in cells, headings in snappy type faces, photos contained in printed outlines and page after page of “extras.” Some of these “extras” have their own fascination, including “From Idea to Audience: The Odyssey of a Song,” a compendium of the stories behind the creation of the individual songs from Godspell and the original outline of Wicked that Schwartz created after he finally read the book.
Want more? De Giere has established a website for her book, naturally. You can find more to read at DefyingGravityTheBook.com. It, like the book, is worth a visit.