Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz discussed his offbeat approach to his work — everything from his self-described “artistic ADD” to the scuba-diving experience that resulted in his idea for the musical “Wicked” — before a crowd of 125 students at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea on Monday.
Aspiring composer Bram Wayman ’09 said he was so inspired by Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics to hit shows including “Children of Eden,” “Pippin'” and “Godspell,” that he decided not to abandon a chorale he had been composing.
“An hour and a half ago, I had a project that I was going to dump, but after hearing him talk, I’m not going to dump it — I’m just going to go out and do it,” Wayman said. “It was just so amazing to see some guy who has really done it, and has been through what I’m going through now.”
Schwartz, known for writing scores for plays that mix traditionally uncombined genres and feature symbolic figures such as Jesus, Moses and the Wicked Witch of the West, spent much of the tea discussing his path to Broadway and the creative process behind his productions. He said that before he became an Grammy-winning composer, he was just a young boy with a passion.
“Musical ability … was something that I was fortunate enough to inherit, and so at an early age I was quite interested in music,” he said. “When I was about six years old, my parents lived next door to someone who was a composer, and he was working on an adaptation of a concept album that was being transformed into a Broadway musical, and so I used to hear him play songs, and then I would go over to the piano and try to pick them out. Because of this, I was always focused on musical theaters and used to write little shows and belabor neighborhood kids to play in them.”
Schwartz said his “trajectory” in life had always been to become a composer, but he tries to achieve variety in the types of musical projects he undertakes. He said his desire to try many different compositional niches is markedly different from the philosophy of his longtime friend, Disney composer Alan Mencken, with whom he co-wrote the soundtrack for the animated movie “Pocahontas.”
“Alan is quite different from me in that he feels like once you find your niche, you should stay there and explore it,” Schwartz said. “I have a sort of artistic ADD, a very short attention span. Once I do something, I feel like I need to do something else.”
But in the case of Schwartz’s first hit, “Pippin’,” a repeat was necessary. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, years before he composed the music for the Broadway show, he wrote an alternative version of the original play called “Pippin’ Pippin'” after being inspired by a history textbook passage about Charlemagne. Schwartz said he was similarly inspired to adapt “Wicked” into a musical after a friend accompanying him on a snorkeling trip recommended the original book, which is told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West.
“I had one of these sort of epiphanies; a bell in the back of my head said, ‘This is for you, get this,'” Schwartz said.
Several students said they particularly enjoyed the tea because they have performed Schwartz’s music for student productions in the past.
“I’ve played in a number of his shows before, and so it’s great to a put a face to what you’re playing,” Rich Remberg MUS ’08 said.
Others said they enjoyed hearing about the thinking process behind the composition of hit songs such as “For Good” and “Colors of the Wind.”
“I really liked when he talked about the compositional process, his discussion of how he first writes the title for the song and really tries to make his own musical world centered around what he’s trying to say,” Stephen Hopkins ’06 said.
Schwartz, who said he is most proud of his work on the show “Children of Eden,” said he believes there is a negative atmosphere within the American theater industry.
“I’m proud of being as persistent as I have been, and of not allowing myself to get discouraged and deflected and defeated,” he said. “I’ve had very, very discouraging things happen over the course of 30 years while I’ve been working, and many times I’ve been tempted to say nothing’s worth all this. But like a weeble, I wobbled but I didn’t fall down.”
Schwartz said he plans to work on operas and instrumental pieces in the near future.