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Michael Cole

Assistant to Stephen Schwartz

Carol de Giere and Michael ColeMeet Michael

Michael Cole has been Stephen Schwartz's personal assistant since 1993. In addition to being Stephen's right hand man, Michael is a talented professional actor and singer, and a water skiing enthusiast.

Photo: Carol de Giere (Schwartz biographer, website publisher, and The Schwartz Scene Editor) and Michael Cole in 2008.

When asked if he'd write some articles for The Schwartz Scene newsletter, he took time to contribute the following pieces that have now been extracted from the back issues and included here. They will give readers further insight into the life of the famed Broadway and film songwriter who is Michael's boss.

Michael Cole at a Wicked Reading in 2000

Part of The Schwartz Scene back issue archives.

Michael comments on his experience at the Los Angeles reading for Stephen's new show, Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Michael Cole: I was actually not officially making the trip to see WICKED, but rather to close up Stephen's Los Angeles apartment. He took an apartment there while he was working on the animated features and since that work has long been finished, he decided to let go of the apartment and ship everything home. So the real reason I was flown to LA: packaging, shipping and cleaning.

I decided, however, that I would pretend the reason I was making the trek across the country was to see WICKED. It certainly made the five-hour flight much more enjoyable. Stephen had just returned from breakfast and told me that he wanted to depart for Universal earlier than originally planned, so I had to scramble to get myself ready to leave. While I was scrambling, Stephen took the opportunity to sit down at the piano and re-write the lyric to the one song in the show that wasn't working. Fifteen minutes later we were off to see WICKED! We arrived at Universal Studios and the first thing Stephen did was take Stephanie Block (the actress who at that time was playing Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West) aside and teach her the new lyrics. He wanted this to be a surprise for Winnie Holzman (book writer and collaborator on the project) because she didn't expect the song to be "fixed" in time for this reading.

The purpose of this reading was so the head of Universal could see the show and give her decision on the funding of the next step in the process of development: a workshop in New York City. I would guess there were about 150 people in attendance in a rehearsal room on the Universal lot. The cast members were all seated at a long table on a raised platform at one end of the room. They each had scripts and scores and bottles of water. There were enough microphones placed on the tables to pick up all of the voices. Marc Platt, the producer, greeted us, told us a few things about the show and asked us not to give away the plot twists to anyone who asked us about the show. The whole event was accompanied by the musical director, Stephen Oremus, on a baby grand in the corner of the room. The overture started and we were off to an Oz we've never seen before.

I don't want to give you too many details about the show, but I will tell you that it was one of my favorite theatrical experiences. There was something very exciting about it. I imagine it was what the folks who saw early versions of A Chorus Line must have felt. There was a feeling in the air that we were witnessing Musical Theatre history. The amazing thing was that this was only the second time this script had been read publicly and I was transported to "Oz" without one single costume, set piece or magical illusion. At one point I saw Winnie rush over to Stephen full of surprise and delight at the new lyrics. That's all I'm going to say. Don't let anyone tell you too much about this show! You will want to be surprised and you will be. You'll just have to wait until you can see if for yourself!

Michael Cole at a Wicked Reading in December 2001

Part of The Schwartz Scene back issue archives.

Carol asked me to write about my experience singing in the ensemble of the December reading of WICKED. For those of you who don't know, a "reading" of a musical or play is when the authors hire actors to read and/or sing the material so they can better understand how it works with live performers.

The first week was mostly devoted to learning the complicated and challenging music. We arrived on day one to a large room in a rehearsal studio on 42nd Street filled with chairs, music stands and a piano. Joe Mantello, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman were sitting behind a desk filled with sharp pencils, scripts, sheet music and cans of Ricola throat drops. Stephen and Winnie were wearing green. The singers divided into "sections," where I found my place with the tenors.

Stephen Oremus, the musical director, kept rehearsals moving at a very brisk pace and I happily found my "rusty" chords and ears able to keep up. At one point, Steven Skybell, the actor playing Professor Dillamond, leaned over to me and said, "We're singing in a new Stephen Schwartz musical. That's kind of fun, isn't it?"

Late that afternoon, Kristin Chenoweth arrived from California looking tan and blonde and sunny. Kristin already knew most of the music, so she joined us singing the opening number and added a high note to the final chord that brought the room to spontaneous applause. Idina Menzel joined us on day two. She showed up wearing green (her favorite color matches her eyes) and jumped into musical rehearsals with us. At one point she turned around and waved at the boys in the tenor section. Idina is currently starring in Aida on Broadway, so to save her voice, she vocally "marked" most of the rehearsals. Even though she was "marking," when she sang Defying Gravity, the Act One finale, I felt a chill go down my spine.

We ended week one with an informal read-through of the entire musical for a small group of family and friends. Week two was mostly about making changes to the script. To make tracking the changes easier, each set was printed on different colored paper, so by the time we were finished inserting them, our scripts looked like rainbows! Our challenge was to incorporate the rainbow colored pages and still be able to follow the script. This was especially difficult when you would have to go from script to music and back again. My script was full of notes like, "TO SCRIPT" "TO MUSIC" or "SKIP TWO PAGES." I noticed Kristin had a similar system, but she added stars to each note: **TO SCRIPT**

The most amazing part of the reading for me was sitting mere feet from Idina and Kristin while they were working their magic. You'll have to wait a little while to experience these performances, but when you do, you're in for quite a treat!

For information on the free, quarterly newsletter The Schwartz Scene see the newsletter page.

2004 and Wicked

Part of The Schwartz Scene back issue archives.

It's a Twister, it's a Twister!

In the 10 or so years I've worked as Stephen Schwartz's assistant, nothing has compared to WICKED in terms of the work load on both of us. I believe it was Alan Menken who told Stephen that WICKED would affect every aspect of his career. There is a renewed interest in Stephen's existing body of work, he is getting more solicitations to write or collaborate, and the amount of email generated by his website has drastically increased. He has been contacted by quite a few people from his distant past who just want to re-connect. In other words, Alan Menken was right - his career has been affected as well as his personal life to some degree.

The busiest work for me was caused by the delay of the songbooks. As many of you probably know, Stephen was very generous in offering to send out free copies of the WICKED music to those who were in need of it for graduations and recitals, etc. That meant I had to create all of the PDF files, which of course was very time consuming, but not nearly as time consuming as making photocopies and running back and forth to the post office! And of course I received a terrific amount of emails every day requesting the music. I spent most of my time trying to keep up with my inbox and had little time to get to the rest of my responsibilities. Thankfully, the songbooks are now out and they are beautiful. I believe worth the wait. Things have settled in a little bit, but I have a feeling things will never be quite the same since WICKED twisted through my office. My job has been changed for good...


Michael Cole doctored a photo that started as a publicity still from a production of Dicken's Christmas Carol at Theatre Virginia, in which he was portraying the role of Fred. Stephen Schwartz's face was added later. Michael provides background explanation for this playful photo in the text that follows.

Michael's comments from The Schwartz Scene Issue 4: It doesn't happen often, but sometimes I sit down at my desk in my office on West 54th Street and among the to-do's and checks and bills, I find a hand written note from Stephen Schwartz on a yellow legal pad asking me to go on some crazy errand. This errand might involve cab rides or trips on the subway. It might also include meeting so-and-so at such-and-such a place to pick up a package to be addressed and delivered to Federal Express so it will arrive at its destination by the next business morning. Or the note might instruct me to take the keys from the kitchen counter and move his car from one side of the street to the other on the days when "alternate side of the street parking rules are in effect." This errand includes sitting in the car for an hour, when the parking rules allow me to legally park his car again.

doctored photo of Michael and Stephen

One day Stephen was feeling very "Dickensian" as he was scribbling a note to me that would send me running all around the city doing his chores. He invented a "Pen name" and jokingly signed the letter Ezekiel Scrubb, Esq. When I see a note signed "Ezekiel" I know I'm off on a merry chase. He always apologizes to me before he sends me on one of these errands, and though I appreciate it, I never feel an apology is necessary. Aside from doing the usual bill paying and office managerial duties, a big part of my job is to do anything I can to make his life easier and less stressful. I decided I wanted my own pen name and now sign my notes to him simply "Boy."

Godspell Revisited - By Michael Cole

Part of The Schwartz Scene back issue archives.

Having spent a large part of my adolescence raising sheep and pigs and milking the goats twice a day, I had never heard the name Stephen Schwartz nor was I aware of this show called Godspell. I was living in a tiny town in rural Oregon, population 1515. I was headed down the same path as my older brother, winning a small collection of ribbons and trophies at the state and county fairs, but never quite equaling his achievements. The day I didn't get elected as an officer of the Cascade Future Farmers of America Chapter like my brother, was the day I decided to audition for our school's elite singing group. It was something my brother would never do. It was also something that I was scared of, and this recent failure gave me the determination to do it. Being accepted into this group gave me confidence and allowed me to start heading down a path my brother didn't even know existed.

In 1982, my senior year, our choir went to see a local college production of Godspell because it was announced our school was going to mount the show. I went along because Mr. James, my choir director, told me there might be a part in it for me. From "My name is known, God and King" all the way through to the final curtain call I was transported. Swept up by the music and the energy and the "sexiness." There was something very seductive about it in terms of how it lured me into a world of sets and costumes and lights and applause. And glorious singing--the music flowed to the core of my being. The sound of it was thrilling.

I sat on the school bus during the ride home that evening listening to everyone talk about what roles they wanted to play and what songs they wanted to sing. I felt uncomfortable announcing my role of choice, so I kept it to myself. Inwardly, I was giddy with excitement dreaming of portraying Jesus. I don't remember the moment when I learned I had been cast, but I do remember somehow knowing all along that the part was mine.

The strongest memory of my experience with Godspell is actually not a pleasant one. As I was leaving my house on opening night, my father said, "I can't wait 'til Godspell is over so you can get some work done around here." Needless to say, it had a huge impact on me. I got to the theatre and was very emotional. Okay, I was crying like a baby! Mr. James cradled and consoled me and said all the right things - things I wanted my father to say. I'll never forget that. I found the family in the theatre that I didn't have at home.

It was Dad's turn to cry the night he came to see Godspell, not because of anything I said to him, but because he was moved by the show. Dad was most likely responding to the message of the show and perhaps the passion he saw in my performance. To this day, my parents compare every role I play to that of Jesus in Godspell. Even at my best, they still say, "You were good in this, but it wasn't Godspell!" The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing!

I have few other memories of that production of Godspell. However, I do recall coming to the realization that I had to be prepared every night: I couldn't merely show up and do the show. I had to concentrate. I had to warm up. And most importantly, I had to place my props and stuff my pockets with changing scarves and magic canes and flowers. I remember how difficult it was to sing "Alas For You" and the embarrassment I felt every night at the sound I was making while scream-singing, "For YOU!!!"

Another fond memory I have is of the photo shoot where the cast spent an afternoon in downtown Salem, Oregon posing with or mimicking statuary and architecture. The pictures were used in a slide show presentation that accompanied the concert choir singing the song "Beautiful City" each night before the show began. We felt like we were in our own Godspell movie, running from building to building and statue to statue all dressed up in our colorful costumes. It was a special moment in the formation of our community.

For my efforts in Godspell, I was voted Most Talented. I also became more "popular." That seemed so important at the time. It had been an awkward struggle trying to find my "place" in school and suddenly I was part of the "in" crowd. Theatre life became a world where I could fit in and thrive.

Either the Cascade High School class of 1982 never had a reunion or I wasn't invited. (So much for popularity.) However, in 1990, we had a Godspell reunion that was far better than any class reunion I could imagine. Most of the cast members were there. We had a barbecue at Mr. James's house. We attended a matinee of Godspell and the evening ended with a rousing sing-through of the show.

Shortly after my arrival in New York City in 1993, I learned that Stephen Schwartz ("You know, he wrote Godspell and Pippin?") had an office/studio directly below my apartment. I remember trying to act all "cool" and "matter-of-fact" --like this was the kind of thing I heard every day. Inwardly, I was turning cartwheels knowing that I surely would get to meet him one day. There was no need for me to act "cool" because Stephen is so unassuming and down-to-earth. One day Stephen mentioned to me that he wasn't happy with the housekeeping service he was using, so I offered my services. Another day he asked me if I could type a letter for him. I started out cleaning his studio, then I slowly took on more and more responsibility until I had a full-time position as Stephen's personal assistant. Now I count Stephen as one of my best friends. In a way, he has filled the gap that was left when I graduated and no longer had Mr. James to lean on, always saying the right things when I need to hear them.

One of my favorite assignments of recent years was to create the director's script of Godspell, a new script with notes about staging transitions, directorial intentions and the like. Because Stephen had seen many productions where he felt the director missed the point of Godspell, he wanted to create a script that would allow directors access to a record of John-Michael Tebelek's original intentions of the show. Stephen asked me to watch the video tape of the Off-Broadway production so I could remind him of staging bits that he had forgotten (but believe me, he hadn't forgotten much, having directed so many productions around the world!). I sat there in the library laughing and crying and taking notes. I was able to offer suggestions of things Stephen might want to include or remove from the script. I particularly liked that assignment because I got to revisit Godspell, knowing my efforts would help preserve the integrity of the show for years to come.

I revisited the role of Jesus in Brooklyn, New York in 1996 when I was offered a chance to fill a vacancy left when "Jesus" got a better paying gig. After getting clearance from Stephen to commit to this project, I had only two weeks until opening night. Not only was I going to be playing the role of Jesus again, this time with a dozen years of professional theatrical experience to draw on, I would also be working with a good friend and "saving the day!" This time I was outwardly giddy!

I was happily surprised at how quickly the lines and lyrics came back to me. Godspell was familiar, safe material and I had a whole new set of skills that I was able to use. I could actually "soft-shoe" during "All For The Best" and not merely move my feet in time with the music. I had a better idea of acting beats and intentions and the value of getting off-book as soon as possible. I felt very comfortable and had no trouble finding my place in a show that had already been in rehearsal for more than a month. In spite of all the fun we were having, it was obvious our production had problems. Godspell is the kind of show that invites invention and creativity, and our director wasn't giving us the freedom to be creative. He kept cutting the funny bits, because he felt they were dated, but he failed to replace them with equally funny, but more contemporary bits. Playing the role of Jesus without comic bits and magic tricks felt, well, "preachy." Take away the comedy and what's left? Music and scripture. Might as well go home and put on the soundtrack and read the Bible.

Even with the challenges we faced during the Brooklyn Godspell experience, the cast bonded quickly as a community and we formed friendships that are likely to last a lifetime. And regardless of my own perceptions of the show, most nights the audience members lept to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. A telling sign that Godspell is a magical and powerful show.

See the Godspell page for more info on that show.

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