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Finding Mentors, Books, Classes, Models, and Agents for Musicals

Stephen Schwartz

Q: Where did you learn your composition and were there any books or materials that helped you?

Stephen Schwartz: Most music departments have theory classes. I went to Juilliard while I was in high school, but also had a pretty solid theory basis from my private piano teacher. I didn't study "musical theatre" composition per se, nor frankly would I recommend it. But I did learn the basics of music theory and listened to a lot of music I liked and which influenced me.

You can learn an awful lot listening to the work of theatre writers who have come before you and noticing structural techniques and all sorts of little craft tricks that you can incorporate into your own writing without becoming derivative or losing your personal voice.

There are books out there about writing for the musical theatre, and in fact, I plan to write one myself based on my ASCAP workshops. There is an old one by Lehman Engel that is a little dated and is also dogmatic in terms of his insistence on certain clich├ęd forms, but can be very informative if you don't take it too literally. There is also a more recent one by Tom Jones (lyricist of "The Fantasticks" among other shows) that contains many useful ideas and food for thought.

Q. At the time you started who were your mentors and who championed your music when you started off. And for today, who do you see in that vein, e.g. Harold Prince and Musical Theatre Works the best people to look for for young writers starting out?

I was lucky in that I came in contact very very early, basically more or less when I first got to New York, with an agent, Shirley Bernstein, who believed in me very strongly and worked very hard on my behalf, taking me around to meet people and have them hear me or whatever. I wouldn't say that she was necessarily a mentor because she wasn't particularly helping me develop the work but she certainly was I think entirely responsible for my career. She believed in me and killed herself (on my behalf")and that certainly helps.

I don't have a story like Stephen Sondheim who lived next door to Oscar Hammerstein. I didn't have one of those in my life but there are people who influence you over time and God knows I have enough of them.

In terms of today I think it's very fortunate that there are a lot of organizations and people who are very very supportive of new writers and Hal certainly has been and Musical Theatre Works is certainly trying to, but there are a ton of them. There are programs and grants. ASCAP does, BMI does, and I know individual people do, I know Jeanine Tesori does a lot of work trying to help new writers. The reason her name comes to mind is that I just saw her yesterday and she was talking about that. The Dramatist Guild has a program where they have people become fellows and mentors are assigned. I'm working with a couple of girls this year who are Dramatist Guild fellows, and a couple of other writers are.

I find that this is a community, and I think it's always been that way, that really cares about perpetuating itself, sort of the way parents want to have children and then be grandparents. I think that's somewhat unique about the theatre community. I think there's a lot of interest and support in trying to find new writers and help them get a foothold. I can't tell you 'Oh you must go to this spot because that's where it is' but there's a lot of it out there.

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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