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The Second Act Kid

For Stephen Schwartz, there were hard lessons in early success. Now he's back as a singer.

March 26, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may not be quite accurate to use the "Comeback Kid" label for an artist who's had the kind of success Stephen Schwartz has had. But it's a description that the multi-talented composer-lyricist-performer fully deserves.

Schwartz, who makes his first Los Angeles appearance as a singer-songwriter Friday at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, was one of the Broadway musical theater's hottest commodities in the early '70s. His hit "Godspell" opened in 1971, when he was 23, and ran for more than 2,500 performances. His next show, "Pippin," arrived in 1972 and lasted for nearly 2,000 appearances. And "The Magic Show," in 1974, featuring magician Doug Henning, also nearly reached the 2,000-performance level.

At one point in 1974, Schwartz, then 26, had all three productions running at the same time.

But he never reached that level of success again. Other shows--"The Baker's Wife," "Working" and "Rags"--came and went quickly, and Schwartz's visibility diminished drastically.

"There was a period of about three years," he says, "when I didn't do much of anything. In retrospect, I realize that I was really in a deep state of depression. Burned out."

And on the verge of becoming a topic for a "whatever happened to . . . " listing.

All that improved rapidly, however, when Schwartz's comeback got underway in the early '90s, and he began to write songs for Disney animated films. Since then he has fashioned the lyrics for "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback of Notre Dame," and shared Grammy, Academy and Golden Globe awards with composer Alan Menken for the song "Colors of the Wind" (from "Pocahontas"). Currently, he is wrapping up music and lyrics for "Prince of Egypt," the first animated film from DreamWorks SKG, and for a live-action Disney television musical, "Gepetto."

As if that wasn't enough, Schwartz has just released an album, "Reluctant Pilgrim," and is playing and singing publicly. His appearance at UCLA is one of his first as a performer. And the material--in addition to the unavoidable inclusion of his better-known works--will focus on the intimate, thoughtful songs on his CD.

"Most people don't get the kind of second chance I have," he says. "But here I am, having now had a second act, despite the fact that Scott Fitzgerald said there aren't any in American life."

Equally important, he is writing material unlike anything he has ever done before.

"I've always been a show writer, so my songs have always been project oriented, in other words, for a character I was trying to illuminate or a story I was trying to tell."

But when a close friend died of complications of AIDS, Schwartz wrote the touching "Life Goes On" as a way of "working through the emotions I was feeling."

Gradually, he came up with other material, some of it "observational things about friends of mine, sometimes just personal issues. At first it wasn't with an album in mind, at all, it was just in an effort to write songs in a fashion I'd never done before."

Schwartz's demos of the tunes, written to introduce them to other artists, soon became expanded. "I'd decide to add a bass line, or a guitar part, and pretty soon they became real productions, even though I did most of it in my own apartment studio in New York."

With the release of the album and his current live performing, Schwartz seems on the verge of adding a third act to the successes of the first two stages in his career.

"When I was a 23-year-old kid," he says, "I had no idea of how to handle what was happening to me. I like to think now, that I've just turned 50, that I bring a certain amount of maturity and life experience to what I write.

"People always expect to get this sunny, everything's-going-to-be-great point of view in my work," Schwartz continues, "but I've been through a lot, I've dealt with the sharks and the piranhas. Maybe what differentiates what I'm doing now is that it's been informed by a lot of years, by the realization that life is not that simple, that the light doesn't always turn green, that you can love someone and not love them at the same time, that relationships can turn upside down."

Still boyish-looking, still filled with a buoyant, youthful enthusiasm, Schwartz pauses to chuckle for a moment.

"Most of our popular music these days is written about romantic experiences one has as a teenager or in the early 20s," he says. "I like to think that these new songs I've written are about the experiences of adults."

BE THERE

Stephen Schwartz at Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA campus, Friday at 8 p.m. (310) 825-2101. $25, $9 (for UCLA students with full-time I.D.).

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