June 2009 Book Review by Joe Stead
As I opened Carol de Giere's fantastic book "Defying Gravity," I felt a bit like a kid at Christmas time. When Ms. de Giere offered me the invitation to review her documentation of "The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked," I knew right off the bat this was right up my line. For starters, I have sung leading roles in both "Pippin" and "Godspell," which had already given me an intimate knowledge and appreciation of this remarkable composer and lyricist.
I still recall as a teenager being magnetized by the thrilling performance of Broadway superstar Ben Vereen as he worked his magic as the original Leading Player of "Pippin," and standing outside the stage door following a matinee performance as a group of aspiring high school thespians broke into a joyous impromptu rendition of "Magic to Do". I have seen that magic spread to new and younger generations of musical theatre fanatics as Chicagoans turned his latest blockbuster "Wicked" into the longest running sit-down Broadway production in Windy City history.
Carol de Giere's deluxe and comprehensive soft-cover book delves into the creative process of this musical genius and is a must-read for anyone interested in musical theatre. Compiled from interviews, mostly first hand, that she conducted from 2000-2008, "Defying Gravity" defies the boundaries of conventional showbiz biographies and backstage narratives. It actually puts the reader into a one-on-one conversation with a man who has counted more than his share of commercial successes, creative disappointments and outright failures.
One gets the sense of wonder as Ms. de Giere attempts to pinpoint the exact inspiration for a memorable lyric, the prestige of being invited into the hallowed sanctum of the "Wicked" recording session, and the honor of being grafted into the inner workings of the artistic mindset. Schwartz comes across as a most willing and amiable subject whose only condition was that the book focuses on his professional work instead of his personal life. Of course, anyone who knows much about the consuming aspect of theatre art knows these to be very often overlapping, and indeed we see how his interpersonal relationships with family, friends and colleagues have influenced and inspired the work that has touched millions of fans.
Stephen Schwartz was a musical prodigy who seemed to instinctively know from the beginning that he was destined to leave his mark on the American musical theatre. The son of an upper middle class New York family, Stephen's mother was a music lover and his father tone deaf. As the chapter "A Focused Childhood" reveals, both parents were supportive and encouraging of their son's youthful aspirations. One of the lucky few who never had to work outside his creative calling, Schwartz secured an early job with the RCA record label, which paved the way for him to produce his own show's albums.
Although his early musical training incorporated such classical composers as Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Hindemith and Bartok, Schwartz was just as influenced by Laura Nyro, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. The result would be a distinctive synthesis of classical, rock, pop and traditional musical theatre that would earn Schwartz nearly as many detractors as it has fans. He collaborated with his childhood inspiration Leonard Bernstein on the lyrics to "Mass" in 1971 before taking on the task of "composer and lyricist," a title enjoyed by a select few of the theatre's most gifted and versatile.
He hit gold with his first professional turn at bat when he set an existing litany of New Testament parables to song within the context of a community of clowns. The show was called "Godspell" and would put the 23-year-old on the musical theatre map. The seeds for "Pippin" were sown as early as 1967 when Schwartz signed on to score a collegiate musical originally titled "Pippin, Pippin". From the photos, program excerpts and essays on that early effort, we see a completely different work than what finally emerged on Broadway in 1972. And we witness the difficulties of collaboration come to a head as newcomer Schwartz is pitted against veteran Director and Choreographer Bob Fosse, each with their own distinct vision of the show that would unfold.
For all of Fosse's acclaimed "razzle dazzle," it's hard not to sympathize with the young songwriter as he watches a work near and dear to his heart being completely reshaped with little interest from Fosse in his input. Creative differences and egos came to a boil so routinely that Fosse actually banned Schwartz from the rehearsal process. Adding insult to injury were the scathing comments from many in the mainstream media, who dismissed Schwartz's contribution to "Pippin" as everything from "awkward and amateurish" to "feeble and bland". Those assessments would continue to haunt Schwartz throughout his professional career, even if the overwhelming response from the theatre-going public would continue to contradict the so-called pro's. As the book notes, in July 2008 "Wicked" passed "Pippin" and "The Magic Show" (Schwartz's popular tuner for illusionist Doug Henning) on the long run charts. All three have run over 1,900 performances, making Stephen Schwartz the only songwriter in Broadway history to have three shows that have reached this milestone.
Not only do we go behind the scenes of the blockbusters, but "Defying Gravity" lets us in on the disappointments of one missed opportunity after another. The string of flops, which counted "The Baker's Wife," "Working," "Rags" and the London production of "Children of Eden" all chipped away at a persona at once brash and confident and also disarmingly sensitive and fragile. Yet even those failures contained glimmers of brilliance, and Schwartz persevered, returning to re-work and improve not only his flops but his hits like "Pippin," as well. His work in Hollywood eventually netted him Oscars for his lyrics of the Disney animated film "Pocahontas". The elusive Tony Award, however, has continued to evade him even as his monumental success with "Wicked" continues to grow to this day.
Not only does author Carol de Gire give us a carefully researched and thought-provoking account of this extraordinary talent, she organizes and assimilates her source into an exceptionally readable and visually appealing tome. Her chapters are nicely annotated with "creativity notes" capturing quotes from Schwartz and his collaborators that shed further light on the work at hand. Generous black and white photography informs both the backstage process and onstage results. And the book is studded with lyrics, working notes and original music sheets to give us a full and rich picture of the art of making art. "Defying Gravity" will certainly be taking a place of pride on my theatre book shelf, and hopefully in yours too. For more information, visit www.defyinggravitythebook.com and www.stephenschwartz.com.
Wicked's composer Stephen Schwartz has autographed copies of the biography Defying Gravity, which includes 150 pages on the making of Wicked. Write to author Carol de Giere at firstname.lastname@example.org with the word "Signed Copy" in the subject heading for more info. Cost $25 plus shipping. This rare autographed copy makes an ideal souvenir for Wicked fans and collectors.
About Joe Stead
Joe Stead has enjoyed a lifelong passion for the theatre, which has involved acting, directing, producing, designing and reviewing for the past twenty-five years. He served as founder, producer and Artistic Director of Curtain Up Productions in Baltimore, Maryland and Four Star Players in Tampa, Florida. Favorite productions have included "Life With Father," "Deathtrap," "The Odd Couple," "The Miracle Worker," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "Godspell". He has also performed leading roles in "Fiddler on the Roof," "Pippin," "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Front Page," and most recently as Hucklebee in "The Fantasticks" for Waukegan Community Players. Joe holds a degree in Commercial Art from Tampa Technical Institute. As a critic, he has reviewed everything from Broadway to community theatre and major regional theatres throughout the United States including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, and the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, Florida.
Since 1998, he has been a proud resident of Chicago, the greatest theatre city in America. He served for two years as Theatre Editor for College News and Central Newspapers. He created the website Steadstyle Chicago in 2000 to showcase the city's outstanding and diverse theatre scene. Joe was proud to serve alongside a distinguished panel of theatre professionals as a judge for two seasons of Speaking Ring Theatre's "Vitality" Festival of original short plays. His most fulfilling role, in addition to reviewer and all-around theatre fanatic, was as director of the 2007 production of Peter Shaffer's "Equus" at Actors Workshop (now Redtwist) Theatre, which was nominated for five Joseph Jefferson Award Citations and won for Best Actor (Peter Oyloe).