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Stephen Schwartz on Starting a Career

Question: Mr. Schwartz, any words of advice for composer/lyricist hopefuls fresh out of college?

Answer from Stephen Schwartz: I assume your question has to do with young writers aspiring to write for musical theatre, as opposed to pop songs.The advice I have to give seems obvious, but it is nevertheless what I have observed to be the most useful.

First: write a show. That is, have some actual product you can show people, rather than simply being someone who describes him-or-herself as an "aspiring writer". Be an actual writer. It would be better if the show were something to which you eventually could have the rights, so I would advise avoiding adaptations of works which may prove problematic from a rights point of view . But frankly, even if this particular show is something you can't get rights to, it still can lead to future opportunities. I know of a specific case where a very talented writing team did an adaptation of the film "Lost in America"; they were unable to get the rights to go forward with this project, but it led to several other writing jobs for them and effectively launched their careers.

Second: Get yourself somewhere where shows actually get produced. Most obvious of course (assuming you are asking this question in North America) is New York City. But there are also Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles, and some other cities as well. The point is you want to be somewhere to take advantage of whatever networking possibilities arise as you try to interest people in the show you have written and in you as a writer.

Answer to a similar question:

Stephen Schwartz: I think the best way to learn how to write for musical theatre (and to find out if that's something you want to do) is to write a musical. Since you are in college, this is an excellent time to explore the unique opportunities that are open to you for the next few years. Whatever school you are at currently, it's likely there is either already an existing extra-curricular organization that presents shows and might want to present an original musical, or there are likely to be enough interested students that you could probably put together at least a staged reading of a new musical you might write. I strongly advise you to try to do that. While I was at Carnegie Mellon, I wrote four original musicals for an extra-curricular organization called Scotch 'n' Soda, and it was the best experience I could possibly have gained for becoming a professional. In answer to your specific questions:

Setting Goals

Question posed to Stephen Schwartz: Terrence McNally has been quoted as saying "I worry that in the process of developing my new play I lose it." Were there any changes made during rehearsals or previews that, while perhaps ultimately necessary, you wish had not been required?

Answer: ... I very much agree with Mr. McNally.If there is one chief lesson I have learned through experience working in the commercial theatre, it is how easy it is for a writer to become deflected from his or her original goals for a project.The act of collaboration and the pressures brought to bear in bringing a project to fruition necessitate constant adjustments and compromises; plus of course, the writer himself is always striving to improve the work.So what I have learned is that it is vital to articulate for oneself the goals of the project at the very beginning and to check in periodically with that to be sure that they are being maintained.I had several discussions on WICKED in which I would say about a specific suggestion that, while it sounded good, it actually changed the intention of the show too greatly and that therefore a different solution had to be found.

Considering limitations of Theatre

Question: I come from film directing, and I have a question about showing not telling. (Questioner asks about doing tough staging, like for a story in which a tiger is being slain, do you just tell about it or how is that handled)

Stephen Schwartz: I think you can do anything on stage that you can do on film in terms of storytelling. What's nice about stage is that it's basically an abstract medium and so if you're going to have a tiger attack on film, you got to get a tiger; it has to be persuasive. On stage you could do it with banners or actors or dancers; there are any number of abstract ways to do it. I don't think there's any limitation in terms of well I can't do that because you can't do that on the stage.

Sometimes since I'm essentially a writer, I'll be working on something and my collaborator will be like, "How can you possibly do that?" And I say I don't know, that's the director's problem. That's not my problem. But then when I was director, I used to like being handed that. I used to like when there was something that looked as if it was absolutely impossible to do on stage because out of that would come a very very creative and inventive theatrical solution. I know my son who is an extremely good director, he feels that way. He has said to me he loves it when he gets a show and there's something in the script and it's like, I don't know anyway you can possibly do that. He enjoys that challenge because it leads to interesting theatrical choices.

How did you get started.

Carol's notes: Stephen Schwartz really got his start in college at Carnegie Mellon University, where in an extracurrular program called the Scotch 'n' Soda club, he was able to stage original musicals, including Pippin, Pippin, the first version of the later Broadway musical. As part of that production, a vanity album was created. That eventually helped him find an agent Shirley Bernstein, who then made a lot of connections for him and helped him get seen by many producers, including Godspell's producers.

"Early in my senior year," Schwartz expounded in a public interview, "I got a letter from a guy who said he was a New York producer and had heard the little vanity recording we had made of the show. He thought it had potential and wondered if my collaborator Ron Strauss and I would be interested in developing it further. I ran to Ron with the letter, but Ron, who was from a show-business family and much more sophisticated about these things than I, scorned it and said, "This can't be a real producer, but if you want to do it, be my guest." So, when I graduated, I went to New York, and of course Ron was right. This New York producer was just a kid with aspirations, like me, and our first meeting was at his apartment way downtown in Alphabet City. It was the first time I'd seen a bathtub double as the dining room table by putting a piece of plywood over it.

I had no idea of how to get started in show business. Nobody in my family had ever been involved. I had no contacts. I knew no one and nothing. So, this seemed as good a way as any, and totally improbably, it worked. Ultimately, this wannabe producer put together a sort of backers' audition, to try to get seed money so I could continue to afford to work on the show, and to that backers' audition came a real live, actual factual agent, Bridget Aschenberg. After the presentation, she came up to me and said, "I don't know anything about music. In fact, I don't know much like musicals, but I think you're talented, and I have a friend at my agency who does know about musicals, and I'm going to tell her to call you." By that point, having been in New York all of three months or so, I had become so cynical I completely disbelieved her, but lo and behold, Shirley Bernstein did call me and became my agent, and the rest is history, as they say.

On Studying Music Theory

Q: How has music theory helped you in your career?

Stephen Schwartz: There are of course many composers of popular songs and Broadway musicals without knowledge of music theory. For me, however, it's hard to imagine writing without it -- it just gives one so many more options. It's sort of like painting with more colors to be able to choose among. You don't have to use all of them all the time, but at least you know they are there. And then of course, if I get stuck and need inspiration, I can always think, "Hmm, what would Ravel do?" or something like that.

Learn more from the Stephen Schwartz biography Defying Gravity.  


To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com with the word "QUESTION" or "COMMENT" in the subject line.

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