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Broadway Master's Pen Yields to Voice

Wunderkind From 'Godspell' Days Sings His Tunes

February 02, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz has put words and music into the mouths of some of the most famous figures to walk the Earth, in fact or legend.

Among them are Moses, Jesus and a panoply of characters from the Book of Genesis--including God. Also, the Emperor Charlemagne, Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo.

It took Schwartz 25 years to try writing songs about his own life, intended not for the stage but for him to sing on CD and in concert. He arrives tonight at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo for a show that will feature his renditions of the personal soft-rock songs he began performing in 1997 after the release of his first album, "Reluctant Pilgrim." Highlights from Schwartz's film and Broadway repertoire will be in the show as well, with two established New York singers, Debbie Gravitte and Scott Coulter, handling most of the nuggets from "Godspell," "Pippin," "Children of Eden" and other titles from Schwartz's still-active career in musicals.

Barely out of college, Schwartz was an instant success during the early 1970s. "Godspell" (1971) and "Pippin," (1972), his first two musicals, were long-running hits. When "The Magic Show," featuring Doug Henning, followed suit in 1974, Schwartz became the first composer to have three Broadway shows running simultaneously. After seeing "Godspell," Leonard Bernstein picked him to write lyrics for "Mass" in 1971.

Even when the hits stopped coming, Schwartz enjoyed a cult following for his less-popular shows, including "The Baker's Wife," "Rags" and his stage adaptation of Studs Terkel's book of interviews, "Working" (which included songs by several other composers, including James Taylor). "Children of Eden," a 1991 show based on the early chapters of Genesis, never made it to Broadway but has often been revived in regional and community theaters.

After more than 15 years without a hit, Schwartz returned to the commercial mainstream during the 1990s, when he was recruited to write for a new milieu: animated musicals. He put lyrics to Alan Menken's music for Disney's "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and wrote songs for DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt."

Schwartz, 52, lives mainly in Connecticut with Carole, his wife of 32 years. But he comes to Los Angeles frequently enough to keep a rented apartment there for a long time. He is using it as a base of operations for his current series of concerts, and to collaborate with a Los Angeles-based writer, Winnie Holzman, on what he hopes will be his next musical. "Wicked," based on a 1995 fantasy novel by Gregory Maguire, spins a new tale from "The Wizard of Oz," in which the Wicked Witch of the West gets to tell her side of the story and emerges as a humanized, sympathetic character.

Schwartz said it opens with her climactic meltdown at the hands of Dorothy and flashes back to reveal the trauma and strife that earned her an undeserved bad rep. Along the way, such Oziana as the secrets of the ruby slippers and the history of the witch's corps of flying monkeys will be revealed.

Schwartz was an open, talkative sort in a recent phone interview from his L.A. apartment. Most interviewers, he said, usually get around to asking what it was like to be the hottest songwriter on Broadway before the age of 25 (not only were his shows hits, but the cast recording of "Day by Day" from "Godspell" and the Jackson 5's rendition of "Corner of the Sky" from "Pippin" were top-20 hits), then recede into the shadows before he was 30.

"They say, 'It must have been great when you had these hits, and wasn't it crushing when [later ones] didn't work?' "

But the important issue in his life at the time, Schwartz said, is the one raised in "Pippin," the show he began developing while still an undergraduate theater student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"Pippin," which made Ben Vereen a star, was about a medieval prince who vacillates between chasing a life of grandeur and achievement, and settling for quiet contentment and domestic satisfaction.

In his own life, Schwartz said, he had to find a way to live "a life not just focused on kind of running around in the limelight. I found it quite difficult to balance because I was so young. Now I'm able to do it somewhat more successfully."

Schwartz, who grew up on Long Island, said he didn't succumb to the most unbalancing indulgences of the 1970s, the decade when cocaine's dangers weren't so obvious. "I never did the drug thing. It was something that out of luck or excessive caution I managed to sidestep. It was more the mental pressure" that got to him. "There was a point I got really burned out and stopped working for a couple of years."

That gave him time to be with his young son and daughter, now in their 20s and launching artistic careers of their own.

Scott, a theater director, will step up to the big time as director of "Lavender Girl," a one-act musical that is part of "Three," an evening of one-acts coming up in April at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

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