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Stephen Schwartz: Resurfacing on Broadway

As part of my coverage of "Wicked," I spoke with Stephen Schwartz, who had brought "Godspell" and "Pippin" into the Broadway canon, about his latest contribution to the form. He was disarmingly unassuming, the kind of guy you could sit with over drinks and just shoot the breeze. Some interviews are like that.

It was on an impromptu 1996 Hawaiian vacation, during a snorkeling excursion with friends John Bucchino and Holly Near, that Stephen Schwartz first heard about Gregory Maguire's adult novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West."

He has said he remembers thinking "Oh, this is for me. I love this idea!" As soon as he returned to the mainland, he was tracking down the rights. Eight years later, the writer of "Pippin" and "Godspell" has another hit on his hands - "Wicked."

I caught up with Schwartz at his Connecticut home, between coast-to-coast flights:

I suppose you couldn't be happier.

You're right. It took me a while to allow myself to accept the fact that the show is a hit, but I think I've finally done it.

At the intermission, I had to call my wife just to say "Wow! You must see this show."

Many people have told me that. That they go to the show and at intermission there are all these people in the lobby on cell phones calling people. You can imagine how wonderful that makes me feel.

Does it take eight years to deliver a Broadway hit?

We actually were working on the show about four, which is pretty fast for a big Broadway musical. ... Once I had heard about ["Wicked"] from Holly Near on our famous, our becoming-famous snorkeling trip, it took awhile to secure the rights, because Universal had them - actually Demi Moore's production company had them. I had to follow a trail through her production company to Universal to Marc Platt (who was in charge of the studio at that time). And then persuade him to consider doing it as a stage musical as opposed to a film.

This score is all over the map. You've got ballads, a sweet little old-fashioned song like "Wonderful," you've got a belter like "Defying Gravity."

Actually, I hope and meant for it - with the exception of "Wonderful," which is obviously a deliberate pastiche number because it's sung by the Wizard, who is not from Oz and therefore is meant to sound American. But for the rest of the score, I really did try to come up with a sound that you couldn't quite place where it was from, that there was nothing that suggested a specific either American or sort of "Earth" genre.

I was speaking with Idina about the ranges that she and Kristin (Chenoweth) put at your disposal, from Jeanette MacDonald to Audra McDonald to - I don't even know how to describe Idina's voice. What they gave you was a challenge: "Give us what you got."

Absolutely. ... One of the things Kristin wanted was to be able to use her soprano. I had not originally conceived Glinda as a soprano. I basically had conceived her as the kind of belter that shows up in a song like "Popular." … After giving it some thought I realized that the sort of "public" Glinda, when she's before the citizens of Oz …

When she's in the bubble…

Exactly. That Glinda could be a soprano in the way that Glinda in the movie is a soprano. And so I came to write it that way. But that was specifically because of Kristin and her suggestion.

You get to use all 88 keys.

Yes. When Idina sings that role she is singing over a two-octave range. ... People who subsequently do the role they may not be belting up as high as Idina is. They may take some alternate notes, just because she has one of those astounding abilities.

How big are that girl's lungs? She holds those notes forever.

She has not missed a show in New York, including those weeks at Christmastime where they were doing 10 and 11 shows without a day off in a row and she just gets stronger. … Because Idina projects this kind of very loose personality and very natural (and it is really who she is as a person), sometimes I don't think she's given credit for the enormous amount of hard work she does, and her technique and she studies with a vocal coach and she worked very hard on placement and vocal strength for "Wicked," just vocal stamina.

By "placement," you mean where her voice is coming from?

Yes, she is not someone who just goes out there and screams and hopes for the best.

And she's green.

They took quite a while to develop [Idina's makeup]. The fellow who came up with it is fantastic and Idina's gotten quite good at it. I think she looks quite beautiful green, actually.

It might be a whole new New York trend: black and green.

I said she was going to start a new fashion trend.

We spoke about the range that Kristin and Idina bring to their roles. Do you have any concerns about a Matthew Broderick/Nathan Lane dilemma, where they're impossible to replace?

I don't think they're impossible to replace. I can't deny that I think each of them is extraordinary in the roles and that the roles were, to some extent, written for them, but I've seen other people do the roles.

There are songs that you had in San Francisco (during your out-of-town tryout) that are not in the Broadway show. Will they make it onto a "Wicked: The Lost Songs" CD someday?

I'm actually thinking of doing a CD that's called "Murdered Darlings." I'm not kidding. I have this plan. I've put out a couple of CDs of just me singing and I thought ‘Maybe I'll do a CD with a bunch of people singing (like my friend John Bucchino's "Grateful" CD). I thought ‘What could I do?' and then I thought, `You know what? People are always asking me about this cut song or that cut song and between the shows and the Disney films, I have about a dozen cut songs that I think are worthy of hearing. I don't know that I'll do that right away but I know for sure of two songs from ‘Wicked' that will show up.

What's in your CD player now?

Today, it's a CD by Cassandra Wilson that a friend of mine just gave me because I wasn't that familiar with her. I think it's terrific. I'm a big Sarah McLachlan fan, because I love Celtic music (that sort of yodel singing) and I just got that CD ("Afterglow") which I love and I love the new Cyndi Lauper "At Last," I just think she's so phenomenal. It's not always female singers - I was listening to the new Sting CD for a while, but I've kind of outplayed it now.

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