Review: `Stephen Schwartz and Friends’

Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can …

Friday night at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz diverged from his set list after opening his show, Stephen Schwartz and Friends, with the sweet “Chanson” from his 1976 show The Baker’s Wife.

Sitting at the grand piano, the diminutive Schwartz, 60, warned the sound and lighting crew that he was going rogue. Inspired by the election of Barack Obama and heartened by watching the president-elect’s first press conference that afternoon, he shuffled aside the song “Reluctant Pilgrim” so he could sing “Beautiful City,” a paean to hope from his 1973 hit Godspell.

The expertly chosen, inspirational song, which echoes Obama’s rally cry of “Yes we can!” was slightly out of Schwartz’s range, but when the spirit moves you, notes hardly matter.

In the 90-minute Schwartz showcase, which closes out Broadway by the Bay’s 43rd season (and continues with shows at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9), the veteran composer shared the spotlight with three dynamically different singers: Tony-winner Debbie Gravitte, cabaret and Broadway vet Liz Callaway, and award-winning cabaret crooner Scott Coulter.

With Schwartz at the piano, each of the singers had a defining moment. For Gravitte, it was playing the waitress Dolores from Schwartz’s adaptation of the recently departed Studs Terkel’s Working, who elevates the level of service in “It’s an Art.”

For Callaway, there were two great moments: in the sadly sweet “Lion Tamer” (from 1974’s The Magic Show) and her bravura version of “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife, which is a song she has been singing for years and sings just about better than anybody else. She also joined forces with Coulter on the “love medley” with Callaway taking the lead on “As Long As You’re Mine” from Wicked and Coulter on “In Whatever Time We Have” from Children of Eden.

For Coulter, who’s more of a pop/soul singer than a Broadway belter, the best number was the achingly romantic “So Close” from last year’s Disney film Enchanted (lyrics by Schwartz, music by Alan Menken). But Coulter also soared on the medley of “Just Around the Riverbend,” another Menken-Schwartz Disney collaboration, this one from Pocahontas, with “Corner of the Sky” from the 1972 smash Pippin.

In addition to singing some heartfelt solos – “Forgiveness’ Embrace” from his 2002 album Uncharted Territories and “For Good,” the emotional finale of Wicked – Schwartz offered a master class in songwriting for musicals by taking us through the evolution of “The Wizard and I,” the young witch’s cris de coeur from Wicked.

The original song for Elphaba to declare her dreams and ambitions was called “Making Good,” and though he tried several versions of the song, it just wasn’t working. So, with help from book writer Winnie Holzman, input from his director son Scott Schwartz and with inspiration from A Chorus Line (give them what they want but make them wait so they’re more grateful), he eventually landed on the show-stopping belter that helped make Wicked such a phenomenal success.

In a giant medley of hits, Schwartz and his singing friends were able to knock out “Day by Day,” “Magic to Do” as well as his Oscar-winners, “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas and “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt.

Another hopeful song, “Someday” from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, ended the show, but Schwartz’s impromptu burst of light from earlier in the show was still ringing through the hall:

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up, bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man.

Click here to read an interview I did with Schwartz for Theatre Bay Area magazine.


Stephen Schwartz and Friends is at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$45. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

Here’s the song “Beautiful City” from the 1973 movie version of Godspell (for which the song was written):