An Interview with Stephen Schwartz
Village Theatre, located east of Seattle in nearby Issaquah, is the area’s leading proponent of developmental productions of new works for the American musical theatre.
Though many young and promising creative teams have been represented, some big name Broadway vets have also found Village Theatre a safe harbor in which to try out their new projects in front of eager audiences, a great portion of whom are subscribers.
Last year at this time, Broadway lyricist/director Martin Charnin and his collaborators Thomas Meehan (book) and Peter Sipos (music) participated in the Village Originals version of their musical version of Robin Hood. This year the wizard of Wicked himself, acclaimed composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz is represented by a new work, Snapshots, in which many of his songs have been retooled a bit to fit a new storyline. I spoke with Stephen last weekend while he was on a short retreat to Montauk, New Jersey, before he rejoined the creative time at Village.
DEH: How did you first come to be involved with Snapshots?
SS: I was approached several years ago by two guys, David Stern and Michael Scheman, who had this notion of trying to do some sort of new form that wasn’t entirely a new musical but wasn’t a revue either, that used existing material of mine to tell a specific story that they had in mind. I was fairly dubious at first, because it’s a very, very difficult thing to pull off, as you know. But they were both persistent and persuasive, and so they began to develop it.
Subsequently, David Stern has continued to work on it, and at a certain point, the director Randy Brenner became involved. What I began to realize as I saw earlier stages was that one of the reasons this sort of thing doesn’t usually work is that the songs are too clearly meant for other purposes, as one would say, dragged kicking and screaming into this new format. And so, at a certain point I said, look if you’re really going to do this then I have to do some revisions, at least to some lyrics, so the songs make sense. So, I’ve done a bit of that, and they have gone through several times of making choices of songs. At this point they are using a larger percentage of lesser known or not known at all songs. That’s sort of how it has developed till now; as I say it’s an unusual format, and one that is very, very difficult to pull off, but at least it’s intriguing and something different.
DEH: And one of the reasons a program like Village Originals exists, right? To foster this kind of work process.
SS: Exactly. It’s a fairly ideal venue for it, because you’re not being reviewed, and you have time to experiment and work on different aspects of it, and try things out. And we’ll see. This sort of thing is fun to do, because it’s trying to achieve something fairly new, not unique, but fairly different and difficult to do, and that’s always an interesting and exciting challenge.
DEH: It’s billed as a “musical mosaic,” which is certainly a unique classification.
SS: It was very hard to think of a description of it. It’s not a new musical, as it uses mostly existing material. It’s not a revue because it most definitely has a book, and characters, etc. And the term “revuesical” is sort of tacky, and that just didn’t seem appropriate. They’ve gone through several choices; I actually preferred "musical scrapbook" to "musical mosaic," slightly more descriptive, but for now ... I’m sure they’ll change it several more times.
DEH: What are some of the more familiar titles in the song list for the show?
SS: They’re using “Popular” from Wicked, “Corner of the Sky,” and some other Pippin things are in there, “Meadowlark” is in there, and “All Good Gifts” from Godspell. But what’s interesting is they are either arranged in a different way, particularly the more familiar stuff, or they are used in a context that is different enough that it’s funny or poignant in a different way, to give one a different point of view. And as I say, about 2/3 of the songs are things most people don’t know, or in the case of the familiar things I have done, there are lyric revisions to make them more applicable to the story, scenes, and dramatic context.
DEH: They are using a cut song from Wicked I understand?
SS: There are a few cut songs. The song from Wicked, which is done as part of a medley with “Corner of the Sky” and a couple of other things, is called “Making Good,” and it was actually cut in the rehearsal process and replaced with “The Wizard & I.” I’ve written completely new lyrics to a song from Rags, “If We Never Meet Again,” which was a cut song. And there are mostly new lyrics to “Endless Delights,” which is cut from The Baker’s Wife. It’s quite a mélange here.
DEH: Anything brand new?
SS: The title song “Snapshots” was written specifically for this but that’s the only one. But most of them will be new to people. It will be interesting to see if people will be able to get past the songs that they do know, without saying “Hey, wait a minute!” The difficulty and trick of this kind of a structure is getting past familiar songs in a different context. One hopes that won’t be the case here, because a lot of care has been taken to try and make them work in this new context. It will be very interesting to me, and I think the rest of the creative team, once this is up on its feet, to see how people respond to it and if it can work at all. I don’t really have the answer to that. We’ll see!
DEH: You’ve been to Village a few years back, during one of the Festivals of New Works, as I recall.
SS: Yes. I had been to Seattle as a tourist, and a few of my shows had been done (in the Seattle area), but I was there because the show that was being presented was something that had come through the ASCAP workshop that I run in L.A. and New York, and I came out to see the full production.
DEH: I have to tell you that “Endless Delights” is one of favorites of all your songs. What made you pull it out of The Baker’s Wife? It’s a great song.
SS: Thank you. Sometimes songs that work out of context just don’t work in the context of the show. What we discovered over the many years of revisions on The Baker’s Wife was that this particular song wasn’t telling the audience something they didn’t know. It was a time when we really didn’t want to see those characters. Nobody could make it work in context. Trevor Nunn did his production, which was the first step on the road to making the show work, and even he couldn’t make that song work. I finally said, if Trevor Nunn can’t make this song work no one can, it’s gone.
Now, in its place is something that does sort of a choreographed crossover with that couple, which is in contrast to what’s happening to the Baker and the folks in the town, and it has worked, certainly in the last couple of productions. But I have always liked the song “Endless Delights,” so I am glad to have it represented in Snapshots, so it doesn’t go away forever.
DEH: Have you attended rehearsals here for Snapshots?
SS: David Stern (the book writer) and I saw a run through, and then we met with the musical director (Steve Orich), and we all talked about what we had learned from seeing it. Made some changes and some suggestions, and presumably they are in the process of putting in. Then I’m back for four or five days, and I'll see several performances, try to help out if there’s some work to be done, which I’m sure there will be, and just get a feel for whether this is going to be able to work or not. The cast is excellent, the designers are terrific and it’s a really good group. We give it a shot, and it’s fun fore everybody to work on something that’s new and challenging.
DEH: I am looking forward to seeing the 5th Avenue’s Pippin next spring; did you know that was happening here?
SS: Yes, in fact I just had a conversation with (5th Avenue artistic director) David Armstrong about it, and we’re going to be talking some more about some revisions in that show that have been made over time, and trying to make sure they get all the changes. I have known David a long time, so it’s nice to talk with him about it, so yes, that will be interesting. I should know this, but I assume Wicked at some point is going to be coming through town?
DEH: Yes, the tour will be at the Paramount September 20-26.
SS: You may not know this but we were at one point in talks to do the tryout of the show here at the Seattle Rep.
DEH: Yes, it was sad for Seattle that didn’t happen.
SS: It didn’t work out, for various reasons, mostly involved with how Joe Mantello wanted to develop the show; he didn’t feel he could do that. But we’ve always had Seattle in our minds, and we had several very nice meetings with the folks at Seattle Rep, they were really terrific.
DEH: Any scoop on the future of a Wicked movie being made, what with movie musicals coming back in vogue?
SS: I’m hopeful, and I will expect it to be, but it’s a ways away because the stage show is doing so well, we have to stick with it in theatrical form for awhile. But let’s face it, the show is basically backed by Universal Pictures, and they are a movie company. It’s always sort of been my assumption that will happen, but there are certainly no plans on the table for that right now.
DEH: The only film of one of your shows, to date, is Godspell. How do you think it came out?
SS: I don’t think the stage event was entirely successfully translated into a film event. I think some musicals lend themselves to film adaptation more successfully than others, or they need a really creative take on them, like Rob Marshall’s Chicago which I think was superb. I don’t feel the film of Godspell made the same jump. Maybe there is a remake in that, where they’ll solve it more successfully.
SS: “Beautiful City,” which you wrote expressly for that film, is another big favorite.
SS: I actually rewrote the lyrics to that many years later and first sung it at a benefit production of the show following the L.A. riots, and I much prefer that version. And after 9/11 it was done at many benefits in New York following the destruction of the World Trade Center.
DEH: It’s a lovely, moving lyric. Thank you for the great songs you’ve shared with us all. I feel very lucky to be able to see the developmental staging of Snapshots and hear your music, and all those new words.
SS: Thank you David. Look forward to seeing you there!
Snapshots runs December 9-23 at Village Theatre’s First Stage, 120 Front Street N., Issaquah. Tickets: $20-$25 or free with a Village originals membership. Call (425) 392-2202 for reservations, or visit www.villagetheatre.org for further information.