What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Composer/Lyricist
By John Olson
Stephen Schwartz, songwriter for such Broadway shows as Wicked, Pippin and The Magic Show as well as animated film musicals including Prince of Egypt and Pocahontas, took time with me on May 2 to talk by telephone about his newest project - the children's musical Captain Louie (which began previews at the York Theater on May 3), putting Wicked out on the road, revisiting The Baker's Wife and bringing pop influences and children to Broadway.
In Captain Louie, a young boy with a vivid imagination has moved from an inner city neighborhood to a new home and is having trouble making new friends. He imagines himself flying his own plane back to the old neighborhood so he can rejoin his old gang for trick or treating on Halloween. The hour-long show, with book by Anthony Stein, includes nine songs by Schwartz.
John Olson: I read that Captain Louie is a piece that you originally did in a shorter form about twenty years ago.
JO: You commented in another interview that this show is unusual for being a children's show in an urban setting, rather than a mythical setting.
SS: I think that's what appealed to me in the first place when Meridee approached me about doing something for the First All-Children's Theater, and we discussed ideas. She had this book by Ezra Jack Keats, called "The Trip," and that was one of the things that appealed to me about it ... that it wasn't about fairy tale princesses and frogs and lily ponds, but about problems that contemporary kids in modern cities encounter. Obviously it's a children's show, therefore it's not about drug use and prostitution among fourth graders and things like that. It's about gentler problems, if you will, but nevertheless about problems that are more familiar to contemporary youngsters
JO: Was it refreshing to write for that type of environment again after setting songs in Oz?
SS: Yeah, it was fun to go back to, it's a piece I've always had great affection for. Of course, it's a completely different style of music from Wicked. I think the score of mine it bears the most resemblance to is Godspell because it's sort of a succession of pop styles and very much a pop band. The band we use on the CD that we just recorded is the basically the same (type of) band as Godspell. I'm very, very happy with the way the CD came out. We recorded it with some of the cast members who are performing it at the York and some others who have done it on various other occasions.
JO: You have a very strong pop influence in your music. You certainly have your voice as a composer. What sort of music did you listen to as a child and young man and how did it inform your writing?
SS: I think that's a good question. To me my voice is just a big mish-mosh of all the things that I like listening to. I sort of mush all these influences together into some kind of conglomerate and I guess it comes out sounding like me. When I was growing up, I really wasn't too interested in pop music, to tell you the truth. My influences were classical music, which I studied; folk music, because my parents were big folk music aficionados; and Broadway scores. It was only when I was in high school, when the Beatles hit America and the advent of Motown and Burt Bacharach and then all those great singer-songwriters ... James Taylor and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro ... those had a huge influence on me and that became the kind of music that I started listening to, so a few years later when I got out of college and started trying to make my way writing for the theater, which had always been my ambition since I was a child, that was the sort of music that I brought with me.
JO: Did you write Godspell in college, or was that shortly after?
SS: It was shortly after college ... there's a little bit of confusion because both Godspell and Pippin were done in their original forms at Carnegie-Mellon, where I went to school. Indeed, Pippin was something that I did begin while I was in school, but Godspell began a year or two after I had left. I was already in New York. The original conceiver and director, John-Michael Tebelak, whom I'd known in school, began it at Carnegie-Mellon but I didn't work on it there. I didn't work on it until it was going to make a commercial transfer to New York.
JO: I think "Day by Day" may have been one of the last show tunes to make it to Top 40 directly from a Broadway show.
SS: Particularly because it was (a recording by) the cast itself. I don't think that's happened since then, to my knowledge. There have been a number of other songs that have been covered successfully "Send in the Clowns," "Memory, " "Seasons of Love." I think all of those have had adult contemporary success, I don't know if they've made it to Top 40. A couple of songs from Pippin made it to Top 40, but those were covers by Motown artists. "Day by Day" was right off the cast album.
JO: I have to believe your pop influences have helped your music become popular with younger audiences.
SS: I think that's probably true. I write the way I write, but it may be one of the reasons that the music finds an audience ... One of the big surprises to all of us working on Wicked has been the popularity of the Wicked CD with kids, teenagers and younger, which is unusual for a Broadway score these days. I think part of that may have to do with the fact that even though that's really a flat-out Broadway theater score it still contains enough pop influence to be accessible to them.
JO: A lot of people in the theater these days are concerned about the aging of theater audiences and the need to attract young people to the theater.
SS: Someone cited to me a statistic: if someone is taken to the theater to see a show before a certain age ... I don't have the statistic right in front of me and I heard it a while ago, but it's something like if someone goes to the theater before the age of 10, then 75% or 80% of those people will continue to be theatergoers. Whereas if you don't see your first show until after that age, you're much, much less likely to continue going to the theater as an adult. Therefore, for the health of the theater, it's important that at least some of the things being presented have appeal to young audiences. I think for a while that was not happening and now I think people are more aware of that in the commercial theater. There's also been very encouraging growth of quality children's theater, which was of course one of the impetuses for doing Captain Louie again.
JO: What sorts of venues do you see for Captain Louie?
SS: My hope is that every fourth grade in America will do the show, if you really want to know the truth. To me that was the main goal, to create something that could be performed by children and that children would want to perform. And that educators and people who have children's theaters would feel were good for their audiences as well. I suppose beyond that, as I said before, there are many quality children's theater programs that have sprung up around the country and perhaps some of them will feel it's a good show for them to do, but my primary goal is actually to have it performed in the schools. I remember doing shows when I was a kid in grade school and in junior high and it was a lot of fun for me and really began my love of the theater. (Captain Louie) might be another way to help that.
It's really definitely intended to be and constructed as something that can be performed by 3rd and 4th graders and that is well within their ability from a design point of view to contribute to.
JO: Looking at some of the big family shows on Broadway now, they're spectacles like Wicked and Lion King ... is spectacle a prerequisite to attract kids' attention or is content that speaks directly to them enough?
SS: I think you're talking about apples and oranges a little bit. I think if parents are going to take a couple of kids to see a Broadway show and spend three or four hundred bucks, they want their money's worth and therefore they want the kids to have a big experience ... hence something like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Captain Louie as it's appearing in New York is not doing weekday nighttime performances. They're doing all either weekend or daytime performances and bringing in school groups and obviously the cost of tickets is much, much lower (than for a Broadway show), so it's really a whole different story.
I don't think kids care quite so much about spectacle as adults do, frankly. I think kids want to be interested in the story and care about the characters and find something interesting to them. That's what they're looking for. I think in the case of the shows that you cited, like Lion King and Wicked; regardless of the spectacle aspect of it, I think kids would not be taking to them so strongly if they didn't care about the story and the characters, too.
JO: Can you tell us what other projects you're working on now?
SS: The only new thing that I'm working on is that I'm contributing some songs for a project that's going to be done in Denmark, in Copenhagen later this year about Hans Christian Andersen. It's the bicentennial of Andersen's birth and they're doing a musical about him and I'm going to contribute about five songs for that. Other than that, I don't really have any new projects in the works right now. As you may know, we just opened a really excellent revival of The Baker's Wife at Paper Mill. It's just a fantastic production.
JO: Are there any plans for Baker's Wife beyond Paper Mill?
SS: There's now talk about it obviously because it's been so extremely well received. How realistic that is I don't know, that's not my decision to make, that's other people's decisions. I think that the satisfaction of Baker's Wife (for me) is that it is a show that really was not right when we first tried to do it and it was unsuccessful. My co-writer Joe Stein and I couldn't really figure out how to make it work, and now in recent years, thanks a great deal to Trevor Nunn and his guidance for when we retooled the show for England and then continued to work on it further after that ... we seem to have solved it; which is not always the case with shows that don't work initially, so that's been enormously gratifying to Joe and to me. I'm very confident that whether or not this particular production has a further life, I know the show has a big life ahead of it. But, I hope as many people as possible can see this particular production because it's absolutely beautifully designed and directed and performed. I don't think the show can be any better than it is in this production, so it's nice to have one of those.
JO: I know there are a lot of people out there who would love to see the show get another major full-scale mounting: to make it to Broadway finally and be around with us for a long time.
Are you involved with the touring company and Chicago sit-down productions of Wicked?
SS: Of course, with both companies, all of us involved with Wicked were involved with casting the show. For the touring company, Winnie Holzman and I went to Toronto for a week or so right before it opened to work on it and we will do the same with the sit-down company in Chicago, just to make sure that everything is together. To be perfectly honest, the directing staff on Wicked - and I have to say staff because it goes beyond Joe Mantello and Wayne Cilento now, to their assistants who help put these tours together - they're so strong that I really feel that we're in very, very good hands. The tour when I saw it was fantastic and I have every reason to feel that the sit-down in Chicago will also be an excellent production.
JO: I'm sure it will. I live in Chicago and I know you have some great people in the cast.
SS: You're in the best theater town in America, so lucky you!
JO: I'll pass that on to my friends back home. Getting back to the cast, I have to say Rondi Reed (Madame Morrible) is one of my absolute favorites.
SS: She's great, and we have quite a few Chicago people in the cast. Of course Ana Gasteyer, who's playing Elphaba, is originally from Chicago. She's having a bit of a homecoming.
JO: Are there plans for any other sit-down productions?
SS: Not at all! The Chicago thing sort of happened as a surprise. We never intended to do that. And then just the way the business was working out made it seem as if it was a good idea, that there was an audience for it. Of course it remains to be seen if that was the case. I think at this point to have a national tour and two sit-down productions in the States ... that's quite a lot. Obviously, if something happened where it seemed there ought to be yet another company we wouldn't say no to that but there are certainly no plans to do that for the time being.
JO: The production costs must be high enough that no one's going to put together another company without some serious thought before going ahead with it.
SS: When these productions go out, these are not sort of little cut-rate cheapo tours. It is every bit as visually spectacular from a design point of view as the Broadway show. There are certain things that we can't do on tour that we do on Broadway but then there are other things were doing on tour that we don't do on Broadway. So in terms of the spectacle of it it's kind of a wash. These are definitely big budget productions and as you say, you have to be smart about it; you can't be just throwing all these shows out there.
JO: I can tell you there's a lot of excitement about the sit-down production in Chicago.
SS: I'm delighted to hear it and I think it's great that so many Chicago performers themselves are going to a part of it with us.
Captain Louie runs through June 12, 2005 at the York Theatre, 619 Lexington Ave., New York. For ticket information, visit www.yorktheatre.org/louie.htm. The Captain Louie cast recording is available at PSClassics.com. The Baker's Wife runs through May 15, 2005 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. For ticket information, visit www.papermill.org. The national company of Wicked is performing at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater in Chicago through June 12th. The Chicago sit-down cast begins previews at the same venue on June 24th for an open-ended run. Ticket information is available at www.broadwayinchicago.com.
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