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Stephen Schwartz - Musical Influences and Styles

by Carol de Giere

Stephen Schwartz songbookStephen Schwartz is one of the most versatile musical theatre composers in terms of musical styles. He entered the field in 1971 with Godspell, followed by Pippin and The Magic Show all in the "theatrical pop" mode.

In 1976 with The Baker's Wife he offered both a folk-based and classically-influenced style. Children of Eden's score (1998) offers everything from Gospel to world music to traditional musical theatre.

His post-Disney work such as The Prince of Egpyt and Wicked is sometimes identified as having a Disney-esque flavor. (For Disney's Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame in the mid 1990's Schwartz wrote lyrics for Alan Menken's music, so the implication is that Menken's work soaked in).

Author Stanley Green describes Schwartz's early work in his book The World of Musical Comedy (Amazon.com link) [new browser window]. "What the composer has brought to the theater is a modern, youthful, crisp sound, primarily influenced by rock but also endowed with sensitivity and melodic grace."

[link for Stephen Schwartz Songbook pictured above]

Sources of Inspiration

Stephen Schwartz's eclectic taste naturally allows him to appreciate and draw influences from a wide range of other composers' work.

Schwartz is frequently asked what has inspired him musically, as if that could be confined to his favorite songwriters. The reality is that the ever-alert songwriter soaks in inspiration from anything he likes. As he described in an ASCAP Q And A SESSION.

Audience Member: "Is there a particular musical or artist who made a difference in your approach?"

Stephen Schwartz: "I think that everybody is influenced by things that we see that particularly speak to us. ...I just feel like I'm a big mishmash of all the things I've seen and heard that I really liked and I just recycle them in some ways and they come out and people are like, "Oh that's your style?" And I think "Really? That kind of sounds to me like Missa Luba [e.g., "Generations" in Children of Eden], it's James Taylor, and there's a little bit of this thrown in and that." I see where it all came from."

Born in 1948, Stephen Schwartz grew up on Long Island. His earliest influences came from his music-loving mother. Mrs. Schwartz was a folk music buff and so recordings by The Kingston Trio and The Weavers (Amazon.com link) [new browser window] were often on the turntable in their home. She also loved classical music, opera, and show music.

For classical influences, the composer once listed "Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Puccini, Moussourgsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Copland, and maybe Steve Reich and Philip Glass."

The elder Schwartzes were theatre goers. Their son Stephen attended several shows on Broadway as a child, including Damn Yankees and South Pacific in about 1957. A little later he became captivated by My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews, a show that has remained an all-time favorite.

Among theatre composers, Schwartz claims to have been inspired by "...the usual suspects: principally Richard Rodgers, along with Kern, Berlin, Loewe, Bock, and Sondheim."

Schwartz's patter type songs "War is a Science" from Pippin and "Two's Company" from The Magic Show, have a memory trace to Gilbert and Sullivan shows seen or heard in childhood. "I fondly remember my parents taking me to see a somewhat tattered production of H.M.S. Pinafore." The rapid-fire lyrics and music of "Bravo Stromboli" of Geppetto show his love of Rossini and other opera composers. (He says, "'Bravo Stramboli' in Geppetto is a complete pastiche of Rossini, the famous Figaro aria from the Barber of Seville.)

As a teenager, he listened to the radio and recordings from a range of musical styles. "I remember waking up one morning when I was in high school to Leonard Bernstein's overture for Candide (Amazon.com link) [new browser window] on my clock radio and spending the next week desperately trying to find out what that wonderful music was."

While still living on Long Island, Schwartz traveled into New York City to study piano and composition at the Julliard School of Music. He learned to play classical pieces. In his traditional academic training in school, which included Latin and other languages, he advanced quickly. Because he started kindergarten early and skipped 5th grade, he was able to graduate from high school at age 16. The fall of 1964 he entered Carnegie Mellon University, graduating in 1968 with a B.F.A. in Drama (directing).

The Motown sound was hot on campus and that seeped into the songwriter's repertoire of rhythms and styles of melodic turns. Then all popular music from Beach Boys to various rock artists filtered in. But the sources of inspiration most dear to him were the singer-songwriters. He lists among his early favorites: Laura Nyro, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and The Mamas and The Papas (especially for harmonies).

The following Amazon.com links: Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Mamas and Papas

Listen to clips of an NPR interview with Schwartz about his musical influences NPR - Schwartz commentary

Wicked - a few notes

When Stephen and I discussed Wicked, particularly the song "What is This Feeling," he suggested an amalgamation of influences, possibly from singer-songwriter Sting and from the musical Chess - music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (of ABBA) and lyrics by Tim Rice.

Carol de Giere: ...You've talked about the "mishmash" of influences.

Stephen Schwartz: All this stuff is around in your head, and I never know how it's all going to reconstitute and come out.

Sting album cover...I'm a huge fan of Sting and he was very very influential in many ways on my writing. "Stranger to the Rain" in Children of Eden is so influenced by Sting. There's a song by Sting he does with the Police (The Very Best of... Sting & the Police - Amazon.com link) [new browser window] called "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." But again it's not like he ever used those chord changes or that particular rhythm but it's the sensibility.

cover for ChessAnd I'm a huge fan of the score of Chess.Chess (1988 Original Broadway Cast) at Amazon.com [new browser window] I just love that score. I think your own sensibilities are made out of the things that you love.

There's my favorite song from Chess called "Nobody's Side" .... I didn't say "I know: I'll do this song from Chess." After I heard it I thought, "Oh, that's a little bit like 'Everything She Does is Magic' and it's a little bit like 'Nobody's Side.'"

Read about Hairspray's influence on the development of "What Is This Feeling."

More Music

For more song stories see GODSPELL: Irving Berlin and the Musical Models for "All For the Best" and "Beautiful City"

Lyric Influences

The following was posted at StephenSchwartz.com in February 2004

Dear Eric: As always with a question of influences, it's a long list. I would say that the lyricists whose work I most admired as a kid and perhaps try to emulate include 1) for theatre: Sheldon Harnick, Larry Hart, Carolyn Leigh, Hammerstein, Sondheim of course -- the usual suspects. Apparently a minority view: I am not a fan of Cole Porter's lyrics. 2) for pop: Other than Joni Mitchell, who's the best, I would cite James Taylor and Don Henley, and more recently Sting and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I am a huge admirer of the lyrics of Paul Simon and Laura Nyro, but I could never write like them; I just look at their work in awe and wonder how they do it. And 3) current writers: I admire a lot the lyrics of a couple of NY "cabaret" writers: Marcy Heisler (for comedy material, she's just amazing) and my good friend John Bucchino; and recent theatre writers, I would mention Adam Guettal -- the lyrics to FLOYD COLLINS are pretty dazzling. I'm sure as soon as I send this, I will think of a dozen other names I should have mentioned, but those are the names that came to mind this morning. Sincerely, Stephen Schwartz

Further reading

Stephen Schwartz, Pete Seeger, and Sting An article from The Schwartz Scene on Schwartz, Seeger, and Sting