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Stephen Schwartz on Songwriting for Musicals

Q. One thing I hear a lot is that the song has to take people on journey and it has to end somewhere differently from where it began, but there are songs from some of the great musicals like Kiss Me Kate and it's "To Darn Hot" that don't do that.

Is that a prejudice of the time and if so what do you think is the balance between songs that move the plot or develop the character and songs that are just songs because they are beautiful and witty.

Stephen Schwartz: The question for those who didn't hear is about the famous thing about the necessity in theatre songs as opposed to pop songs for a song to move from point A to point B either in terms of character development or plot or whatever and the example was given of Kiss Me Kate where a lot of the songs don't do that.

Kiss Me Kate is a bad example to use for me because I hate that show. To this day I don't understand why that show is a hit but I didn't like Taming of the Shrew so there you go. But there are many other shows of that time of which that is true and are wonderful shows. God knows there are enough people who like Kiss Me Kate and I'm certainly in the minority there.

Times change. Styles change. The requirements of a song in an operetta were different after Show Boat and the requirements of the kind of songs that existed in Show Boat and pieces like that were different once we got into Rogers and Hammerstein and so on. The trend has been towards theatre songs advancing story or advancing character or commenting upon, there's a sort of a new trend of commenting upon that's illuminating as well. A lot of the Sondheim shows stop dead in terms of the action and a character comes out and comments upon or muses philosophically upon what has just happened or what he or she feels about it. But they are all sort of content driven. I think everybody likes to hear a song, everybody likes to hear a tune and in writing shows there's always that rule that you fight with yourself about where am I going to drive the story and where do I really just need to deliver a song. My opinion is that shows are good if there's a balance of that. If you're seeing nothing but story driven or plot driven songs and there's never anything you can hook onto, that's kind of wearying, though there are certainly shows that are very successful having done that. 1776 comes to mind. That basically is a show where every single song is a story song and it's such a book-oriented show but it's certainly a show that I think works very well.

But I think ultimately the satisfaction is in having both, in being able to see something where basically you are constantly moving forward but every now and then you stop and a song really lands.

I think it is a truism that I believe in that inherently theatre songs, if they sit in the same place for too long, and you do too many of those, you're in trouble, as opposed to a pop song where you actually want to deliver what the message is very early on and the idea is that by the end of hearing the song you're singing a long with it. God knows I've done those, you know, in Pippin the grandmother comes out and sings it's time to start living and we TRY to get the audience to sing along. She basically says the same thing over and over again.

The other thing is that, talking about that song has made me think of this, sometimes we misapprehend what we mean by that. I don't think that you ever expect a song to do the amount of dramatic work that a scene of the same length would do. And I think maybe that's misunderstood and I'm glad actually to have a chance to say that. You know, songs stretch time. They take a moment and they pull it way way out like taffy and a moment sort of gets suspended and so I think when we say that something has to happen within a song," you know if you see a three and a half minute scene and you're going basically from A to B that scene is going to seem pretty dull. Three and a half minutes and you want to go from A to L if you know what I mean. But in a song you can just start somewhere and finish somewhere just slightly different. Just a small movement. I think that's what the best theatre songs do. Actually if you try and do too much it kind of becomes, well why didn't they just do a scene here? It becomes recitative. But if you do too little then the audience gets impatient just as you would if you were seeing a scene when basically you're just hearing the same thing over and over and over again. And maybe that's good to be guided by.

Q. Do you find it better to write a song that has more popular appeal but doesn't have the same kind of technical mastery".?

You know, I think that's the wrong question, excuse me for saying so. I think you have to write from what you want to hear. I think you have please yourself. A lot of people talk to me and ask well what if the audience feels this or do you want the audience to do that. I say, please don't misunderstand this but I don't actually give a damn what the audience gets or doesn't get. I just try and write what I would want to see. What moves me, what I want to hear, what I think is funny, what I care about, and I trust that if I do that job well, there will be enough other people who will respond to it.

And I've learned over time that that is the case. I answered a question before about what was the most important lesson I've learned and I learned this weird lesson about the more kind of selfish as a writer you can be, the more it communicates. Now having said that, it doesn't do any good if there's something that's your secret. You have to understand that your job is to communicate and it doesn't do any good if you're doing something that nobody else gets but I think if you can get out of your own way and really think of writing for an audience of you as opposed to "in your room for you "where you can spiral in on yourself. If you think, if I sat there and I didn't know the person who wrote this and I was receiving this, would it work for me? I think that's the goal. And if what would work for you is songs written like in the pop vein of Elton John which are kind of very accessible and not necessarily technical mastery, then great. And if what works for you is Adam Guettel's work or Ricky Ian Gordon or somebody who's more technically trained, great. Clearly there's an audience for both of those. I think we get in trouble when we try and second guess about THEM. What would THEY like, what's better to do for THEM. Paradoxically I think just what's better to do for you if you were the audience. My experience not just for myself but for other people tells me that that's the way to go and it's not very hard. The good thing is it's actually easy to do. You just have to have the guts to do it.

Q. Before we were talking about songs advancing the plot. Suppose you have 20 songs in a musical, can you just give some feel of the balance of how many should be advancing the plot vs how many could just be a good song that works within but doesn't necessarily move the plot forward. Is there any sense that there's 15 songs one way and 5 that way?

Sorry. There really isn't. It's really instinctive. I do think there are some trends. As I've said, I personally feel that too many ballads is trouble because musicals are about energy. I think that you better have, if you're singing 20 songs and only 2 of them advance the story in any way you're in trouble. But if you're asking me, what if it's 14 and 6 or 13 and" I can't answer that. So much of that is instinct. That's the hard thing about our business. So much of it is, you go on instinct. Why did you sing there instead of there? Why is the song about this instead a song that would come a page later about that? I can't tell you. You just go with your instinct.

I became acutely aware of this when I did the Disney animated features because we would come in, and sometimes I would have worked with the development people on the story, but eventually we would come in and there would be a big bulletin board or a couple of bulletin boards and the story would be laid out in cards. Storyboarded. Not pictures or anything, just cards. Basic story beats. The job would be to come in and look at them and say, OK, that's a song, that's a song, we'll do a song there. I can't tell you why I would look at it and I'd be like, you know I'd look at the Pocahontas board and I'd be "There, that thing where she's with John Smith there, that's the song. And I'm starting there." And Alan and I went off and wrote "Colors of the Wind." I can't tell you why. You just have an instinct and you trust your instincts.

But I think again the answer I gave to this gentleman before applies. If you're writing for an audience of you, what would you want to see and follow that. When would you start to be bored.

Q. I'm interested in the idea that there are rules e.g. so many songs. Or you have to tell what the story is going in the opening, but rules are made to be broken and there have been musicals that completely break the rules. What is it about those musicals that defy convention and break the rules.

Give me an example of one actually. Give me an example of a really successful musical that within the first 15 minutes of the show I don't know where it's taking place, what's the world, who's it about, and who do I root for? I'm not talking about revues but an actual musical which is attempting to tell a story. I can't think of one.

They're not rules but they are, what you're saying is look folks, this is what has worked over time. We've observed these things. We've had now a history of musical theatre and I guess one would say that the "modern" musical theatre began maybe with Show Boat, certainly with Oklahoma, and since that time which is now 60 years and counting of that, there are some things that have emerged when you do this, if you do it well enough, it works and if you don't do it, it tends not to work. I guess that's what we talk about here.

So I don't mean to be combative with you. I'm actually really interested. Think of one musical that is essentially a book musical that doesn't fulfill those requirements within the first ten minutes or so of the show and yet succeeds. I can't think of one to tell you the truth.

Q. Wicked is a great book. How is the work going with that and what does it sound like.

Wicked was a very challenging book to adapt because there is so much plot. It is just a book that is all over the place. So the challenge is what to leave out. We changed a lot. We changed a lot of the story and a lot of the plot as we were developing. An instinctive decision was made pretty early which is that this show is about the two girls. It's about the relationship between the character named Elphaba who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda who becomes the witch. One of the idea Gregory had in his book is that those two girls meet at school and they are reluctant roommates. We basically started from that premise. Over time as we developed the show, what we learned is that whenever it's about the two girls, we're in great shape and whenever it's about anything else, we're in trouble. And more and more the show has focused on those two characters and their relationship. There were whole other ways of taking that book that Gregory wrote called Wicked and telling the story in a different way but that's the way for better or worse that we went. And it will remain to be seen if was for better or worse.

In terms of what it sounds like musically, when I first started it I tried to come up with something that was Oz that just sounded like nothing else and it was this other world and so on, in this same way that when Steve started working on Sunday in the Park he tried to write everything pointillist and just as he was forced to abandon it, so was I. After awhile it got really really boring. So I kind of reverted to writing in my style, whatever that is. People ask me what does it sound like, I say it sounds like Children of Eden because that's the most recent thing I did before that. I have tried to write in a way where you never feel you're in America or a land that you know, that you're in some world that's not definable. So I've tried to stay completely away from any kind of pastiche that puts you in a world. And that has to do with chords that you pick and all sorts of rhythms that you use and things like that. With the exception of the Wizard songs which I have tried to make sound very much like someone from America of sort of the turn of the century, but beyond that I kind of went with my style whatever that is.

Q. What's the best way to find out about mentoring, etc. resources.

That's a really good question. Dramatist Guild publishes a quarterly and they tell you play contests. Different organizations do that. I'm sure ASCAP does it. In this day of Internet I would think with a little bit of searching you could find out.

See Important Reference books like Dramatists Resource Directory

Important books for musical writers- reference


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

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