Unsung Hero

Stephen Schwartz, the most famous working Broadway composer you've never heard of, brings his act to Scottsdale

If fame is fleeting, it also has its own geography. While New York types and theater buffs the world over revere Stephen Schwartz as a superstar, much of the rest of the world has never heard of him. Although he's among the most successful composers working today, and despite a national tour of his hit cabaret act, Schwartz's celebrity profile probably won't change anytime soon.

That's partly because Schwartz, one of musical theater's most innovative songwriters, has spent less time cultivating his celebrity than he has giving breaks to young composers, or because he's stayed tucked safely behind the scenes, writing songs for stage and film. "Because that," as he puts it, "is what a songwriter does."

Nice work if you can get it. Schwartz's nearly unprecedented string of hits includes some of the most popular musicals in recent memory, among them Pippin, The Magic Show, The Baker's Wife and Studs Terkel's Working. He's collaborated with composer Alan Menken on several films, included the animated Disney confections Pocahontas (for which Schwartz won a pair of Oscars) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which he adapted for the stage. His "When You Believe" from DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt won Schwartz a third Oscar two years later.

The man behind the curtain, Stephen Schwartz.
Joan Lauren
The man behind the curtain, Stephen Schwartz.

Details

Performs at 8 p.m. Friday, January 26, and Saturday, January 27. Call 480-994-2787.
Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street, Scottsdale

When he isn't bagging awards, the boyish 52-year-old songwriter is busy being magnanimous. He's created a pair of annual workshop programs -- one on each coast -- that, under the auspices of ASCAP, discover and promote new works by up-and-coming musical theater composers.

"The workshop programs aren't entirely altruistic," Schwartz insists. "It's helpful to me to hear what others are writing. But mostly, I remember being a young writer and feeling terribly alone. I felt no sense of community with other songwriters."

Schwartz had little time to suffer in solitude. Barely 20, he scored his first major credit with the title song for Broadway's Butterflies Are Free. At 23, he wrote the music and lyrics for Godspell, a gratifying and Grammy-winning gig that was quickly followed by the English text for Leonard Bernstein's Mass, which opened the Kennedy Center in 1971. Three years later, Schwartz became the first composer/lyricist to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway. More stage hits -- most noticeably the Bible-belting Children of Eden -- followed, before Schwartz turned his talents toward composing tunes for line drawings and, later, actors dressed as line drawings, à la Hunchback.

One sniffs at the Disneyification of Broadway -- about which theater purists have been loudly mewling for several seasons -- at one's own risk when Schwartz is around. "I don't even know what that means," he says with a groan. "I don't want to be set up as a defender of the Disney organization, but the fact that they have three shows running in New York doesn't preclude other shows being done there. It's not as if everyone else feels like they have to do imitations of The Lion King. I just don't understand the argument against Disney shows. You don't hear people concerned about the Cameron Mackintosh-ization of Broadway, do you?"

Where Schwartz is quick to defend Disney, he flat-out refuses to talk religion, a theme that has informed a number of his more popular projects: Godspell, Bernstein's Mass, The Prince of Egypt, Children of Eden. He refers to himself as a "Long Island Jewish boy," but he won't talk about whether a particularly devout upbringing influenced his work.

"I never discuss my own religious views because I don't want to affect an audience's response to my work," he says. "But the fact is that it's mostly coincidental that I've done so many religious shows. I did them because they were offered to me; I was approached by writers or producers who wanted me to participate in good projects. The exception is probably Children of Eden, which I don't really think of as a Bible musical, anyway."

Schwartz is far from the Great White Way these days, touring the country with a cabaret-style program of his work. The show, which plays Scottsdale this weekend, is long on what Schwartz calls "my pop stuff": songs from his solo albums, wedged between signature show tunes and new, untried numbers. Schwartz travels with a pair of singers, whose names, like his own, are known mostly to the Manhattan matinee crowd: Cabaret singer Scott Coulter handles the male vocals, while Tony winner Debbie Gravitte sings the girl parts.

If he's in fine company, he's also very much alone up onstage. "It's a little unusual doing songs I've written about myself," he says. "In my show, I'm telling personal stories, songs I wrote without the benefit of becoming another character. I'm not hiding behind a hunchback or an Indian princess. It's me up there."

 
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