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Stephen Schwartz on Writing Principles

Emotional Realities for the Writer

Write from Your Truth

"...What I've learned as a writer is that the more I can get to my own truth and my own reality, I don't mean philosophy like I believe in, but my own emotional truth, the more it's actually about me thinly disguised as an Indian Princess or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I mean thinly disguised, the more I can actually being doing that, oddly enough, the more it communicates. The most personal songs I've ever written, not necessarily just for shows, I've had people come up to me afterwards and say, "How could you possibly have known that, I felt like you read my diary." It's really an interesting phenomenon and of course it makes our job a lot easier. I have this cliché joke where people say, "How do you write a song?" and I say "Tell the truth and make it rhyme." But that's really it. The more you can tell your truth, oddly enough, the more it communicates. Of all the lessons I've learned over time, that's been the most revelatory for me. I didn't actually go in knowing that. I had to learn it from experience.

Stories Need Conflict

Question: How do storywriters and songwriters make characters interesting? Is there a secret?

Stephen Schwartz: Good question. I think the most important thing is that the character has to want something -- want it very badly. And something has to be keeping the character from getting it. Preferably the obstacle is another character who wants something just as badly. That's sort of the essence of drama, and it's what makes people on stage compelling.

Q. How do you feel about a narrator being used to introduce scenes (e.g. to bridge long lapses of time and introduce secondary characters that have a brief appearance but they are very important. What are the dos and don'ts about using a narrator.

Stephen Schwartz: It's a personal thing. I'm less opposed to narrators than others. I know some people are really purists and they're like, you should never use a narrator but I'm like, If it's working, fine! If that's the way you do it and people see it and they're receiving it as information, and they don't feel like it's a distancing device or whatever, that's fine. I think the dangers of narrators are that we don't care about them as characters, therefore it's usually useful if you can find a way to involve your narrator somehow in your story emotionally.

There's a lot of examples of good shows with narrator. Tevye is the narrator of Fiddler on the Roof and the central character. There's the stage manager in Our Town who is really not at all involved in the story who is really a kind of passive observer and commentator. It didn't seem to hurt that show any.

Q. I have a question about focal point and the focus of your story and particularly with narrator. "

The question is about narrators and if you give the narrator a clear motivation, how do you keep the narrator from being the focus of the story. Maybe you don't. It's very difficult. You know as an audience you come in and the thing starts and you're like what is this about? The first ten minutes are like scanning something to try to figure out where to land. And you're watching this thinking what is this about, who do I care about, what's the story. Who am I rooting for and you kind of fix on something. Once you've fixed on that it's sometimes pretty hard to get dislodged from it. So if a guy or woman is there talking to you and they are emotionally engaged in what they are talking about, you're going to kind of fix on them. But oddly enough even I think if you said to somebody whose the most important character in Our Town, they're going to tell you it's the stage manager even though he's not engaged in the action at all because he narrates the plot. They're not going to tell you it's George or Emily oddly enough.

So maybe that's a non problem if you know what I mean. I certainly think it's possible to have a narrator and then have other people whose story you care about. (gives specific example from the workshop last night).

In Funny Thing that Happened on the Way to the Forum, Psuedelus narrates the show and he has a want which is to be free so I guess he is the center of the show but all the plot hinges on the young man who's his master and you have to care about that young man and his story too in order for it to work.

Question about Writing Habits:

How often do you consistently work on a musical? I find that working every day on a piece helps to strengthen it as well as taking time off and coming back to a piece. Is that a bit too much? Some people think I'm obsessive.

Answer from Stephen Schwartz:

Like you, I find it necessary to work consistently. I need what I call "days in a row". I think that way one's unconscious mind, where one's best work is going to be done, gets engaged and is constantly thinking about solutions and inspirations. I tend to go into "writer hibernation", and take several days or weeks in a row during which I work for a period of time every day. This can be in order to get a specific song done, or a section of a show, etc. I wouldn't be able to write an entire score without breaks, but I also can't write effectively if I have constant breaks and distractions.

To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com

"Still the best book ever written about the commercial theatre. It is dated in some ways but remains invaluable"--Stephen Schwartz


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