Stephen Schwartz joins the SF Gay Men’s Chorus
The four-decade career of Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz can be divided into three distinct chapters. In the 1970s, he was Broadway’s pop music wunderkind with Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show and The Baker’s Wife. In the 1990s, he was the go-to lyricist for animated and family films, including Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Prince of Egypt, plus 2007’s Enchanted. 2003 ushered in the era of Wicked, the international smash hit musical now being performed in six different languages - with three more translations on the way.
All three chapters of his career will be celebrated when Schwartz joins the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to present Enchantingly Wicked, An Evening with Stephen Schwartz on March 20 & 21 at Davies Symphony Hall.
Schwartz has been busy overseeing major revivals of Pippin (in London) and Godspell (in New York) and collaborating with Indian composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) on an animated Bollywood-style film for DreamWorks. But he took time from a recent studio session to chat with me about the some of the challenges and triumphs of his brilliant career.
Of Godspell’s 40th anniversary Broadway revival, he said: "I like it very much. It’s done in the round, and it’s one of the most imaginative uses of theatre in the round I’ve ever seen. I like the new arrangements, and they’ve really captured the spirit and essence of the show, while including a lot of contemporary references."
The London revival of Pippin, which recently closed, puts an extremely modern, alternate-reality spin on the show. "It’s a really interesting approach," he said. "The whole thing is done like a Second Life computer game, and it works beautifully."
Schwartz hasn’t always been delighted with how directors have staged songs in his shows, in particular Bob Fosse’s original Broadway staging of Pippin. "I didn’t like it at first, and it took me awhile to adjust to Fosse’s vision, especially of the song ’With You.’"
During the most tender, gentle love song in Pippin, Fosse had the lead actor and female dancers engage in a promiscuous, dry-humping orgy. "At first I was taken aback, but now I like it," said Schwartz. "And it became the top wedding song of the 70s.
"Directors have their own visions, and it takes awhile for my original image to become adjusted to their vision. I felt the same way about the staging of ’Popular’ in Wicked, but now I like it very much. There’s a difference between something being different from what you expected, and not working."
Although he’s candid and bubbly when discussing his work, Schwartz draws the line at sharing which of his songs are his favorites. "I don’t do that, I keep my favorites secret. It might color the way that audiences hear them."
Soprano Melody Moore.
Since its pre-Broadway run in San Francisco, Wicked has gone on to become an international cottage industry. "It’s been translated into German, Japanese, Finnish, Danish and Dutch," said Schwartz. "With Portuguese, Spanish and Korean versions coming up.
"It’s extremely challenging for translators [with whom Schwartz has collaborated] to match both the lyrics and the rhyme schemes. But the show sounds really good in German - especially when the characters are angry."
Agreeing to participate in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus tribute was a no-brainer for Schwartz. "[Artistic Director] Tim Seelig contacted me less than a year ago to ask if they could do an evening of my songs. I said yes. When he asked if I would participate, I said yes."
Schwartz will perform some of the many songs from his Broadway and film career along with the SFGMC, the Choral Project ensemble of San Jose, and acclaimed opera soprano Melody Moore.
"I also wrote a world premiere choral song for them called ’Testimony,’ which is inspired by the ’It Gets Better’ project. I worked with [project founder] Dan Savage, who put me in touch with a lot of interviews of people sharing their experiences and journeys.
"I’m really looking forward to returning to San Francisco, which was the birthplace of Wicked, and to hearing the new piece."
Enchantingly Wicked, An Evening with Stephen Schwartz, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, March 20 & 21 at 8 p.m., Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness St., SF. Tickets ($15-$75) at www.sfgmc.org or call (415) 392-4400.