August 17, 2019

Stephen Schwartz Is Still ‘Defying Gravity’

Honoree Stephen Schwartz, (from left) Gerald Sternbach, Isaiah Johnson, Idina Menzel, Liz Callaway, Megan Hilty, Angel Blue, Jordan Fisher and Andrea Martin (hidden) perform onstage at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ Spring Celebration on May 16, at The Wallis. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

What does it mean to be a parent, a good friend, or to stand up for what’s right? 

For more than four decades, award-winning musical theater composer Stephen Schwartz has been asking and answering these questions. 

From “The Prince of Egypt” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “Pippin,” “Children of Eden” and “Wicked,” Schwartz’s work transcends time because it remains relevant.

“I think that I care, not so much about religion as I do morality and ethics and what is our responsibility as human beings to each other and to our world,” Schwartz, 71, told the Journal. “These are things I’m not alone in being concerned with and thinking about, and I do deal with that in a lot of my work. Some of it is more overtly based on religious stories like ‘Godspell,’ ‘Children of Eden’ and ‘The Prince of Egypt’ and that sort of thing. But if you look at ‘Wicked’ and you look at ‘Hunchback,’ you know these themes go throughout those stories, as well.”

He added that his songs continue to resonate with him, too, as time goes on. “I feel that [with] the final song from ‘Children of Eden’ called ‘In the Beginning,’ which is basically about that every day we can wake up and change how we are living our lives. The thing that resonates with me also, particularly now, is in ‘Godspell,’ —maybe the most famous biblical precept: Always treat others the way you’d want them to treat you, and I see very little of that happening these days. I think if everybody really did nothing but that in terms of how they behaved, just treat others the way they want to be treated, I think we would have a better world.”

Over the course of 40 years, the multiple Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe winner’s compositions have had a profound impact on people. Many write to Schwartz and tell him so. 

 “I think that I care, not so much about religion as I do morality and ethics and what is our responsibility as human beings to each other and to our world. I do deal with that in a lot of my work.”

— Stephen Schwartz

“I save all of these, of course,” Schwartz said. “When one knows that some of one’s work has resonated with other people and continues to do so, that’s the most gratifying feeling there can be.” 

He cited one example from the 1970s. After a couple saw “Pippin,” they wrote and thanked him, saying the show saved their marriage. Schwartz also recalled the time a woman told him that she had been in an abusive marriage for several years and was afraid to leave.

“Then she heard the song ‘Defying Gravity’ [from ‘Wicked’] and that triggered something for her and she took her kids and left. [She] moved to another state and lived with her cousin for a while, got a job and changed her life.” 

Stephen Schwartz; Photo courtesy of The Wallis.

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills celebrated Schwartz, his work and his impact on May 16 when his musical theater family highlighted some of his achievements. Idina Menzel (“Wicked”), Liz Callaway (“Anastasia”), Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen”) were just some of the stars who paid tribute to their mentor.

Rachel Fine, the Wallis’ executive director, said choosing Schwartz as this year’s honoree was easy. “He has mentored dozens of emerging musical theater artists, and every year he and ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) do a musical theater workshop in our space,” she said. “The Wallis feels deeply indebted to him. These workshops are free and open to the public. [He’s] someone who has an incredible heart and is deeply dedicated to building the next generation of musical theater artists. He is a rare human being. He is a true mensch.” 

Not one to rest on his laurels, Schwartz is busy adapting three of his projects into different mediums. He is preparing “Hunchback” with his friend and colleague Alan Menken for a Disney live-action film, re-creating “The Prince of Egypt” for the stage and developing “Wicked” into a live-action film.

Schwartz said he’s eager to jump back into the Middle Eastern musical genre for “The Prince of Egypt” and ready to reformat a 90-piece orchestra so it can fit in the pit. He’s creating 10 new songs and adding new characters, which he said will retain the same framework as the original DreamWorks film, but he is excited to “give it a lot more depth.”

When it comes to adapting “Wicked,” he said, “We can make a really good and exciting movie that people who have never seen the show or [don’t] know anything about it can enjoy. [With] every new project, you never know whether you’re going to succeed or not; you just do the best you can. I think if one feels a lot of pressure undertaking these sorts of things, this isn’t the business to be in.”