Two themes run repeatedly through the songs of Stephen Schwartz. One is magic, the other is family.

Stephen Schwartz has continually, and pointedly, written about parent-child relationships. Think about Pippin and his father, Charlemagne, in Pippin. Geppetto and his puppet-son, Pinocchio, in the TV musical "Geppetto." Judge Frollo, the surrogate father of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

That's not all. There's also Pocahontas and her father in the film, "Pocahontas." The Biblical families in Children of Eden, where we see Adam and Eve trying to deal with Cain and Abel, Noah trying to keep his family together and Moses coping with his foster parents. And there's the song "Fathers and Sons" in Working.

Magic has interested him ever since he was a kid. His first show, Pippin, opened with the song "Magic To Do" and another of his early hits was all about the profession: The Magic Show. Schwartz also wrote a song called "Prestidigitation," about the art of magic, in the 1970s and included it on his solo CD, "The Reluctant Pilgrim." A new musical, using older Schwartz songs, capitalizes on Schwartz's enchantment with things magical. Dennis Bush, a writer and part-time magician, and Bruce Curless, head of Puttin' On the Ritz Theater in Oaklyn, New Jersey, created The Magick In the Music of Stephen Schwartz and gave it a 2001 premiere, with the composer in attendance.

"When I was in college at Carnegie Mellon," reveals the boyish-looking, 54-year-old Schwartz, "I wrote the opening scene of Pippin to be a magic trick, showing the Player pulling our scenery out of his hand. So magic was on my mind when I started my career in theater."

Schwartz still lives near New York City, not far from where he was born, and he keeps an apartment in Manhattan, but he has a distinctly California look. Darkly suntanned, he wears white sneakers even when he's performing. Returning to his discussion of magic, Schwartz says "I created a show where I could work with a great illusionist, Doug Henning -- The Magic Show -- but was disappointed when I saw the details of how the illusions worked. I had to ask him to stop explaining the tricks to me."

"My next show, Wicked, is about the Wicked Witch of the West, so it too will contain illusions," reveals the composer. Wicked had a reading in December of 2001 with Kristin Chenoweth playing Glinda the Good Witch and Idina Menzel portraying her sister, Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. So, here in one show, Schwartz will use magic and a troubling family relationship. Chenoweth tells us that she thinks the show has a great score. The musical's debut will be in San Francisco in the spring of 2003, and a Halloween Broadway opening is anticipated.

Speaking of magic and family, in the 1980s, Stephen bought a magic book for his son, Scott, who developed a small career as an illusionist during his teen years. "We even made shirts for him that said `Great Scott,'" relates Stephen. Scott is now a director (3hree, Jane Eyre, tick...tick...Boom!, Bat Boy.)

When asked about his preoccupation with father-and-son relationships, Schwartz isn't as quick with an answer. "Writers always try to work out their issues," says the composer-lyricist "and I wish I could tell you a dramatic story about my terrible childhood. But I can't. I had a happy, suburban middle-class upbringing on Long Island. And my wife and I have good relationships with our children. I've never talked much about my private life." But, since he writes about the subject so often -- and since he rarely talks about it -- I pressed him for more. Is there a secret buried somewhere?

Schwartz admits there was a time early in his career when success distorted his values. "It's almost impossible to avoid that," he says, "because it feels good. You start to see yourself through other people's eyes, and you lose track of your own goals." He wrote a song ("Face of a Stranger") that expresses his feelings:
"I rose to my present position /
And I gained some celebrity /
Now I bask in their praise and conditional love /
But who do they see? /
The face of a stranger who can't even say who he is anymore..."

Returning to his childhood, Schwartz says: "My parents loved music, and they put a record player in my play pen. They often played opera records, and when I was very young I used to say: `I want to hear the high lady.' When I started going to school, they gave me a clock radio, and I'd wake in the morning to WQXR [New York's classical station]."

Schwartz's father was an entrepreneur who started several small businesses, and his mother was a Head Start teacher in the public school system. Stephen was born March 6, 1948. He has a younger sister and together they would stage musical shows for their neighbors, starting when he was six or seven. "I browbeat neighborhood kids to play in them, then I charged their parents admission to see them." One of Stephen's shows was High Dog, about a dog and his family, for which he wrote a lullaby which he sang for me.

At age seven he started piano lessons, and during his high school years he studied piano and composition at New York's Juilliard School of Music. His interest was in the classics until two things happened. WQXR played Bernstein's Overture to Candide, and Stephen really liked the piece. And then his parents took him to see Shinbone Alley, which had music written by the Schwartzes' next-door neighbor, George Kleinsinger. After that, Stephen was in love with theatrical musicals.

He became a drama major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There he met Ron Strauss, and together they wrote the student shows for three years. Schwartz says he was influenced by the usual Broadway giants: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, but also by the popular folk acts of his college years: The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and singers like Odetta, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, James Taylor, Paul Simon, The Mamas and the Papas.

In his junior year. Schwartz and Strauss wrote the musical that later became Pippin. "We were really into the film, `A Lion in Winter,' and we thought we'd make sort of a musical version of that story, full of court intrigue. Ron read in a history textbook about the son of Charlemagne, and we decided to add that to the `Lion in Winter' idea. That became Pippin Pippin -- what they called it at first. "We just liked the sound of his name," says Schwartz, "but we shortened the title very early in the process."

After graduation in 1968 he moved to New York and started shopping the show to producers. No one was interested. Then one of the producers who'd passed on Pippin came back to Stephen with an alternative proposition: adding music to a small play at the Cafe La Mama called Godspell. He asked Stephen to do the job in 1971.

Stephen acquired an agent, Shirley Bernstein, who was the older sister of Leonard Bernstein. Lenny agreed to write a Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, for September of 1971. When he started looking for a lyricist, Shirley brought the two men together. The two of them shared an interest in making biblical liturgy contemporaneous. Stephen and Lenny became personal friends, closing the circle that began when Schwartz heard Candide on WQXR as a schoolboy.

"I was 23 years old and didn't have much experience. It was a mammoth, major, gigantic piece which was to debut in three months time, and Lenny had nothing done. There were all these little shreds and starts of pieces, and two lines here, and a bit of a tune there, and three months to go to do a piece with 200 singers and dancers. Needless to say, Lenny was relatively panicky at that point. I wrote lyrics to music that he had and reworked lyrics that he had written."

Some of the words haven't aged well -- phrases like "I'm so freaky-minded" and "It's easy to criticize and beat my jive / But hard to deny how neatly I survive." Others are clever and to the point, like "They can fashion a rebuttal that's as subtle as a sword / But they're never gonna scuttle the Word of the Lord." Schwartz says of his lyrics for Mass: "If I were asked to do it now, I would do a far better job than I did. There are lots and lots of flaws I see in my work."

Bernstein was 52 and Schwartz only 23, but they bonded. They shared a quest for some form of spirit or life-giver they could believe in. Both of them Jewish, they were open to other religious ideas, yet they questioned the relevancy of all religion. While Schwartz didn't formally worship God, he almost worshiped Bernstein and followed him wherever he could. "Once we went to Disney World together, and I saw something interesting. He complained that people wouldn't leave him alone, and he wanted privacy. But when people didn't make a fuss about him, he got upset. He began wearing ostentatious clothing to attract attention again."

The successes of Godspell and Mass led, finally, to the Broadway production of Pippin in 1972, directed by Bob Fosse. So Pippin wasn't the first Schwartz show to open, but it was the first show he wrote that made it to Broadway.

Two years later came The Magic Show, and for awhile Schwartz had three musicals running simultaneously in New York. Then he wrote words and music for The Baker's Wife, a fable painted in soft, intimate tones far removed from the cockiness of Pippin. It never opened in New York but has become a cult classic, thanks to an abridged recording by original cast members Patti LuPone and Paul Sorvino and a later album recorded by a London cast.

Schwartz's next project was his 1978 musical version of Studs Terkel's Working, for which he wrote some of the songs and which he directed. His wife, Carole, appeared in the role of a supermarket checker and had a brief singing part, preserved on a video of the PBS production of the musical, which Stephen also directed. In 1986 Schwartz provided the lyrics to Charles Strouse's music for Rags, which is basically an American sequel to Fiddler on the Roof.

In the 1990s Schwartz's career shifted to Hollywood, where he filled a void left by the death of lyricist Howard Ashman and wrote the words for the animated films "Pocohantas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Prince of Egypt" and "Gepetto." In 1998, however, he premiered Children of Eden, for which he wrote lyrics and music with a book by John Caird.

The main difference Schwartz sees between writing for stage and film is that for theater he needs to write a lot more songs. "A musical will have anywhere from 15 to 42 songs, as in Children of Eden. My animated feature with the most songs is 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' with eight. Therefore, there's a difference in the function of the songs. In films you cannot have a character just stand still and sing. The most effective moment in a Broadway musical is the leading character standing alone on stage, and you hit him or her with three spotlights, and they sing for about five minutes, and the house comes down. You cannot do that on film. There, something has to be moving, constantly, visually. You have to do lots of things to compensate for the fact that someone's just singing, basically, the same emotion over and over again. I have this joke which I've often told: If you're going to write a ballad for an animated feature, the character better be going over a waterfall in a canoe.
"But the similarity is that you are trying to tell a story through the use of song, furthering the plot, illuminating character, revealing emotion. That's the same whether you're doing a stage musical, or an animated feature or a television musical."

In his first summer out of college, Stephen directed at a stock theater in New Hampshire and met Carole Prandis, who was playing Gladys Bump in Pal Joey. They married in 1969.

Skip ahead 33 years. Stephen's parents are still alive and well on Long Island. Stephen and Carole are still married, and they have two kids in their 20's. Their son, Scott, is a theater director, and their daughter, Jessica, just graduated University of Michigan's art school and is working in photographic art. When I asked whether he wanted his children to go into the arts, Stephen answered: "You wish their passion lay somewhere else, because it's a hard profession. But I believe in follow-your-bliss, so I wouldn't do anything to stop them."

Despite all these reasons for happiness, the lyrics of Schwartz's personal songs sometimes reveal sadness and anger. Where does this darkness come from? "Life has brought me some pain and disappointment," he says. "Friends disappoint you. They break their promises. They let you down. People change. Life is a continual struggle."

One of his Reluctant Pilgrim songs observes a long-time couple: "She doesn't say: 'Why don't you love me like you used to?' He doesn't ask: 'Why can't you be the one I need?' He doesn't say: 'When did you turn into my jailer?' She doesn't ask: 'When did you turn into a ghost?'...Turn down the bed for one more night of separate dreaming."

Is this Stephen's observation of his friends? Does it reflect a period in his own life? The closest Stephen comes to a personal answer is when he writes, in the first person, in the song "So Far:"
"Me with my slightly worn-out rebel song /
Sometimes I look in your eyes /
I see the pain in the corners.../
I see new lines on your face
Some of them I know I put there."

At the end of that song, the narrator remains optimistic: "We're here so far / Still holdin' tight /...Beat-up but warm, like my old guitar." (The guitar on which he played Weavers' songs in the 1960s?)

A new album of Schwartz songs sung by the composer was released in November 2001. It seems to be less an exploration of his personal thoughts and more a showcase for him as a performer. "Uncharted Territory" includes songs where Schwartz wrote the words to music by Alan Menken and John Bucchino, and tunes by Schwartz to the lyrics of others: Steven Lutvak, Lindy Robbins and Mary Fahl.

Keep in mind what Schwartz told me about his happy childhood as we listen to his lyric about how parents "left traps that held me fast," and how "I have blamed them, I have fought them." This song, "Forgiveness' Embrace," is a touching anthem with an inspirational ending. Its poetic power is even more impressive when you realize that it came from empathetic observation rather than personal experience.

Schwartz discloses that it was written for Cass Morgan, one of the original writers and performers in Pump Boys and Dinettes, who also played Eve and Mama Noah in Schwartz's Children of Eden. "She has one of my favorite singing voices, so I was delighted when she asked me to contribute the final song for her new theater piece. In order to write it, I went over to Cass' house and sort of interviewed her for a couple of hours. When I began writing, I was able to find in the notes I had taken an idea for a song that would both work for Cass and also be something I could sing personally myself.

"I enjoyed this new writing process so much that when two other singers approached me to write songs for them, I used it again. I found this new way to approach writing a song a lot of fun and a way of going down some musical roads I might otherwise not have taken."

So who is Schwartz? Family man? Magician? Certainly a song writer in the active middle of his career.

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Key Subjects: 
Stephen Schwartz, Children of Eden, Godspell, The Magic Show
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
July 2002
Subtitle: 
Composer/Lyricist Stephen Schwartz at Mid-Career