When I opened “Defying Gravity,” the fantastic book by Carol de Giere, I felt like a child at Christmas. When I was offered the chance to review “The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked” by Ms. de Giere, I knew the book would be right up my alley right away. To start with, I have have sung the lead roles for “Godspell” and “Pippin,” giving me an appreciation and intimate knowledge already of the remarkable lyricist and composer.
I still remember when I was a teenager being mesmerized by Ben Vereen’s thrilling performances on Broadway, while working his magic as “Pippin’s” original leading player. I still remember after a matinee performance standing at the stage door while a group of high school aspiring thespians broke out into a impromptu and joyous “Magic to Do” rendition. I have witnessed the magic being spread to younger and new generations of musical theater fans, with Chicagoans turning “Wicked,” Schwartz’ latest blockbuster into the Windy City’s longest running Broadway production in Chicago history.
The comprehensive and deluxe soft cover book by Carol de Giere delves into this musical genius’ creative process. For anyone who has an interest in musical theater, her book is a must read. “Defying Gravity,” compiled from interviews, which were mostly first hand and conducted from 2000-2008, the book defies conventional backstage narrative and showbiz biographies boundaries. The reader is actually placed into a conversation one-on-one with Schwartz, who has had not only numerous commercial successes but outright failures and creative disappointments as well.
While reading the book, one starts to feel a sense of awe as Ms. de Giere tries pinpointing a memorable lyric’s exact inspiration, or details the prestige of joining the hallowed sanctum from being invited to a Wicked recording session, or honor of gaining insight into the artistic mindset’s inner workings. Schwartz comes off as an amiable and willing subject. The only condition for the book was that it focus on his professional and not personal life. Anyone who knows anything about theater art’s consuming aspect of course knows that very often the professional and personal very much overlap. We see indeed how Schwartz’ interpersonal relationships with colleagues, friends and family have inspired and influenced his work, which in turned has touched millions of Schwartz’ fans.
As a child Stephen Schwartz grew up as a musical prodigy. He seemed instinctively to know right from the start that he would put his own stamp on America’s musical theater. Stephen was born into a New York, upper middle class family. His father was tone deaf, but mother was a lover of music. The “A Focus Childhood” chapter reveals that both of Schwartz’ parents were encouraging and very supportive of their son’s aspirations. Schwartz has never worked outside of the arts. He secured a job early on with RCA, paving the way to produce the albums of his own show’s.
The early musical training of Schwartz did include classical composers like Bartok, Hindemith, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Beethoven and Bach. However Schwartz was also heavily influenced by contemporary popular composers like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Laura Nyro. This resulted in a very distinctive synthesis, combining traditional musical theater, pop, rock and classic. It has earned Schwartz almost as many detractors as fans. In 1971 Schwartz collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, his childhood inspiration, on lyrics for “Mass” before becoming a lyricist and composer, a title that only a select versatile and gifted few enjoy in musical theater.
With his first turn at bat as a professional, Schwartz hit gold. His show “Godspell” took New Testament parables and set them to song inside a clown community. It put the twenty three year old composer on musical theater’s map. Early seeds were sown for “Pippin,” dating back to 1967 when Schwartz scored a collegiate musical whose original title was “Pippin, Pippin.” Judging from the program excerpts, essays and photos, the early effort was completely different than what emerged finally in 1972 on Broadway. Schwartz was pitted against Bob Fosse, veteran Choreographer and Director, with each having their own distinct and individual vision for the show.
For all of the acclaimed razzle and dazzle from Fosse, it’s easy sympathizing with the young composer as he watches his songs be completely reshaped by Fosse with little interest in receiving any input from Schwartz. Clashing egos and creative differences occurred so frequently that Schwartz was actually banned by Fosse from attending rehearsals. Adding to the insult, many from the mainstream media wrote scathing comments and dismissed the contributions of Schwartz to “Pippin,” calling them everything from feeble and bland to awkward and amateurish. These judgments would continue haunting Schwartz throughout his career, despite the theater-going public’s overwhelming response that continued to contradict the so-called professionals. In July 2008, as noted in the book, “Wicked” surpassed “The Magic Show” and “Pippin” on the long running charts. All three of Schwartz’ shows have had more than 1,900 performances. In Broadway history, Stephen Schwartz is the only composer to have three different shows reach this milestone.
“Defying Gravity” not only takes us behind the scenes on these blockbusters, but also gives us insight into the disappointments coming from all of the missed opportunities. The long string of flop shows, including “Rags,” “Working,” “The Baker’s Wife,” and “Children of Eden’s” London production, all chipped away from the once confident and brash persona that at the same time is fragile and disarmingly sensitive. However even the failures contained glimpses of brilliance. Schwartz was able to persevere and returned to improve and re-work his flops as well as “Pippin” and other hits. Eventually Schwartz’ Hollywood work earned him an Oscar for his “Pocahontas” lyrics for the animated film from Disney. However the Tony Award continues to evade him, despite “Wicked” and its monumental success.
Carole de Giere not only provides a thought provoking and carefully researched account of Stephen Schwartz, but also assimilates and organizes her sources into a tome that is visually appealing and exceptionally readable. The chapters are annotated nicely, along with “creativity notes” that capture Schwartz and collaborator quotes that shed additional light on his works. Black and white photographs inform both onstage results and backstage processes. The book is also studded with original music sheets, lyrics and working notes, providing a rich and full picture of the art making process. “Defying Gravity” certainly has its place of pride in my theater book collection. Hopefully it will in yours as well. For additional information, visit stephenschwartz.com and defyinggravity.com.