Wicked composer on writing the songs

Stephen Schwartz won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Musical Show Album for Wicked (above), which is being staged in Singapore.
Stephen Schwartz won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Musical Show Album for Wicked (above), which is being staged in Singapore.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Stephen Schwartz (above) won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Musical Show Album for Wicked, which is being staged in Singapore.
Stephen Schwartz (above) won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Musical Show Album for Wicked, which is being staged in Singapore.PHOTO: RALF RUHMEIER

Award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz says he enjoyed writing songs for the Wicked musical's lead as the character was "larger than life"

The name Stephen Schwartz may not immediately ring a bell with Singapore audiences. But chances are, they are familiar with his works.

The American composer-lyricist helped to write the scores for Disney films Pocahontas (1995), Enchanted (2007) and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996), and wrote the songs for the popular DreamWorks animated film The Prince Of Egypt (1998).

He is also known as one of the most successful composers in musical theatre. One of his key contributions to Broadway is as the composer and lyricist for Wicked.

Wicked, which premiered at New York's Gershwin Theatre in 2003, quickly became a smash hit. It is the fastest Broadway musical to earn more than US$1 billion (S$1.37 billion) and is currently playing at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands.

  • BOOK IT/ WICKED

  • WHERE: Grand Theatre, MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue

    WHEN: Till Nov 20, 8pm ( weekdays), 2 and 8pm (Saturday), 1 and 6pm ( Sunday)

    ADMISSION: Tickets from $55 are available from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg) or www.marinabaysands.com/wicked

With three Academy Awards, four Grammy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to his name, you would think Schwartz has done it all. But there is no slowing down the 68-year-old.

When The Straits Times talked to him on the telephone recently to find out more about his songwriting process for Wicked, it was 9am in Vienna, but he was already working on revisions for his latest musical, Schikaneder.

The romantic musical comedy is centred on the librettist of Mozart's famous opera The Magic Flute, Emanual Schikaneder, and his wife Eleonore. It opened in Vienna on Sept 30 and features Schwartz's music and lyrics.

Having had a hand in so many musicals does not mean songwriting is now a piece of cake, he says.

"Every song is still going to present its difficulties. There are points in the songwriting process where I feel frustrated or feel I've hit a dead end and there are things I can't solve."

But, he continues: "I trust that it's all part of the process and that eventually, I will find a solution. The wrong turns and dead ends are all part of the journey."

He faced initial roadblocks with some of the songs in Wicked, which netted him a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Musical Show Album.

One of them is What Is This Feeling, on the beginning of the relationship between the two lead characters - green-skinned social outcast Elphaba and Glinda, the "good witch".

It went through five versions because Schwartz wanted the song to be entertaining, but took "a long time to figure out where the comedy lay in that song".

Other songs in the musical, such as the show-stopping Defying Gravity, proved much easier to write.

Schwartz says he and the musical's book writer, Winnie Holzman, decided that the conclusion to Act 1 would see Elphaba flying on a broomstick and that the song would be titled Defying Gravity.

"Knowing what the title of the song is going to be helps me to develop the song's structure from there," he says. "With the title Defying Gravity, I could write the song before the dialogue for the scene was completed."

Widely regarded as the musical's signature song, the powerful number is belted out by Elphaba. Schwartz's ease in penning the lyrics could stem from his connection to the character.

Although he did not have an unhappy childhood like Elphaba, he says he did feel "a bit of an outsider in school".

"I was younger than everyone else because I had advanced a few grades. And as someone interested in theatre and writing, I was different from the rest of my friends at school.

"I was aware of being different and of consciously trying to fit in. Even though it was not terribly painful and I did make a lot of friends, my awareness of that and how that felt is something I could draw on."

He says the character of Elphaba is so "larger than life" that it was "fun to write songs about her".

"Through this complicated individual, we get to look at the character of the 'wicked witch' from a completely different point of view. What is actually wickedness or goodness?" he says.

While he declines to single out a favourite song from the musical, he says there are a few that he feels "very pleased about".

One of them is For Good, a moving duet that Elphaba sings with Glinda before the two part ways.

"The song has had so much meaning for so many people. It is frequently used for occasions outside the show, such as memorial services and anniversaries," says Schwartz.

"It has a life and meaning for people beyond the show."

When asked if he has a secret formula to good songwriting, he laughs and says he has neither a ritual nor a fixed routine when he works.

"I just go somewhere quiet in my house, or sit at a piano with a pen and paper," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Having some Wicked fun'. Print Edition | Subscribe