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Defying Gravity: In conversation with Stephen Schwartz

William Foxton interviews Stephen Schwartz, Oscar-winning composer and lyricist.

There’s something magic about a Stephen Schwartz musical. 

Maybe it’s the grand themes his work sets out to explore. Pippin is a dazzling coming-of-age tale that asks its audience what it means to be truly satisfied. Rags is an epic portrayal of an immigrant’s struggle to succeed. Wicked is a compelling exploration of good and evil, and the dangers of political ambivalence.

Or perhaps it’s his signature showstoppers: Meadowlark, Stranger to the Rain, Defying Gravity. The songs contain beautiful melodies, thrilling orchestrations, and lyrics that capture the uncertainty felt by characters in a state of transition: to stay or to go, to accept the safety of the known, or embrace the uncertainty of the future. They’ve gone on to become anthems in their own right, even outside the context of their shows. 

Then again, it might be the kind of stories he tells, ones that champion the underdog. Whether it be a witch outcast because of the colour of her skin, a Prince banished for calling out the injustices and cruelty of his Kingdom, or a boy in search of his corner of the sky. 

“I tend to be attracted to stories about outsiders,” Schwartz tells me at the beginning of our call, “about people who feel themselves not part of the culture or not part of the mainstream if you will, and are trying to figure out how to fit in, and what the cost is of doing so.”

This trend continues with his most recent musical, Prince of Egypt, the stage adaptation of the hit 1998 animated feature. The reviews show that, fifty years into his career, this three-time Grammy winner, three-time Oscar winner, and six-time Tony nominated composer and lyricist continues to write stories that capture the heart of his audience. 

Schwartz’s self-described “roller-coaster” of a career began on Broadway with his 1971 hit show Pippin. At just 23 years old, Schwartz took home the Drama Desk Awards for Most Promising Composer and Most Promising Lyricist. The success of Pippin was followed by Godspell in 1972 and The Magic Show in 1974. At 26 years old, Schwartz had three successful musicals playing on Broadway. And the theatre world was hungry to see what he would do next.

And yet, his next musical, The Baker’s Wife, never made it to Broadway. It was the start of a difficult patch for the composer-lyricist, as none of the shows he wrote in the subsequent years gained significant traction on Broadway. Rags, Working, Children of Eden, and The Baker’s Wife, were, in the eyes of his critics, flops. 

“That was a new experience for me and it was extremely unpleasant. It was tough for me emotionally. That period took a while for me to recover from,” he tells me.

Does he wish the immense successes of Pippin and Godspell had come later in his career?

“I think I would have handled it better,” he says, “I cannot be sorry that at 23 years old, this show that I was involved with, Godspell, became a worldwide phenomenon, and it made me famous and it made me financially comfortable. I cannot regret that. What I can say is that having that kind of early success, rather extreme success, before I actually knew what I was doing and before I actually understood how showbusiness worked, created some psychological difficulties and some confusion for me.”

“I just was not emotionally or experientially equipped to deal with it, to know how to work with my collaborators, to be able to take ups and downs in stride…I just couldn’t do that when I was in my early 20s and all this was happening to me. And for me,” he says.

In the mid-90s, Schwartz’s career pivoted to Hollywood. He enjoyed a very fruitful partnership with composer Alan Menken, who, following the huge success of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, sought Schwartz out to write lyrics for what would become the 1995 film Pocahontas. Finding success in doing so, he went on to write lyrics for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Prince of Egypt (for which he also composed the music).

It was the allure of adapting Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West that drew Schwartz back to Broadway. Maguire’s revisionist take on The Wizard of Oz gives the previously two-dimensional wicked witch a name – Elphaba – and a sympathetic backstory. 

“I heard the title and what the book was about and knew that it was something for me, because I just knew who [Elphaba] was,” he says.

Defying Gravity is the show’s most famous tune. The iconic ballad closes out the first half, when Elphaba realises she will never be seen as anything other than wicked. Flying off into an uncertain future, we see her take her first steps to becoming the Wicked Witch of the West. With its messages about empowerment, the song has become an anthem for anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong. 

The song began life as five chords that Schwartz had scribbled on a piece of paper over a year before he began work on the song. Those same five chords can be heard at the beginning of the song. The chord progression evokes the idea of growing power, as Elphaba begins to embrace the gifts she’s been given. Listening to it, it gives the idea of something coming together, just out of reach. The effect is magical. 

But how did he achieve it?

“First of all it’s in D flat, which is, to me, the most powerful key on the piano,” he says. “[It] just has great resonance. It’s sort of my favourite key to write in when you really want to get an emotion.”

“There’s virtually no thirds in the chord, the only third that appears in that little sequence is in the bass,” he continues, “[a third in a chord] takes tension away because it identifies whether it’s a major or minor chord. It also has a more kind of complete sonority to it. So, a lot of times I write without thirds or I stick them in the bass. It gives it a kind of power, at least to my ear.”

The show’s second act opens with Thank Goodness. We learn that, in the years that have passed, Elphaba has become the scapegoat for everything wrong in Oz, while Glinda has risen the ranks within Oz, now known as “Glinda the Good”. With a title, a place in government, and her soon-to-be husband, Glinda claims that she “couldn’t be happier.” And yet, something isn’t right. It’s a moment of realisation, as Glinda discovers that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Her sense of discomfort is expertly conveyed through Schwartz’s music. 

“It’s a song I am very proud of,” Schwartz says, “what it does for the character, the use of subtext, the way the music works in it. There are just things about it that I feel were me operating at pretty much the top of my game.”

“It’s not in a regular rhythm or regular time signature,” he explains, “[Thank Goodness] has shifting time signatures so it flows much more conversationally. It also has more insecurity, you can’t really tap your foot to it. It’s a song that’s musically happening moment to moment, which I think supports what is happening with the character. She’s making discoveries about herself as she sings the song.”

He cites lyricist Tim Rice as a great influence, particularly his song Another Suitcase in Another Hall from the 1978 hit musical Evita. In the song, Perón’s mistress, having been fired by the titular Evita, laments her circumstances and the uncertain future that awaits her.

“[Rice] will have a character sing something, and then the character will hear what he or she has just sung, and comment on it,” he says. 

“Call in three months’ time and I’ll be fine I know,” the mistress sings, “Or maybe not that fine, but I’ll survive anyhow.”

We see this in Thank Goodness. Glinda tells the audience that “she couldn’t be happier/ Simply couldn’t be happier”, before correcting herself: “well…not ‘simply’”.

Thank Goodness also gives the audience a gorgeous, and rare, belt from Glinda. In the song, Schwartz cracks open her polished exterior, allowing the audience a glimpse into the woman behind the public figure. It’s a nuanced and subtle moment in a show known for its spectacle.

Defying Gravity, with its spectacle, rousing war cry and dangerously high belts, and Thank Goodness, taking a more philosophical and deeper approach, feel like they belong on completely different ends of the musical theatre canon. Does the writing process behind these two very different types of songs differ?

“No, the writing process isn’t different, but I’m aware of the storytelling responsibility [in both cases].”

[Defying Gravity] needs to have a certain effect to deliver what the show needs, what the energy of the show needs, what the audience investment in the show needs. There are other places where the job is to be more thoughtful and have more nuance and more depth because the show needs that as well. I don’t really have a preference for one over the other. Maybe as a writer I have a little bit more affection for songs like I’m Not That Girl or Thank Goodness, which have more nuance and subtlety maybe. There’s an overall job in creating the score that you have to deliver both these elements.”

When Wicked first opened on Broadway it took the world by storm, grossing more than $56 million in its first year. The show itself is outstanding, but I can’t help but wonder what made it fare so much better than Schwartz’s other creations? What made Wicked different?

“There’s a difference between a show that’s a hit and a show that becomes a phenomenon,” he tells me, “That has to do with things outside the show itself. It has to do with what’s going on in the zeitgeist. Wicked came along at a time when the idea of female empowerment was just coming to the fore in our culture.”

Schwartz also believes its success stems from the kind of love story Wicked told.

“It came at a time when our culture was looking for that kind of story. There have been all these bromances for years, and then suddenly here was this story about this relationship between two women.”

Despite its huge box office success, like many a Schwartz show before it, reviews for Wicked were mixed when the show came out in 2003. The show would go on to lose the Tony Award for Best Musical to Avenue Q the following year. 

“I’m never going to get the reviews that Stephen Sondheim gets or Lin-Manuel Miranda. For whatever reason that’s my fate,” Schwartz tells me, “and that’s OK. In the end, it hasn’t mattered.”

It certainly hasn’t mattered to his audiences. Even his less successful shows have found their following. In fact, I wonder if our appreciation of Schwartz’s shows has something to do with their often lukewarm critical reception. We too, perhaps, love the story of an underdog. 

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Schwartz how it felt to return to Broadway, triumphant, all those years later.

“It was a nice feeling because I feel I sort of left under a cloud, if you will, and returned with something that was so embraced. On the other hand, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not like I got such great reviews for it. In some ways, nothing really had changed, except that the show itself was so successful, but I had changed. I think really what happened was I just didn’t need that anymore. It didn’t matter to me that I was never going to be the critics’ darling that some of the writers were, and it didn’t really matter to me if there were people who weren’t ever going to like what I did, as long as there were enough people that the show itself could work. I think I got over the rest of that.”

His Defying Gravity moment?

He laughs.

“That’s exactly right,” he says. “It came at much too high a cost.”

Image credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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