In terms of Broadway composers, Stephen Schwartz is up there with Sondheim and Lloyd Webber as one of the latter-day saviors of modern musical theater.
From his first show, Godspell, right up through his most recent hit, Wicked, Schwartz has been up, down and in between, but his work has been constant. Some of that work has been for movies as well. He won Oscars for his work on Disney’s Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and earlier this year, three of the songs he and Alan Menken wrote for Disney’s Enchanted were nominated for Academy Awards.
At 60, and with Wicked showing no signs of slowing down (the national tour hits the Bay Area yet again in February 2009), Schwartz doesn’t need creative projects, but a long-gestating revue/musical – we’ll call it a revusical, though Schwartz himself calls it a “musical scrapbook” – is coming up for air once again. Way back in the mid-’90s, Michael Scheman and David Stern, who were then both working on one of Broadway’s most notorious flops, Nick & Nora, approached Schwartz about using songs from his existing catalogue and turning them into something more than a revue – a book musical that told a story through songs and gave the songs – some familiar, some obscure – a new spin.
“They had a lot of down time working on Nick & Nora,” Schwartz explains on the phone from the TheatreWorks rehearsal hall in Mountain View. “They had the idea of taking my songs and putting them into a new story framework. I said it would be impossible for me to allow that. I’d never seen it done successfully and frequently seen it done unsuccessfully. But I said do a reading, I’ll come and we’ll see. They did, and I have to say, they had some interesting takes. For various reasons, nothing went much further. A few years later, the thing reared its head.”
The show, called Snapshots, saw incarnations in Norfolk, Va., and more recently at Seattle’s Village Theatre in 2005, but the TheatreWorks version that begins previews today (June 18) and opens Saturday, June 21, is even more fully revised and includes songs from Wicked.
Schwartz insists that this is not a revue because it does indeed tell a story (penned by Stern) about a middle-age couple whose marriage is on the brink of collapse. A box of old photos sends the couple reeling into the past. The structure allows six actors to play the couple at various ages. Schwartz thinks the concept really works this time around.
“I’ve seen this tried before, and the script and the songs are inconsistent in both lyrics and tone,” Schwartz explains. “The songs were clearly not meant to fulfill dramatic moments in this particular story. It always seemed like a shotgun marriage. When I saw what was being developed for this story in terms of interesting relationships, I said if you’re really going to do this, the lyrics ought to be revised and songs ought to be rearranged or put into medleys to tell the story properly. That’s what we’ve done. This is truly a hybrid in almost the true botanical nature of the word because it yields a strange, exotic flower for fruit.”
Schwartz estimates that all the songs – most from his shows and movies, with only the title song freshly penned – have been about 50 percent rewritten, which could irk his fans.
“I can see how audiences will either be intrigued by it and think it’s cool or some will say it’s too weird and that they’re not accustomed to hearing certain songs with new words,” he says. “It’s adventurous and challenging, which makes it fun.”
Admitting that some might consider it sacrilege to re-write songs like “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife or “Popular” from Wicked, Schwartz says he relishes revisiting and revising his own work. In some cases, there are only a few lyrical changes, a verse here, a line here. In others, it’s the same tune with entirely new words.
“If, for instance, you know `Lion Tamer’ from The Magic Show, you’re suddenly going to hear words you’ve never heard before,” Schwartz says. “Other songs, like `Popular’ are pretty much the same except for a few words but in a totally different situation. If people are willing to get their heads turned around a little bit, then it’s fun. If that’s hard for them to do, it will just be annoying or disturbing.”
The last time Schwartz was in the Bay Area was to fine tune the world premiere of Wicked. He was so busy then that he didn’t deign to chat with journalists.
“In all honesty, the San Francisco run couldn’t have been better for us,” he says. “The show was well enough received that no one was panicking or feeling it was a disaster – no throwing of bathwater or babies. It was clear there was work to be done and revisions to be made in the book and the score. The critical community was, frankly, very helpful to us. We learned a lot from the reviews, which were honest and constructive in the aggregate, unlike New York, where the critics make up their minds before they come to the theater. It’s not just the negativity the critics express but their corruption.”
TheatreWorks, thankfully, is far from that critical crowd. Schwartz says he had enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the company and its founding artistic director, Robert Kelley, who is directing Snapshots. Schwartz even remembers – barely – a previous attempt at a Schwartz musical revue done at TheatreWorks in the late ’70s or early ’80s, but he can’t quite remember the name.
His big project at the moment is an opera commissioned by Opera Santa Barbara based on the movie Séance on a Wet Afternoon, a 1964 British film about a psychic who kidnaps a child to “prove” her abilities. The opera is slated to have its premiere in December 2009.
And for Wicked fans who were hoping that Schwartz and team might turn the book’s sequel, Son of a Witch, into a musical, don’t get your hopes up.
“I’m not big on sequels,” Schwartz says. “I don’t quite get why other than for economic incentive, they’re necessary. We told that story. I can understand the perspective of Gregory Maguire (the book’s author) about writing a sequel. I encouraged the writing of the sequel and another. I think he should make it a trilogy.”
Snapshots continues through July 13 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, corner of Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $26-$64. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.