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Joseph Stein and Stephen Schwartz

Collaborators for The Baker's Wife and Rags

Joseph Stein and Stephen Schwartz 2006 - musicalschwartz.com

Joseph Stein (left) and Stephen Schwartz (right) in 2006 after they finished revising The Baker's Wife. Photo by Terence de Giere.

by Carol de Giere

A few days after he passed away at the age of 98, musical librettist Joseph Stein was acknowledged with the traditional gesture granted the most prominant Broadway luminaries: all the Broadway theatres of New York dimmed their marquees for a minute before the evening performance. Two years earlier Mr. Stein had been inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame and given a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Dramatists Guild of America. How did he achieve this level of recognition? By writing the book for popular musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba, among others.

Stein, who lived from May 30, 1912 to October 24, 2010, spent many years of his playwriting career collaborating with Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Wicked fame. Their work on the 1986 musical Rags earned them Tony nominations and although The Baker's Wife never opened on Broadway, the show in a revised version is remembered and performed regionally.

It was for their collaborative work that I interviewed Stein in 2003, as well as Schwartz on many occasions, while preparing my Schwartz biography Defying Gravity. I learned that the two of them had been paired by Shirley Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein's sister) who served as talent agent for both of them for many years.

Stein Style

When I asked Stein about the nature of his characters and the shows he writes, he said, "Actually pretty much every one of the musicals, not all of them, but the major ones, are all involved with people who have very open emotional feelings, they have their feet on the ground, they have very strong emotions, and I feel comfortable working with that kind of characters. Maybe it's because my parents were that way."

Like the characters in Rags, Stein's parents were first generation Jewish immigrants in America who worked to make their way in a new world. Stein said he always prefered to work with people he considered "folk" as compared with "...people who are much more sophisticated, much more Noel Coward, I couldn't write that kind of comedy. I'm not comfortable writing those people but I am comfortable writing much more folksy people."

Stein himself was sophisticated enough to earn a masters in social work from Columbia and started writing comedy on the side. One day over lunch at a friend's, he met Zero Mostel who paid Stein $15 for some jokes he made up on the spot. Soon he was writing for radio and later joined the famed team of writers on TV's "Your Show of Shows," alongside Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. This evolved into his writing plays like the Amish life-based Plain and Fancy and soon Fiddler.

Collaboration with Stephen Schwartz

From their first hours of working together, Stein and Schwartz got along well and quickly became friends in spite of their 36-year age difference. As it happens, Stephen had attended the opening night of Fiddler on the Roof with the daughter of Maria Karnilova (Fiddler's first Golde). He appreciated Stein's work and sense of humor.

Their biggest mutual challenge for their first job together on The Baker's Wife was dealing with producer David Merrick, who had his own views about casting, material, designers, as well as when and where the show would run. And creatively, they ended up with somewhat different approaches to the material that didn't quite mesh until years of revisions later.

About the initial failing of The Baker's Wife, Schwartz has commented, "There was no meeting of the minds as to what the show should be, what kind of show we were doing. It was just not in the cards and Joe Hardy, who was directing the show, had a whole different picture of what it should be from David Merrick who had a different picture it turned out from Joe and myself. There was just no unity of vision."

But even if it didn't work out, the Stein/Schwartz relationship was a progressive collaboration. For a Stephen Schwartz tribute publication in 2002, Stein wrote following: "I have had the happy experience of collaborating with Stephen Schwartz on two musicals, The Baker's Wife, for which he wrote both music and lyrics, and Rags, for which he wrote the lyrics. Creating the two shows took a long time, a good number of years, so we got to know each other's talents and temperaments very well.

"As everyone in musical theatre knows, Stephen is an enormously gifted composer and lyricist. But I want to say a word about his skill as a collaborator. And it does require a very special skill. Collaboration is a delicate and sensitive process and a work can stand or fall on how well it functions. And Stephen is a wonderful collaborator….very creative…bubbling with new notions…open to fresh ideas by others….eager for the give and take of exploring different approaches, never wedded to his own work (in fact sometimes more eager than his colleagues to discard his own lyric)…very generous in his appreciation of a colleague's suggestions and contributions…and always sensitive and constructive in his comments."

More about Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein

Stephen Schwartz biography Defying Gravity includes Schwartz/Stein collaboration A puzzle in musical theatre history: why did The Baker's Wife and Rags fail even with so much expertise and expense pouring into them?

Find answers in the Stephen Schwartz biography Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked.

To write the chapter, author Carol de Giere not only interviewed Stephen Schwartz (composer-lyricist) and Joseph Stein (bookwriter) but also many of the cast members. The book includes the creative struggles for The Baker's Wife and Rags in fascinating detail.

It also offers Schwartz's conclusions about what went wrong and what needed to be changed.

Buy it at Amazon Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked OR find out more at www.defyinggravitythebook.com

The Baker's Wife Cast Albums

[Original 1976 Broadway Cast], Take Home Tunes, 1997 The Baker's Wife [Original Soundtrack] [new browser window]

Joseph Stein

Fiddler on the Roof background, sheet music, etc. http://www.musicalwriters.com/musicals/a-f/fiddler.htm

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