News Column

'Wicked' puts tunesmith back on top

July 6, 2013

YellowBrix

July 06--"Wicked" composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz is not the first artist whose experience refutes F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that "There are no second acts in American lives." But he's certainly one of the most prominent examples.

Indeed, Schwartz, 65, is reveling in a hugely successful third act that began with the premiere of his blockbuster "Wicked" in October 2003 and is continuing with the smash revival of his 1972 hit "Pippin," which won this year's Tony for best musical revival.

"Wicked," whose original production is still packing Broadway's Gershwin Theatre, returns for its fourth Houston engagement Wednesday at Hobby Center. Given the show's enormous success and many fans, it now seems the most natural thing in the world that Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, inventing a revisionist backstory for the good and bad witches of Oz, would become a musical.

But turning the book into a musical was Schwartz's idea.

He was vacationing in Hawaii in 1996 with fellow composer and friend John Bucchino and singer Holly Near, when she mentioned she was reading Maguire's book -- "The Wizard of Oz" retold from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West.

"The premise instantly struck me as a great idea for a musical," Schwartz says. "Maybe because I write musicals and immediately wanted to write this one. It was instinctive and personal to me, not reasoned out. I contacted my agent and asked him to find out who had the rights."

He discovered they had been snapped up by Universal Pictures, where producer Marc Platt was beginning to develop it as a movie. Schwartz arranged to meet with Platt and argued that "Wicked" should be a Broadway musical. Platt immediately saw its potential for the form and, going one better, said he'd always wanted to be involved with a Broadway musical -- becoming the show's lead producer.

With seven productions playing worldwide, "Wicked" has amassed more than $2.9 billion in ticket sales and been seen by more than 36 million people. All this for a show that drew a mixed critical reception at its premiere and didn't even win the best musical Tony in its season. That honor, along with best score and best book, went to the cheeky, off-Broadway-born puppet musical "Avenue Q."

Exactly what accounts for the phenomenal success of "Wicked"?

Some point to the pre-sold appeal of the Oz setting and characters -- but many other Oz variants have not done half so well. Much has been written about the show's impact on teenage girls, who form a particularly loyal core audience, eager to return time and again. Yet it's just as clear that "Wicked" has a range of fans, crossing all demographic categories.

"I think, in the end, it's the central character of Elphaba, more than anything else," Schwartz says. "The identification people feel with her -- someone who perceives herself as an outcast, who does not fit in but longs to fit in. And faced with the choice of how much to surrender to achieve that, shows great integrity at great cost to herself. She's someone previously presented as a villain, who reveals this heroic aspect. As David Stone (one of the show's producers) has said, quite pithily, 'We all have that green girl inside us.' "

Career triumphs

"Wicked" brought Schwartz back to Broadway for the first time since his short-lived "Rags" in 1986, when he'd sworn he would never work in the commercial Broadway milieu again.

Act 1 of Schwartz's career was a study in contradictions. The newcomer arrived with a splash in the early '70s with "Godspell," "Pippin" and "The Magic Show." But three successive hits failed to gain much critical support for Schwartz's work. Schwartz's art advanced considerably with his next three shows, all more admired by connoisseurs than his early hits. Yet "The Baker's Wife" closed out of town, while "Working" and "Rags" had but brief Broadway lives. For "Rags," Schwartz had written lyrics to Charles Strouse's music -- and given that the operatic show about immigrants in early 20th-century New York boasts arguably the finest work by either, the disheartened Schwartz's vow not to work on Broadway again is understandable.

Schwartz's Act 2 found him seeking other outlets for his talent -- unsuccessfully with the pageantlike "Children of Eden," which ran briefly in London in 1991. But later that decade, he found new success as lyricist for the animated films "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Prince of Egypt," winning three Oscars in the bargain.

Was it his Hollywood success that encouraged him to brave Broadway with "Wicked"? Not so much that, he says, as simply the "absolute conviction that 'Wicked' belonged there."

Who could argue? "Wicked" raised the curtain on Schwartz's Act 3 with the greatest triumph of his career. In the decade since, he has diversified, writing songs for a Danish musical about Hans Christian Andersen, returning to Hollywood to write lyrics for the live-action Disney musical "Enchanted" and even composing his first opera, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," which premiered at Santa Barbara Opera in 2009.

When Schwartz says the success of "Wicked" has brought more satisfaction than anything else in his career, you'd assume that was because it's his biggest hit ever and his first on Broadway since the '70s. But that's not quite it.

"It may seem a weird analogy," he says, "but I think of what tennis player Evonne Goolagong said the second time she won Wimbledon, 11 years after her first win. She said her second win was much more meaningful because she was a kid the first time and had no perspective. When I started, I didn't have any perspective on how the business worked and what was at stake. By the time I did 'Wicked,' I had matured as a writer and as a collaborator, with a greater understanding of how people work together on a show and greater satisfaction in the team effort to bring something to fruition. The whole experience is richer now."

He also says his level of satisfaction has nothing to do with his job description -- whether he's composer, lyricist (or both), director or one of several contributing songwriters.

"It's always about the project itself," he says, "What's the right mix of people to do it and how close the project comes to realizing your goals. You always start with this ideal picture in your head. You never actually achieve it. But the closer you come, the greater the satisfaction."

"Wicked," Schwartz admits, comes pretty close to that unattainable ideal.

Part of the challenge and thrill was devising an alternate perspective on the fantasy world created by L. Frank Baum. That world already had been exhaustively explored in Baum's 14 Oz books and the 26 by other authors that continued the original series, after Baum's death in 1919.

"Baum created a world that is magical and fantastical, that we would all love to visit," Schwartz says. "But which also is clearly a metaphor for our own world. That combination of 'Gee, I wish I could go there!' and the familiarity of aspects we already recognize is so potent. It's why so many writers, directors and other artists want to step into those pages, travel in that world and find their own twists and permutations."

Looking to the future

With director Diane Paulus' cirque-themed revival of "Pippin" selling out, Schwartz has another major Broadway hit joining "Wicked" as it approaches its 10th anniversary this fall.

"I cannot emphasize enough how exciting this is for me, what a joy. Diane has found a way to do 'Pippin' in the most theatrical way you could see anywhere -- but also found its humor and emotion. She's brought out its heart, given it depth as well as dazzle, to an extent that eluded even the original Bob Fosse production -- which is why I love this version so much."

The "Pippin" revival is that rare case of a big hit returning as an even bigger one. Yet even Schwartz's short-lived shows have found new life in regional and international productions. An inveterate re-writer, along with his collaborators on each project, he's continued refining such shows as "The Baker's Wife," "Rags" and "Working" through various permutations over the years.

The one he'd most like to see get a shot at Broadway is "Children of Eden," which uses the stories in Genesis to examine the eternal father-son conflict: God to Adam, Adam to Cain and Abel, Noah to his sons.

"I have strong personal feelings about (the show). It gets produced a lot around the country, but because of the size and economic reasons, getting a full-scale, Equity-level production has proved difficult."

Schwartz's biggest challenge since "Wicked" was writing his first opera, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," based on director Bryan Forbes' acclaimed 1964 British film about an unbalanced medium.

"Obviously, it was enormously challenging," he says of his operatic composing debut. "I had to learn a great deal about form, specific voices, so many things. I felt good about the finished product when it premiered in California at Santa Barbara Opera. It was fairly well received locally, which led to its production at New York City Opera. Then it became a strange experience because, when it came to NYCO, I got clobbered by the critics -- as tends to happen to me in New York. With a piece of popular theater, you can overcome that. With an opera, it stopped the trajectory of any productions. For now.

"But I think that experience has affected my composing for future theater projects, led me to musical areas I'd like to explore further. Many friends have said to me, 'I hope you'll continue to write this way.' "

Schwartz is "almost halfway" through penning the music and lyrics for his next Broadway show, "Houdini," based on the life of the legendary escape artist, with Tony-winning box office idol Hugh Jackman in the title role. The key ingredients suggest a project as sure-fire as "Wicked" -- but there has been a recent snag in the show's development. Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men," "The Farnsworth Invention"), who was to write his first musical book for the Jackman vehicle, dropped out because he was too busy writing his new series, "The Newsroom," as well as multiple film projects. Schwartz says a new book writer has been signed, but he's not allowed to announce who it is.

"I'm not too concerned about people's expectations or anything else," Schwartz says. "That can be paralyzing. For me, it's just about getting the work done. The goal is to have both the book and score completed by the end of the year because there's going to be a New York reading with Hugh. We've got to do everything by certain deadlines with this show because Hugh's availability is on such a strict schedule."

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