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Stephen Schwartz – Wicked

It’s pretty obvious that Stephen Schwartz would never have created Wicked without The Wizard of Oz. The influence of British playwright Tom Stoppard may not be quite so apparent on the veteran American composer’s smash hit musical prequel to L. Frank Baum’s classic tale of life beyond the yellow brick road made immortal by the 1939 film, but it’s there alright.

 “Ever since I saw a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I’ve just loved that idea of taking a familiar story with well-known characters and looking at it from a different point of view,” says Schwartz on the eve of Wicked’s arrival in Edinburgh for a month-long run as part of the show’s latest UK tour. “It’s a way of addressing philosophies and ideas in an interesting way, and seeing if it survives the transition. I’ve always been enamoured by that technique.”  

The idea for Wicked the Musical was born after Schwartz picked up a copy of Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, while on vacation. Maguire’s adult reimagining of the Oz stories focused on the early years of Elphaba, he misunderstood green-skinned girl who grows up to become the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, who, as Glinda, takes on the mantle of the Good Witch.

“When I heard about the book, it appealed to my sensibility,” says Schwartz. “It’s a book that questions what is wicked and what is good, what is spin and what is the truth of what we’re told, and what is manufactured as propaganda. Timing is very important in theatre, and theatrically and politically, it felt like the right time to do the show, and, unfortunately, the times we live in now mean that’s even more the case.”

If Schwartz’s last assertion sounds prescient, his show’s currency was probably hiding in plain sight all along. By the time he approached Maguire about his idea for Wicked, Maguire had sold the rights of his book to Universal Pictures. Schwartz persuaded Maguire to let him to a stage adaptation, also bringing Universal on board in a producing role. Schwartz then drafted in Winnie Holzman, creator of 1990s teen high school TV drama, My So Called Life, to write the show’s book. The result, which first appeared in 2003, threw Elphaba and Galinda together as reluctant college room-mates who come of age in Oz on seemingly opposite sides of the popularity stakes.

“it’s a story with two female protagonists, and which focuses on the friendship between these two women,” says Schwartz. “It’s about how much of a person’s integrity they’re willing to compromise to fit in, and that’s something we all have to think about.”

Such off-kilter looks at familiar fictional universes aren’t new. Assorted comic book franchises have looked increasingly at the growing pains of superheroes while troubled adolescents of late. Schwartz’s musical theatre career was founded on such imaginative leaps in 1971 with his debut musical, Godspell, which put a post-hippy pop spin on the Gospel of St Matthew. A 22-year-old Schwartz was hired to add songs to an original play by John-Michael Tebelak, which had been performed by students of Carnegie Mellon University – Schwartz’s alma mater – in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the year before.

Schwartz’s songs were added following the play’s initial run at the experimental Café LaMama, and after it opened off-Broadway, the new musical version of Godspell ran for more than 2,000 performances. A London production opened at the Roundhouse in 1971 with a cast that featured David Essex, Julie Covington, Jeremy Irons and Marti Webb.

“That was an unusual spin on the Gospel of St Matthew,” Schwartz says of Godspell. “That’s how far back my interest in taking familiar characters ad looking at them in a unique way goes.”

Schwartz did something similar with Pippin, his 1974 fusion of medievalism and Motown, which he directed an early version of while still a student.

“That looked at the relationship between Pippin and his father, Charlemagne. You needed that in order to talk about what it was like being young.”

Schwartz was born and raised in New York, and studied piano and composition at the Juilliard School while still at high school. By that time his fate as a musical theatre composer was already sealed.

“My parents were theatre geeks,” he says. “I grew up on Long Island, and from the moment they took me to see a musical, I was in love with them. I was a musical kid from an early age, and it was clear that I wanted to work in the musical field in some way. Then, as soon as I saw musical theatre for the first time, I knew that was it. I spent my adolescence listening to cast albums and writing little things, then when I went to university, I had the opportunity to write a musical.”

After graduating, Schwartz started working as a producer at RCA Records, but gravitated towards theatre, and became musical director of what is regarded as the first American rock opera, The Survival of St Joan. Schwartz directed the soundtrack album of the show, which featured a young F. Murray Abraham in the cast. Schwartz also wrote the title song for Leonard Gershe’s 1969 play, Butterflies Are Free, which was also used in the film version starring Goldie Hawn three years later.

“I was very lucky,” says Schwartz. “I graduated at the time pop and rock was coming to the fore, and older producers didn’t really know what to do with that. Andrew Lloyd Webber was almost the exact same age as me, and people like us, who grew up with pop as well as musical theatre could try and do something with both.”

Beyond Godspell and Pippin, Schwartz wrote several other musicals, including Children of Eden, which drew from the book of Genesis. He also penned the scores for two Disney films, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame before Wicked. Schwartz returned to Disney a decade ago to score the fairy-tale homage, Enchanted. Last month saw the premiere of a Danish production of The Prince of Egypt, Schwartz’s stage musical of the 1998 all-star animated feature based on the Bible’s Book of Exodus. Bringing things full circle, a long mooted film version of Wicked might see the light of day in 2019.

Given everything he’s done, how does Schwartz judge his back catalogue. Does he have favourites?

“I feel as if I’m continuing to learn,” he says, “and continuing to try and understand the craft of musical theatre. I know it’s a cliché to say it’s the newest one you care about the most, but I think there’s some truth in that. Children of Eden means a lot to me. It reflects my point of view the most, and I think it’s my best score.”

But what about the power of Wicked? What is it that seems to touch audiences the way it does?

“I think it’s presumptuous of me to talk about my own work in that way,” he says, “but I know anecdotally from letters and emails that I’ve received that some people find it inspiring, and that it helped them through a darkness in their lives that allowed them to face up to things they were maybe afraid of, but the show isn’t medicine. As a writer, I try to write shows about people that speak to me and ideas that matter to me, and each audience member will get what they want from them. It’s there to entertain and amuse, and if certain philosophies come through then that’s great, but first and foremost it’s there to entertain.”

Wicked, Edinburgh Playhouse, May 8-June 9.

The Herald, May 8th 2018


ends

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