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Stephen Schwartz: Career Updates 2011 to 2013

from The Schwartz Scene

Quarterly updates CONTINUED. These updates, written by Stephen Schwartz, were originally published as part of The Schwartz Scene newsletter, edited by Carol de Giere

The Schwartz Scene Update Archive 2011-2013

Stephen Schwartz Update, Spring 2011, The Schwartz Scene 42

Stephen Schwartz portraitMarch 3, 2011

I am on a plane returning home from Chicago, where last night the new production of Working opened at the recently-refurbished "Broadway Playhouse". Imaginatively directed by my friend Gordon Greenberg, there have been a few "new wrinkles" added since the developmental productions of this revival in Sarasota and San Diego, most notably beginning the show with five reel-to-reel tape recorders on stage playing excerpts from Studs Terkel's interviews. There's something wonderful about hearing Studs' voice and those of a few of the real people he interviewed for the book, and it seems to me it gives a new legitimacy and immediacy to the show.

Working Musical It's an Art

PHOTO: Barbara Robertson in Working singing "It's An Art." Photo © Amy Boyle Photography 2011

The cast of six Chicago actors is very strong, and it is hugely gratifying to me that the show has finally "come home" to Chicago where it all began. I am happy to report that the first two reviews, in the two major Chicago papers, were excellent, particularly confirming that we had succeeded in updating the show and making it feel relevant and resonant for contemporary audiences. Now we'll see if, in these times, people actually want to see a show called Working. But it was a great working experience (pun intended), and I leave Chicago exhilarated by what I saw on stage last night. [For information on Working and a link to the production info, see  Working the musical.]

I return to New York ready to plunge into rehearsals for the New York City Opera production of my opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon which commence in three weeks. I have been working assiduously to try to ensure that all the music is ready for the singers, conductor, and orchestra – it's a lot of dots! And I'm finding that while the computer is an exceedingly useful tool for transcribing and editing music, it also can occasionally make inexplicable and arbitrary changes that one discovers to one's horror when proof-reading for the third or fourth time. I hope I've caught them all! Anyway, it will be nice to be back working on the opera with real singers and musicians again, as opposed to computer files. And of course I continue to vacillate between excitement and terror for the actual New York premiere.

Meanwhile, I have begun work on a new project that promises to be a lot of fun. It is an animated feature for DreamWorks, tentatively titled The Monkeys of Mumbai, a contemporary spin on the classic Indian tale of The Ramayana. It's set in modern-day Mumbai and centers around two monkeys, brothers, who wind up becoming the heroes in a battle with a 4000-year-old ten-headed Demon King whom one of the monkeys inadvertently re-awakens. May I add that this will also be a Bollywood-style musical? You can probably see why I think it will be fun. I am helping develop the story, and then I will be collaborating on songs with AR Rahman, the composer of Slumdog Millionaire among many others. It is very early in the process, but I am already enjoying it considerably.

In addition, there are other plates I need to keep spinning, including a summer production in Solvang, California, of My Fairy Tale, the Hans Christian Andersen musical I originally wrote for Denmark in 2005, and a fall production at the Northlight Theatre outside of Chicago of Snapshots, the "musical scrapbook" compilation of songs from my various shows.

So life remains hectic, daunting, but certainly consistently interesting. And I'm happy to be able to check off Working as a job well done.

Stephen Schwartz

Stephen Schwartz Update, Summer 2011, The Schwartz Scene 43

Stephen Schwartz - Theatre Hall of FameAugust 31, 2011

I'm writing this (as it seems I often write my Schwartz Scene updates) on a plane, this time from California, where we have been "stranded" for two days because of the travel disruptions caused by Hurricane/Tropical storm Irene (there are worse places to be stranded, believe me.)

I was in California, in the charming Danish town of Solvang, for the premiere of my show about Hans Christian Andersen, My Fairytale, originally written, as some of you may remember, as Mit Eventyr for the Danish bicentennial celebration of Andersen's birth. This year is the centennial of the founding of Solvang, and in celebration of that, they are presenting the English-language premiere of the show. It has wound up being a highly enjoyable experience, and I think the show has turned out extremely well, playing to enormously positive audience response. I think a lot of this has to do with the (not surprisingly) brilliant staging by my son Scott, who is totally in his element with a show like this — the dazzling theatricality he has brought to it draws gasps and mid-number applause from the audience, and I think he has been very ably assisted by the artistic staff of the presenting organization, Pacific Coast Performing Arts.

When we were first beginning work on this production, and the music arrived from Denmark in shards and unlabeled files, etc., I despaired of its being able to be done, but heroic work by musical director Callum Morris and sound designer Walter Clissen, along with a young man in New York named Andrew Fox who helped somehow cobble together a workable piano/vocal score, saved the day, almost miraculously.

One of the most fun aspects of the experience for me was, for the first time in my life, translating someone else's lyrics into English — three of the songs are by the Danish writing team of brothers Adam and James Price, and of course were written originally in Danish. Adam, the lyricist of the pair, is also a superb translator — he recently did the Danish translation of my lyrics for the recent Copenhagen production of Wicked, and had translated the lyrics I had written in English for Mit Eventyr into Danish for the original production. Now I was able to return the favor and, carefully following the scansion of James' music and with a literal English translation of Adam's lyrics in front of me, come up with English-language versions of his lyrics for this production. (When I was in Copenhagen for Wicked, I showed them to him and he pronounced himself very pleased.) I also translated into English an Andersen poem ("The Dying Child") that I had set to music for Mit Eventyr. Altogether, an enjoyable new challenge.
Philip Lazebnik, the original book writer of the show, came over to California from his home in Denmark — fortunately he has family in Southern California and even had a convenient high school reunion to attend — and adeptly re-set his script back into English.

The theatre in Solvang is outdoors, and watching the show under the stars, bundled up in a blanket, is a lovely and magical experience. One never knows which working experiences are going to turn out to be the nicest ones; somewhat surprisingly, this was one of them for me.

Because I am two days late getting back due to the flight cancellations, I have to turn around tomorrow and make my way to Chicago, where rehearsals have commenced at the Northlight Theatre for a production of Snapshots, the revue based on my songs, devised by David Stern, which has been in the works for a while. Purportedly, this is intended to be the finished production, and the director, Ken Sawyer, has some very promising ideas for the design and staging, so I will be interested to see how it turns out. It would certainly be nice if it proved to be as pleasant an experience as My Fairytale.

It is an especially busy summer for me because, in addition to these two shows going on and some upcoming things in the works for the fall that have been requiring my attention (including the planned Broadway revival of Godspell), both my children are getting married this summer. Actually, my daughter Jessica is already married, having had a beautiful wedding in June. Never having "thrown" a wedding before but having only been a guest, I didn't realize what a huge production it is, rather like doing a gigantic Broadway show where one is responsible not only for what's on stage but for every single member of the audience as well. Fortunately, my son Scott's wedding, which is a mere ten days from now, will be a smaller affair. But obviously, in the end, two joyful occasions.

Speaking of the upcoming production of Godspell, the casting is now complete, and I think (as tends to be the case with that show) it is an amazingly talented group of young performers. Though some people know our Jesus, Hunter Parrish, there are no major stars in the show — we have instead gone with the very best people we could find. I don't know if that will make marketing the show more difficult in today's highly-star-driven climate for Broadway revivals, but ultimately the production team felt that Godspell has always been a show where stars-of-the-future are discovered (among the cast in the most recent New York production a decade ago were Chad Kimball, Leslie Kritzer, Shoshanna Bean, Barrett Foa, and Capathia Jenkins), and that it was better to stay true to the essence and spirit of the show. Wouldn't it be nice if the "artistically" right decision turns out to be commercially viable as well? In any event, I'm sure I will have much to report about it in my next Schwartz Scene update.

In the meantime, I wish you all a good end of summer and thank you as always for your interest,

Stephen Schwartz Update, Fall 2011, The Schwartz Scene 44

November 30, 2011

As I always seem to be, because it seems to be the only time I get a chance to do it these crazy days, I am writing this update on a plane. This time I am heading back to the States from London, where I have been seeing early previews of the new production of PIPPIN at the Chocolate Factory and working a bit with the cast and musicians. They don't open officially for another nine days, so they are still making adjustments and changes, but I have to head back because tomorrow we are mastering the cast album for the new Broadway revival of GODSPELL. Did I mention these are crazy days?

I enjoyed my time working with the PIPPIN company. It is an extremely interesting and original concept for the show, the inspiration of the director, Mitch Sebastian. I've been asked not to give too much away, because there are a lot of surprises, but I think by now word has leaked out that it is basically set in a virtual world, the Players involved in a computer game called: "Pippin, Your Ticket to an Extraordinary Life". The character of Pippin is brought into this world, and as in the original, there is increasing uncertainty as to what is real and what is part of the game/show.

One of the most intriguing aspects is how little of the actual book and lyrics have had to be changed to accommodate this concept — a couple of words here or there, e.g. "Scene One" becomes "Level One" or a line like "Presenting Fastrada" becomes "Introducing Player Three, Fastrada". But it was important to Mitch as part of his conception that the show itself not have to be rewritten in any substantial way to make the concept work, and as far as I can tell in these early stages, it seems to do so.

Another unexpected pleasure is that he has included much of the original Bob Fosse choreography, even going so far as to bring over Chet Walker, one of Bob's long-time assistants and dance captains and now a fine choreographer in his own right, to reproduce as faithfully as possible Bob's work. As Mitch pointed out, the sort of isolation of parts of the body that was a hallmark of Bob's style is as appropriate for avatars as it was for Broadway dancers, and so it seems to fit surprisingly well within this reimagined concept.

The music has been rearranged for a smaller band, but skillfully so in my opinion, and the amazing animation is by Tim Burt, who did the wonderful animation for the Chocolate Factory production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. I thought the cast was very strong, as tends to be the case at that theatre. It was fascinating to see a forty-year-old show given such a fresh and contemporary approach, and I will be very curious to see what audiences and the press make of it.

Stephen Schwartz with Godspell and Wicked singsMeanwhile, as I said, the new Broadway production of GODSPELL is off and running, and if it has not been as radically reconceived as PIPPIN, it still boasts terrific new arrangements by Michael Holland and the first time I have seen GODSPELL staged in the round. I am extremely happy with this production, the creative and highly energetic staging by director Danny Goldstein and choreographer Chris Gattelli, and the extraordinarily talented cast who just sing their faces off. One of the fun things for me is that every time I have seen it, there have been a couple of new and current jokes thrown in, so there is always something new for me to laugh at in what is already a pretty hilarious production.

Before I left for London, we recorded and mixed the album, and tomorrow we will be mastering it so it can be available on iTunes in time for the holidays — I think December 20th was the date I was told. (Of course the final package with lyric booklet, etc., for those who prefer to get their albums in that form, won't be ready for a while longer.) With probably the best singing cast in the history of GODSPELL, I think it's going to be a terrific album.

So this is finally the end of what has been an insanely busy year for me. All in all in 2011, I have had to work on seven different productions — WORKING in Chicago, SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON at New York City Opera, MY FAIRY TALE in California, SNAPSHOTS in Chicago again, WICKED in Holland, GODSPELL in New York, and PIPPIN in London. And in the midst of all that, BOTH my kids got married this past summer! No wonder I haven't had time to write anything new. But my hope and determination for 2012 is that I can be a writer again and turn my attention to new projects and adventures, whatever those may prove to be.

I thank you all, as always, for your interest in my work, and I wish you and your families a wonderful holiday season, Stephen

Stephen Schwartz Update, Late Summer 2012, The Schwartz Scene issue 47

(No updates for winter or spring)

September 5, 2012

Another plane ride, another update. This time I am returning from Los Angeles, where I was mostly working with composer A.R. Rahman on songs for the as-still-untitled DreamWorks animated feature I have mentioned before. I will be doing lyrics and will be an executive producer as well.

To remind you, it is loosely based on characters from the classic Indian epic, The Ramayana, and is set in contemporary Mumbai with a cast of characters mostly consisting of monkeys. (In The Ramayana, one of the main heroes is the monkey god, Hanuman, to whom there are temples all over India. Among other things, the story of the movie involves our monkey protagonist finding his "inner Hanuman.") What's most fun for me about this movie is that will include Bollywood-style numbers complete with choreography (yes, monkeys dancing to Bollywood music — what could be better than that?) It is still very early in the development process, but as of now we envision eight or nine musical numbers, which is a lot for an animated feature, and after this last session, AR and I now have at least a start on five of them. By the end of the year, we hope to be far enough along on all of them at least to know what they are.

One of the best perquisites of working on a movie which takes place in Mumbai was that I got to go to India for an amazing research trip. As the guide books tell you, it is a place of vivid contrasts and intense sensory impact — the colors, the sounds, the smells, the crazy traffic, the sensational food, the inconceivable wealth right next to the sprawling and gigantic slums. We took a walking tour through the Dharavi slum in Mumbai and saw hot crowded rooms full of men, women, and children working on recycling the detritus of civilization — plastic bottles and syringes, aluminum cans, rubber tires, etc. As befits a land of extreme contrasts, it was both heart-breaking and inspiring. We went to an amazing city on the Ganges called Varanasi, where pilgrims come to take a ritual bath in the holy river, which they do next to men washing laundry on one side and on the other the ashes from cremations (they also bring their dead from all over India to be cremated and have their ashes sprinkled into Mother Ganga), the streets of the town teeming not only with people but with monkeys, water buffalo, dogs, cows, goats, and the occasional camel or even ceremonial elephant.

Stephen Schwartz Taj MahalWe saw the Taj Mahal (I have to admit that had nothing to do with the movie, I just went because I could), which is every bit as graceful and beautiful as one imagines. I managed to get myself scratched by the pet monkey of a Sadhu (it's a long story how that happened, too long for here) and had to get rabies shots. All in all, one of the most memorable trips of my life. Not to mention, it gave me ideas for song titles and lyrics for the movie, which of course was actually the point.

As I said in my previous update, I had been hoping 2012 would be a writing year, in contrast to 2011, which was basically one production after another, thus leaving me virtually no time for new work. And it is turning out as I hoped. Another project in its very early stages, so early it would be premature to mention it except for the fact that word about its existence has seeped out, is a possible stage musical based on the life of Harry Houdini. I am collaborating with the extraordinary Aaron Sorkin and am very much intrigued by the idea of working with him. I do have drafts of four songs and am about to start another batch. The show is still at the stage where it's hard to know what it will be or even if it will ever come to fruition, but it is an intriguing project with a talented potential team.

The other writing project I am currently involved in is a possible re-working of the stage version of the Disney animated feature THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, for which I wrote lyrics to music by Alan Menken. This is also in early development, but if we go forward, it looks as if Alan and I will be writing some new songs for it. As I've said before, I very much enjoyed working on both the movie and the German stage production from 1999, and I love Alan's music for it and have always thought it his best score. So if this moves ahead, I think it could be fulfilling.

The one piece of writing I managed to get done in 2011 (at the very end of the year) is something I'm very proud of. It's a choral piece called "Testimony" which I wrote for a concert by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. It was based on interviews for Dan Savage's extraordinary "It Gets Better Project", and the directors of that project were very helpful in providing interviews and materials to serve as inspiration. The SFGMC, under the excellent direction of conductor Tim Seelig, premiered the piece beautifully at a concert in March, and then performed it again this past July in Denver and Laramie, Wyoming. I have been immensely moved and gratified by messages and emails I have received from people who have heard "Testimony" and found it helpful in their own lives — a writer really can't ask for more than that. It will be published soon by Hal Leonard, and I am looking forward to its performance by other choruses.

Although this is, as I've been happy to report, essentially a writing year, there are two noteworthy productions of shows of mine coming up. Boston's American Repertory Theater will be presenting a revival of PIPPIN this winter, directed by the talented and inventive Diane Paulus. It has an exceptional cast [to be announced shortly]. So if it doesn't work, we certainly can't blame the actors! It will include a lot of the original Fosse choreography, which it was fun to see meticulously reproduced by Chet Walker in a recent workshop, blended with circus performers staged by one of the directors of the remarkable Canadian troupe Les 7 Doigts, Gypsy Snider.

The other planned production is a limited New York run, at around the same time, of Gordon Greenberg's excellent revival of WORKING, which has been so well-received in other productions around the country and includes two exceptional new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

On a personal note, we had a momentous occasion in the extended Schwartz family last month, when my daughter Jessica gave birth to our first granddaughter, a beautiful little girl named Hannah Lucille. Jess and her husband Josh are proving, not unexpectedly, to be excellent parents, patient, relaxed, loving, and good-humored. And Hannah for her part is being a Professional Baby, expertly doing all the things babies are supposed to do. For me, it's a whole new stage of life to discover.

So much is happening, most of it in early stages, which is always an exciting time. By the time of my next update, we should know to a great extent what projects worked and what didn't, what's coming to fruition and what died on the vine.

Thanks as always for your interest and support, and a happy rest of 2012 to all. — Stephen

Stephen Schwartz Update, Spring 2013, The Schwartz Scene issue 50

June 1, 2013

As I always seem to be doing, I am writing this update on a plane, returning from Portland, Oregon and a preview of the new musical SOMEWHERE IN TIME that my son, Scott, is directing. I had never been to Portland before and enjoyed the food and exploring the city, as well as the show.

Pippin revival albumTomorrow evening is a listening party of the new Broadway PIPPIN album for the cast, who I think will be pleased to hear how good they sound. It was fun to do a new cast album for several reasons: First and foremost, the new cast are all such good singers. I also think the new orchestrations by Larry Hochman are very imaginative, and it's nice to be able (with the longer time available on CD versus vinyl) to be able to include more of the dance music. On the original cast album back in 1972, it was so challenging to squeeze all the songs onto one disc, we had to compress "Morning Glow" greatly and slightly speed up "Spread a Little Sunshine" (to Leland Palmer's understandable annoyance.) It felt like such a luxury to be able to get over an hour of music onto this CD.

Pippin marquisAnother enjoyable aspect was the decision (at the clever suggestion of executive producer Howard Kagan) that we mirror the audience sing-along in "No Time At All" by inviting several hundred fans to come sing the choruses of the song along with Andrea Martin. It makes for what I think is an unprecedented track on a cast album — literally a cast of hundreds! And speaking of sing-alongs, another innovative suggestion of Howard's was that, since he had been repeatedly told anecdotally of people who enjoyed singing along with the original cast album, we include a few sing-along-with-the-PIPPIN-orchestra bonus tracks at the end. So I'm very pleased with how the album has turned out.

And as far as the new Broadway production itself is concerned, to quote my friend Glinda, "I couldn't be happier". I had a wonderful time working with its creative and imaginative director, Diane Paulus, who managed to keep her cool through acrobatics, magic tricks, Fosse dancing, and literal fire. The result is a show that, in my opinion, is not only breathtakingly well staged and superbly performed, but which has a clarity of story-telling and a wellspring of emotion superior to the original. The whole experience was so positive that I found myself telling a friend after a rehearsal during previews in New York, "I worked on a Broadway show today and actually had fun!" (to which the reply was, "Who ARE you and what have you done with Stephen!?")

[Read more about the Pippin Broadway revival]

The opening of PIPPIN and the completion of the cast album also means that, in terms of working on productions, I am pretty much done for the first time in a long time and can go back to being a writer for a while, which I am very much looking forward to.

I do have a couple of concerts coming up next month in LA with my friend Liz Callaway and the LA Gay Men's Chorus. Aside from getting to play tennis with Liz (who is steady as a rock), the main reason I am looking forward to these concerts is that the chorus will be performing "Testimony", a choral piece I wrote originally for a performance last year by the San Francisco GMC. It's a piece I'm very proud of, based on interviews done for Dan Savage's IT GETS BETTER project, which Mr. Savage and the IT GETS BETTER staff were kind enough to make available to me. Although (obviously) originally written for men's chorus, it was recently performed in an SATB arrangement by a mixed chorus in concerts I did with the NY Pops and Washington Symphony Orchestra. It was a piece I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get myself to write, but thanks to the gentle but persistent nagging of SFGMC director Tim Seelig last year, I did and am so glad for Tim's insistence — as I say, it is a piece of which I'm enormously proud, particularly for the impact it seems to have had on many people who have emailed me about what it has meant to them and the courage it has provided.

So that's my spring report, as I head into a summer of writing. I wish myself inspiration, or at least perseverance, and I guess I wish the same for all of you. Thanks as always for your interest and enjoy your summer.

–Stephen Schwartz

(There were other issues of The Schwartz Scene in 2013, but no other updates written by Stephen.

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Stephen Schwartz's complete career story is covered in the biography Defying Gravity: the Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked. DefyingGravityTheBook.com