By FRANK RIZZO, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
October 17, 2013
It's not as if Stephen Schwartz was just hanging out at his Ridgefield home this fall.
The composer's "to do" list was staggering: Working on lyrics to a new Bollywood animated movie musical, jetting around the world from Toledo to New Zealand to check in on productions of the musical "Wicked" and prepping for a private look-see in December of his Broadway-bound show, "Houdini" which stars Hugh Jackman as the master magician.
But an intriguing little show featuring music from throughout his 40 year-plus career — but presented in a new context — well, that's something in which he could make some time.
"Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook" is a developmental production of Schwartz's stage songs that begins performances Thursday, Oct. 24, at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. The six-actor show, directed by Daniel Goldstein, runs through Nov. 17.
Goodspeed has had an ongoing relationship with the Connecticut composer, having presented a revival of Schwartz's "The Baker's Wife" at the Chester theater in 2002 and then a revival of his "Pippin" at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam in 2006. The composer also received the Goodspeed Award for distinguished achievement in musical theater.
But "Snapshots" is a different type of show, says Schwartz during a luncheon interview at a restaurant in Old Saybrook before swinging by the theater. Conceived by Michael Scheman and David Stern, it has been kicking around in various forms for 15 years but this latest incarnation with a new book by Stern is especially fresh and compelling, says the 65-year-old composer.
The show began years ago as a traditional song cycle of his tunes, but a story-line gradually took over to the point that Schwartz says it is now hard to categorize the entertainment: neither a simple "best-of-Schwartz" revue nor a book musical.
The show, according to the theater's description, centers on Sue and Dan, "a couple who after 20 years of marriage have drifted apart. Together they discover a box of photographs which leads them to relive the memories of their past selves."
But while the melodies meshed with the characters' various situations and emotions along the way, some of the lyrics didn't quite fit.
"So at one point when I had some time, I thought if this new idea is to work I needed to write new lyrics for some of the songs."
For instance, the infectious tune, "No Time At All" in the show "Pippin" is performed by a sage and spunky grandmother urging the title character to celebrate life. In "Snapshots," it now has the point of view of an innocent, hopeful youth looking forward.
"What I like about the project," says Schwartz, "is that I don't know of any comparable show that has done what this one is doing," he says. "Fifty percent of the lyrics are new which may feel strange for some people's ears while others may find intriguing."
For Schwartz, the lyrical re-do was "fun" and a chance to revisit familiar turf. "I didn't know I had written so many coming-of-age songs," he jokes.
"The idea of taking existing music and putting lyrics to that music is not something that is unfamiliar to me," he says, pointing to his collaboration as lyricist with composers such as Alan Menken and Charles Strouse. "Even when [writing both lyrics and music] myself, I'm often starting with music first anyway."
For many audience members, he says, it may be a moot point. "Many of the tunes aren't all that familiar. I don't feel the majority of people are going to come in knowing everything by heart anyway."
All the songs in "Snapshots" are from Schwartz's stage shows — "Wicked," "Pippin," "The Baker's Wife," "Godspell," "Rags," "Personals," "The Magic Show," "Working," "Captain Louie" and "Children of Eden" — with the exception of one tune from the film "Enchanted."
Does Schwartz feel any sense of nostalgia in dealing with the sweep of a decades-long career?
"It's such a strange feeling to start out as the new kid on the block — and to really have been a kid when I started." (Schwartz was 21 when he had his first song on Broadway; 23 when "Godspell" opened in New York; and 24 when "Pippin" became a smash.) "I guess the [elder statesman] feeling is particularly acute for me now because of the recent revivals."
But his current projects leave him little time to reflect too long on his past refrains.
"I'm completely in the midst of 'Houdini' now. We have a draft of the first act and are working on the second. It's my favorite time, actually, working with collaborators, the back and forth brainstorming and finding discoveries. Plus I get to be home a lot."
Schwartz says "Houdini" is a period show, taking place during 1892 to 1926, with most of it taking place 1924 to 26. "In writing the music I am trying to be suggestive of the period and then not. The closest equivalent I can think of is a show like 'Follies.'."
Schwartz says because of star Hugh Jackman's schedule, the show is on a specific trajectory toward a Broadway production. "Hugh can take a year basically to do the show so things are geared around that." There will be reading at the end of the year, then workshops, then an out-of-town tryout with the show positioned for the fall of 2014. "We feel the schedule is tight but reasonable."
Schwartz says he is also excited to be writing lyrics for composer A.R. Rahman, who wrote the music for the Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire." The new animated Dreamworks film, with the working title "Mumbai Musical," takes place in India with a story told from the point of view of a group of monkeys. "I begged my way onto this project," says Oscar winner Schwartz, whose film credits include "Prince of Egypt," "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Enchanted."
Also Schwartz oversaw the recent original cast album of the Broadway revival of "Pippin." A national tour is planned for next year.
Regarding a film version of "Wicked," Schwartz says "a meeting of the minds" is expected later this fall. (Stephen Daldry ("The Reader," "The Hours," "Billy Elliot") has been mentioned as director for the Universal film.)
Meanwhile "Wicked" on Broadway will celebrate its 10th anniversary next week — and more than 4,000 performances. Schwartz says he had no idea that the musical would become such a phenomenon. "Every now and then something happens and a show transcends itself and there's absolutely no way of predicting it — and certainly no way of achieving it. We had no idea. It wasn't until about a year in we started to realize that something was going on that was bigger than any of us."
In otjer projects Schwartz says he is especially proud of a song "Testimony" he wrote last year for the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus for Sdan Sabage's "It Gets Better" project, to combat gay youth suicide. "I love choral music and I wanted to do something around the project. I'm a huge Dan Savage admirer. I've written three fan letters in my entire life and two of them have been to him. He's an amazing person
"I didn't want to write a song where they just sing, 'It gets better' or use the words 'gay' or 'bullying' so I read through the interviews [of gay teens] and found phrases and things various people said and it gave me the idea to write a piece that begins with people in great distress — basically thinking about killing themselves — and then have those voices build to a cacophony and then have the whole chorus come in. It was so moving."
SNAPSHOTS: A MUSICAL SCRAPBOOK plays Oct. 24 to Nov. 17 at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. and subsequent Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $48.50. Information: 860-873-8668 and www.goodspeed.org.
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant