Speaking recently with entertainment journalist Frank DiLella, legendary stage and screen lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz discussed the birth of his landmark musical Wicked, the fifth longest-running show on Broadway.
Schwartz, who spoke with DiLella at 92Y in New York, said that while he was on a snorkeling vacation in Hawaii in the late 1990’s, a friend told him about a novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which he called “so me in so many ways.” This became the inspiration for the musical, which debuted in 2003 and is still running today.
Schwartz also said he would write one new song for the film of Wicked, which John Chu—director of In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians—will direct, and which will star Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba and Ariana Grande as Glinda. According to recent press reports, production of the film will begin in the U.K. next summer.
Schwartz said he had had no expectation that Wicked would become such a phenomenon. “It has to do with timing, it’s a story about two women, and people were ready for that,” he said, noting he had composed 46 songs for the musical, only 16 of which remain.
Asked by DiLella what word he associated with his musical Godspell, Schwartz said “joy. It’s a very joyous show and it was a very joyous experience.”
He also recalled that he began working on another early musical, Pippin, when he was an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University, where he annually co-wrote a show for the Scotch and Soda Theatre, a student group. He called this experience “the best possible training to do a musical from scratch—you learn from your mistakes.”
When Pippin opened on Broadway six years later, he said “there was nothing in it from the college show.” It was directed by Bob Fosse, who Schwartz said was “dealing with his own demons. Bob was difficult. I wish I had had some insight into what was going on with him. There was tension between Bob and me in the show—if either of us had gotten our way fully, it wouldn’t have been as good as it was. . .Somewhere Bob is looking up and laughing.”
Schwartz said he and Allen Menken—with whom he wrote songs for the films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted—were socially friendly before they began to collaborate, and that their first song together, Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind,” was an “easy collaboration since we had a similar esthetic and approach.” This song and the film’s score both won Oscars in 1995.
Schwartz said he “fell in love with musical theater” when he was nine, growing up next door to the composer George Kleinsinger, who wrote the score for the opera Archy and Mehitabel, about a cockroach who falls in love with an alley cat, and its sequel, Shinbone Alley.