October 20, 2018

Music Man

If you’re of a certain vintage, the lyrics to “Day by Day,” the memorable song from the legendary pop musical “Godspell,” come fairly easily to mind — even 30 years after the show’s debut. But there is a strange and sweet irony to the fact that the songwriter of that show, in which the main character is Jesus, is a New York-born Jew. Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics to “Godspell” when he was only 23, went on in the next few years to create the music for “Pippin,” directed by Bob Fosse, followed by “The Magic Show” — three musicals that became the longest-running hits of the 1970s in New York.

Schwartz, still boyish-looking at 49, sat on a small stage in the cozy cabaret-like Cinegrill in Hollywood one evening recently and bantered good-naturedly about the highs and lows of his career in front of an appreciative crowd of 150. The event, sponsored by the Outreach Committee of the Jewish Federation’s United Jewish Fund Entertainment Division, featured several singers performing numbers from Schwartz’s Broadway shows (including his adaptation of Studs Terkel’s “Working” and “The Baker’s Wife”), as well as the biblical-themed “Children of Eden,” and songs from two Disney-animated features (“Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,”) for which Schwartz wrote lyrics (Alan Menken wrote the music). Schwartz received Academy Awards for best score and for best song (“Colors of the Wind”) for “Pocahontas.”

“I owe my career to Stephen Schwartz,” announced Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the principals of DreamWorks SKG, from the stage, recalling how hearing Schwartz’s “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin” inspired him to seek his “corner of the sky” years ago. Schwartz has written the music and lyrics to DreamWorks’ first animated feature, “Prince of Egypt,” scheduled for release in November 1998. His songs will also be featured on ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” live-action special “Geppetto,” also due next year.

Despite the biblical and spiritual themes in several of his past and present works, Schwartz said in a separate interview that he had a pretty secular upbringing. One much-told story in his family is that when Stephen was in the first grade and had to recite “The Pledge of Allegiance,” he was puzzled by the phrase, “one nation, indivisible, under God…”

“I had never heard the term, God. I thought I was talking about the sky,” he said.

But his family celebrated certain Jewish holidays, and Schwartz himself decided in his teens to take classes at the synagogue and was confirmed. Although he says he’s still “not a big fan of organized religion,” Schwartz mused about how, from “Godspell” to the upcoming “Prince of Egypt,” biblical themes have crept into his work. “When one deals with the Bible for storytelling purposes, it’s not really about religion. It’s really about human stories,” he said. “Godspell” wasn’t so much about Jesus as about the “transformative effect” his teachings had on society, Schwartz said. “The Prince of Egypt” tells the tale of the relationship between Moses and his Egyptian boyhood “brother” Ramses, with whom he grew up in Pharoah’s court, only to become adversaries later on. “The Children of Eden” is loosely based on Genesis.

“Basically, it’s about dysfunctional families and the mistakes one generation passed on to the next,” Schwartz said. Biblical themes make great fodder for theater because they deal with big, dramatic issues, he added.

Schwartz’s own thoughts on life are expressed in his just-released first solo CD, “Reluctant Pilgrim” (Midder Music). The introspective album, with 11 original songs, includes a humorous reflection on looking for love in New York City, memories of a friend who died of AIDS and a philosophical look back at a long marriage.

The album came about, he told the audience during an informal Q&A with film and TV producer Craig Zadan, when a friend challenged him, “Why don’t you have the guts to write about your own life and stop hiding behind Indian princesses and hunchbacks?”

“It was scary at first,” he admitted. “It’s much easier to write about characters.” But it was also exhilarating to find material in his own life, his friends, his wife of 28 years and two grown children. The album “represents a lot of who I am,” he said.

The musical evening was chaired by Scott Orlin, who sang “Music to Do” from “Pippin.” The aim, said Roxann Smith, director of the UJF Entertainment Division, is to do similar outreach events at least once a year as part of the division’s overall push to attract younger donors. The strategy appears to be working, Smith added. Three hundred new gifts and about $700,000 in additional contributions have poured into the division in the past three years.

“I owe my career to Stephen Schwartz”(right), announced Jeffrey Katzenberg (left), one of the principals of DreamWorks SKG