Podcast Episode 51 Transcript – Stephen Schwartz
Ken: Hi, everybody. Ken Davenport here. You’re listening to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast and what a guest we have today. I’m thrilled to be sitting across my desk from three-time Academy Award winning, three-time Grammy Award winning composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Welcome, Stephen!
Stephen: Hey, Ken. Good to see you always.
Ken: I’m not going to waste my time with too big of an intro here because we all know who he is, but as I was looking over his credits it reminded me of the fact that Stephen has written some of the world’s most “popular” musicals, popular in quotes, of course. Godspell, Pippin, Wicked, not to mention movies, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is now a stage musical, and so many others. Opera, choral, you do it all. But let’s start at the beginning. When did you start writing music, like your first sitting down at the piano and saying, “I’m going to write this thing”?
Stephen: Probably when I was about six or seven. My parents have told me, of course I don’t really remember this, that I was very into music as a kid, that I liked to listen when I was in my playpen or whatever those things were called. Apparently I liked opera then, even then, because my folks have told me that they have a recording of a soprano that I called the “High Lady” and I used to like to listen to the “High Lady,” and I think I had one of those little plastic phonographs because in those days you had discs, there wasn’t CDs or podcasts or streaming. And then my folks moved when I was about six years old to the suburbs of Long Island and it so happened that we lived next door to a composer, whose name was George Kleinsinger, who had written some very popular what we would now call “concept albums,” including something called Tubby the Tuba, which was about the orchestra, etc. But one of the albums that he had written was called Archy & Mehitabel and it got turned into a Broadway show, which did not wind up lasting all that long. it was called Shinbone Alley. The character of Archy was a cockroach, who was played by Eddie Bracken, and he was in love with an alley cat named Mehitabel, who was played on the record by Carol Channing and on Broadway by Eartha Kitt, and it had a whole chorus of dancers, some of who became famous like Jacques d’Amboise, but the critics were not kind to it and wondered in their reviews why anyone would want to see a musical with a lot of dancing cats, which proves the importance of timing. Anyway, when George was working on the show, my parents would go next door, because they were friendly, and I would come with them sometimes and he would play whatever he had been working on and I’m told . . . again, I have no memory of this . . . that then, when they would go off to have a drink or whatever, that I would go the piano and pick out the tune and so, after a couple of times of this, George suggested to my parents that maybe they might get me a piano and that I might start piano lessons. So I was about six or seven when that happened and right away I started writing songs and subsequently, a couple of years later when Shinbone Alley was finally on Broadway, I think I was about nine, my parents took me to see it and that was my first Broadway show and that sealed my fate, I was doomed from then on.
Ken: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote, or the first one you remember writing?
Stephen: The first one I remember was for a puppet show that my sister and I were putting on for our parents, and subsequently for the neighborhood children, called Hi, Dog, which I think was a story of a dog who ran away from home, to the heartbreak of his master, etc., but ultimately returned and it all ended happily, and there was a song in it . . . there were several songs, but the only one I remember was a song called “Little Lullaby” and that’s the first thing that I remember having written.
Ken: Was it good?
Stephen: Not particularly, no. It had a tune, though.
Ken: I’m sure it did. So you’ve written in a lot of different mediums and it’s easy to see why you fell into the theater very young . . . we hear this a lot, parents bringing you to a neighbor’s house. But what, specifically, about the theater were you attracted to? Because you could have taken that love of music and said, “You know wat? I’m going to write pop songs for the rest of my life,” or, “I’m going to write country music.”
Stephen: Well most of the songwriters of my generation did write pop songs. There were very few of us who went into theater. Me, Alan Menken, Andrew Lloyd Webber, a rather small list. Most of them were busy being James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and people like that.
Ken: So what about it?
Stephen: You know, I don’t know. I think it’s very difficult when you ask people what made them fall in love with the theater, and with musical theater in particular. I think it has something to do with storytelling, because it’s still the thing I like to do best, and my sort of fascination with how you can tell stories and feel emotion and, if you wrote it correctly, incite emotion in others through the use of music as a storytelling device.
Ken: So tell me the story of how it all really began. You went to Carnegie Mellon, right?
Stephen: Yeah, well I started taking piano lessons at George Kleinsinger’s suggestion, and when I was in high school, because we lived not that far from New York City . . . I went to a high school called Mineola High School on Long Island . . . I got a scholarship to Julliard and I used to take the train into the city every Saturday and go to the preparatory division of Julliard and study piano and then, when it became quite clear to me and everybody that I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist, I switched and became a composition major. But that was great at Julliard, I took sight reading and a lot of theory and orchestration and it was very helpful. I do admit that sometimes I would play hooky, unbeknownst to my parents, and I’d get off the subway in the 50s and I’d go and get standing room for a show, but usually I actually showed up at school. Then, when it was time to go to college, I actually applied originally to just a couple of the Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale, because I had very good College Board scores, I think because I liked tests and I didn’t quite understand that this was serious and I was supposed to be nervous about it, it just seemed like a game to me. Consequently, I did quite well on them and everyone said to me, “Oh, you’re going to get in anywhere you apply,” so I applied to Harvard and Yale and I didn’t get into either of them. It’s now April of my senior year in high school and I hadn’t gotten into college and my dad . . . again the parental effect . . . my dad was working on the New York World’s Fair, he was supplying some things that were being used in the exhibits, and one of the exhibits was designed by Jo Mielziner, who was a famous Broadway designer, and my dad was talking to his assistants one day, saying how his son hadn’t gotten into college, and they said, “Well, if your son in interested in theater he should maybe look at Carnegie Mellon,” which I had never heard of, and so I applied there late and did get in and that, of course, sealed my fate and changed my life, I think for the better.
Ken: I think we’d all agree with that for sure. I’m wondering, actually . . . you talked about how taking tests was easy for you . . . I’m wondering if we studied all of the composers’ test taking scores if they’d all be good, because it’s making little circles and filling in the dots like notes.
Stephen: I don’t know, I think some people are good test takers and some people are not. I really do think it has to do with your attitude. I think if you really understand that this is actually going to affect you in some way then probably you don’t do quite so well and if you just think it’s like a mind game, like a puzzle that you would do just to pass the time, then you do quite well at it.
Ken: So Carnegie Mellon is obviously where Godspell was born.
Ken: I know this story, of course, very well, having produced the revival.
Stephen: A wonderful revival.
Ken: One of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of. But many people may not know how it happened, in terms of how you became associated with the show.
Stephen: Well when I was at Carnegie I was actually a directing major, because in those days there was no musical theater program as part of the drama department at all, but if you were a director you got to take everything – acting and design, as well as directing. It was the most comprehensive major and since I wanted to work in theater I thought that that was maybe the best thing for me to do. At Carnegie Mellon at that time there was an extracurricular organization called Scotch and Soda and every year they put on an original musical which was written, produced, performed, etc. by students. The drama students were not allowed to be in it so that the rest of the campus could have a chance to be in a show, but we did basically write it and design it, etc., and I signed up my freshmen year at orientation and I had to audition for them and it turned out that they needed someone to help write songs that first year so my four years at Carnegie, each year I co-wrote an original musical, so by the time I left I had done four musicals, or actually three musicals and quite a terrible one act opera, which is what I did my senior year. But my junior year the show that I did with a friend of mine was a show called Pippin Pippin, which was kind of a musical Lion in Winter, a medieval melodrama, court intrigue, etc., and obviously over time that developed and it dropped the second Pippin from its name. Why it was there in the first place, I don’t know anymore, but anyway that was what I came to New York with and subsequently was able to introduce to a producer, etc. But meanwhile, after I left Carnegie, a director named John-Michael Tebelak, for his senior project, had the idea to do a musical based on the book of St. Matthew, the Gospel according to St. Matthew and a couple of verses of Luke or something thrown in, and that was Godspell. It didn’t really have an original score, it kind of had background music by the band that was there, and some of the kids in the show wrote some tunes to some episcopal hymns and I think they used some found music as well. Anyway, it was very, very successful at Carnegie and John-Michael subsequently got an opportunity to do it at an off-off-Broadway theater called the Cafe La Mama, and so it was there for four weeks or so and, out of the blue, I got a phone call from the office of producers Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh, for whom I had auditioned the score for Pippin nine months before, and they were not interested at all in Pippin but when they saw Godspell at Cafe La Mama and thought it had commercial potential but needed an actual score, they called me. They claim they called me right away but I don’t believe this because I didn’t get the call from them until the day before it was going to close. And also they were not fools, so I assume what they did was call every known composer in New York and all of them turned it down and finally, in desperation, as the show was about to leave Cafe La Mama, they finally said, “Well what about that kid with that strange musical about Charlemagne? Maybe we’ll call him,” and I went down to the Cafe La Mama the day after my 23rd birthday and I saw it and discovered that many people that I knew from Carnegie Mellon were in it, and I had known John-Michael at Carnegie Mellon, and I signed on to do it and suddenly I had this Off-Broadway show.
Ken: Let’s talk about that “suddenly” aspect. You come out of college, you have a show with you that you wrote in college that you’re starting to shop around, Godspell obviously takes on a life of its own and immediately you are Stephen Schwartz, hit of New York. You’ve got hits, you’ve got shows going on here now. What was it like to, all of a sudden, be what you were dreaming about or thinking about?
Stephen: Well that part was great, but I think I had such romantic illusions about the musical theater and New York theater and what that was and I really didn’t understand the actual professional way that New York theater works, and that was extremely disillusioning, ultimately. Not on Godspell, because on Godspell we were all just kids and so we were just working together and it was kind of like doing a show in college, expect that eventually you got reviewed, although we didn’t really think about the fact that we were going to get reviewed and that people were going to have to pay money to buy tickets if they wanted to see it and all of that. So that was a pretty exhilarating and fun experience. Then I worked on the Bernstein MASS and that was interesting and fun because Len Bernstein was such an amazing man and he was the closest I’ve ever had to a mentor. Meanwhile, Pippin had gotten optioned and about a year after Godspell opened was when Pippin opened, so we went into rehearsal and I was actually developing the show while Godspell was happening. Right after Godspell opened, Bob Fosse came in as the director and suddenly I was in the world of professional Broadway theater. That was a very different world and it took me quite a long time to learn how to adjust to that. I think I finally adjusted to it about the time that I did Wicked, so it took about forty years to adjust.
Ken: What was it that was so different?
Stephen: Well it’s really mean, and people are extremely territorial, I’ve found, and in the outside world everyone is wishing for you to fail. It’s really not a nice business, at least in my experience. Really the only kind of happy experience I ever had doing a show in New York was that original Godspell. Revivals are different. The revival I did with you was a lot of fun, the Pippin revival I did with Diane Paulus for the Weisslers, that was a lot of fun, but an original musical was really not fun, at least not in my experience.
Ken: Especially with Fosse leading the charge.
Stephen: Well that was a bit of a baptism of fire, yeah.
Ken: You talked a little bit generally about musicals. I’m sure, now especially, of course, people are throwing ideas for musicals at you all the time. “Oh, do you want to work on this? Do you want to work on this?” What makes a good idea for a musical for you? What makes you go, “Oh yeah, that I can get into,” or, “That seems the right thing to do.”
Stephen: Again, I think it’s an instinct. It’s just coming across an idea and being excited by it and thinking, “This is something I would really like to see myself,” and it’s a world or an idea that I want to or I’m willing to be in for five years, because it takes about five years from the time you get an idea to actually getting the show on. Godspell is the exception. For instance, with Wicked, I was out in Hollywood at that point and working very happily in animation, enjoying it very much. As I said, I did not particularly enjoy working in New York theater and so I thought, “I really don’t want to do that again, since I’m having this very nice life and career out here.” Then I went on a vacation, actually, an unexpected vacation for a couple of days in Hawaii with some friends who happened to be there and called me and said, “Come join us,” and we went snorkeling one day and on the boat on the way back one of my friends, folk singer Holly Near, said, “I’m reading this really interesting book. It’s called Wicked and it’s kind of the Oz story from the Wicked Witch’s point of view,” and I just thought, “Well that’s just the best idea I’ve ever heard and it’s so me in so many ways and I need to do this,” and it was obvious that it had to be a show and it was obvious that it was going to be big, in terms of the number of people, it was just a big idea and so that meant that it was going to be a Broadway show. I thought, “Well, I really want to do this idea and it’s worth it for me to suffer through doing it on Broadway.”
Ken: And how long did it take from moment until it opened?
Stephen: About five years. In fact, maybe a little longer than that. I think that was ninety . . . no, it was five years. That was 1998 and the show opened in 2003.
Ken: Besides Godspell, obviously that came through John-Michael, have most of your ideas for musicals been things like that, that you’ve found and that you’ve, almost like an entrepreneur, developed?
Stephen: Sometimes. I think it sort of depends. Pippin was actually the idea of a friend of mine at Carnegie Mellon and he subsequently didn’t want to get involved. Once it came to New York he had sort of moved past it, he was just doing it for college, but he does have a nice little piece of the show so it has been good to him, as he deserves because it was his idea. The next show I did was The Magic Show and that was the producers, again, Edgar and Jo, who had produced Godspell, were up in Toronto and happened to see this magician, Doug Henning, and thought that a musical could be built around him and they knew that I liked magic so they called me about that. Working was like Wicked in that I stumbled on the idea. I stumbled on a description of the book Working and I was just very taken with it and thought that was something that I would like to explore. But Children of Eden was an idea that was brought to me, actually not originally to be a show, it was brought to me to be a summer show in Radio City Music Hall, kind of like the Christmas show or the Easter show, this was going to be the glory of creation. And it was brought to me by a designer friend of mine named Charles Lisanby and it developed into a show. But in all cases it’s hearing an idea and something resonates inside and I just feel like that’s my territory, there’s something about it that speaks to me and it’s something I’d like to see in the theater and that’s why I do it.
Ken: And your first step when you get an idea like that or when someone calls you with an idea . . . do you sit down at the piano first? Are you music or lyrics? That’s a generic way to ask the same question, but what is your first instinct when you say, “I’m going to write Wicked.”?
Stephen: My first instinct was to try to do an outline. How could this book be structured as a show?
Ken: Even though you’re not the book writer? As a song writer you say, “It’s important for me to know the story?”
Stephen: Absolutely. This is what I was saying earlier, that I think what appealed to me about musical theater was the combination of music and telling a compelling story, so for me, first, it’s, “What is that story and how is it going to be structured?” and that is something I would collaborate on with the book writer, because I don’t write the book myself – nor should I, because I’m not good at it. But in the case of Wicked I found Winnie Holzman and asked her to do it with me and then I sort of showed her this outline that I had come up with and obviously it was very rudimentary, but there were some things about it that never changed, that were the same when the show opened. Virtually everything changed, but the beginning, the end of the first act and the end of the show never changed. Winnie came onboard and we spent a year outlining the show before we wrote anything. I fooled around with little tunes and themes, “This music sounds like it could be for Elphaba,” or, “This sounds like it might be something that the citizens of Oz would sing,” but we really waited until we had the story. I once read an article about or interview with J.K. Rowling and she talked about her process in writing the Harry Potter series and that she spent an entire year working out the world and the rules of the world and a kind of vague outline of all seven books before she wrote anything, and I really understand that kind of process.
Ken: When you have a strong foundation under you, you can build a proper house.
Stephen: Yeah, and you can always redecorate the rooms or combine rooms or tear down a room or whatever, but if you don’t have a foundation you’re just building in air.
Ken: Okay, here’s my first James Lipton-type question for you, here we go.
Stephen: Uh oh, I’m so bad at these. I hope you’re not going to ask me what color I would be or something.
Ken: So what color would you be? No, I want you to imagine . . . and you’re such a great person to ask this question because your body of work is so epic . . . I want you to imagine the Smithsonian calls and says, “Stephen, we have room in the Institute for one of your . . . ” I was going to ask for one of your shows but I’m going to say this . . . “one song. One song of yours that you can put in here to be forever preserved.” What song would you choose of yours?
Stephen: I would choose the last song in Children of Eden, “In the Beginning.” Children of Eden is the show that is most personally significant to me, and I think that song so represents kind of my world view in so many ways that I think if I had to have one song that represented me it would probably be that, and if not that it would probably for “For Good” from Wicked. They’re not necessarily my favorite songs, by the way.
Ken: What’s your favorite?
Stephen: Oh no, I won’t answer that. I’ll never answer that question. I’ll tell you why. I once read an interview with Stephen Sondheim, years and years ago, and someone asked him what was his favorite song and he said “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures and I found that I could never hear the song again without just listening to it in terms of, “Why is this his favorite?” and, “Really?” and, “You know, it’s good, but why this one?” and I could never experience the song, and so I decided that I would never answer questions like that.
Ken: He probably likes people asking all of those questions as they listen to his songs.
Stephen: I bet that if someone had asked him the week after he gave that interview, “What is your favorite song?” I’ll bet he would have said something else. I think it was just that day what was his favorite and now he’s stuck with that answer, so that’s another reason I’m not going to answer those questions.
Ken: I’ll ask you a derivative, we’ll see if you answer this one. What’s your favorite song that you haven’t written?
Stephen: “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell.
Ken: That one came out quick.
Stephen: Oh, because it’s always been my favorite song, since the first time I heard it, and any time that I move into a new house or anything like that, the very first thing I have to do is go to the piano and play that song, just to bless it in some way.
Ken: Maybe you can play mine after.
Stephen: I can, I’ll play “Both Sides Now” for you.
Ken: So now the reverse question. Obviously you write music, you write lyrics. Is there any lyric of yours that you hear now and you’re like, “Uh, you know what? I could have done better with that.”
Stephen: Oh, sure! Of course!
Ken: So what’s your least favorite lyric?
Stephen: I wouldn’t say this is necessarily my least favorite . . . there is a long list . . . but I think because you and I are talking about it, in Godspell there’s the song “Alas for You” and it’s a sort of angry and serious song for the character Jesus and he sings, “You snakes, you vipers’ brood,” which is directly from St. Matthew, and then he sings, “You cannot escape being devils’ food,” and I just think that’s so inappropriate for that song. I thought it was so clever when I thought of it and I would just never do that now. But there are lots and lots of lyrics of mine where I think, “Oh gosh, I wish I’d done better.” Sometimes you just run out of time and you just think, “Well, I have to have this song here and I have to tell the story and I just don’t really have a good line for this part of the song, but this is the best I can do and maybe someday I’ll think of a better line and I’ll fix it.” In Pippin, the song “Extraordinary,” I thought there were just not very good lines in there and jokes that didn’t work at all, then, when I got to do the revival, I just changed it.
Ken: The magic of theater – it evolves, you can change it. You can’t change film.
Stephen: That’s one of the best things about theater, that it’s live and you can always make it better, or sometimes make it worse, but yes, it’s not preserved forever in aspic, you can do things about it.
Ken: But you work on the left coast a lot, obviously, with your work in animation.
Stephen: I do.
Ken: Do you enjoy that work? How is it different? What’s the process?
Stephen: In some ways the basic process is the same because it’s still storytelling and using music to tell stories. Right now I’m working on a movie. I’m collaborating with Alan Menken . . . we’ve done a lot of movies together and we’re collaborating on a new movie . . . and, once again, the very first thing we’re doing is, with the screenwriter and one of the stars, who’s the main focus of the movie, we’re just working out the story, so that part is the same. I think when you write for movies you have to be aware that the camera has to be in motion. You can’t just have a character who’s going to stand in the middle of the stage and sing for three and a half minutes, which can be very, very exciting in theater but not so much on film. There’s only so many times the camera can go in a circle around somebody, so I think you really have to think about, “How can this be a motion picture?” But other than that it’s pretty much the same process. There is something sort of both frustrating but also comforting about the fact that you can’t change it, you’re just stuck with it. Oh well.
Ken: Joe Mantello did the podcast last week and he was talking about Wicked, of course, and he said Wicked’s response when it opened on Broadway was very interesting in that the weekly publications gave some great reviews, the dailies weren’t so great. Talk to me about your feelings about critics.
Stephen: Well I would describe it differently than Joe. He’s accurate, but the difference between the dailies and weeklies is that the dailies are New York and the weeklies are national. For whatever reason, I have never been the critics’ darling in New York. I always get bad reviews in New York, and I tend to get much better reviews from national press or from press in other cities. Maybe it’s just that New York is so much more sophisticated and I’m not quite up to that level, I don’t know. But they’ve never liked my work so I’ve just given up even worrying about it, I just do what I do and hope I can get by the critics, but I warn everybody I’m working with that if we open in New York the show is going to get bad reviews from the New York critics. I’ve never gotten a good review in the New York Times. Ever.
Ken: If there is ever an example that reviews do not matter it would be you, then.
Stephen: Sometimes they do matter and it’s very frustrating. You mentioned that The Hunchback of Notre Dame had been turned into a stage show. It is probably the best show that I have ever been a part of, that production and that show, and once again, it got absolutely glowing reviews out of town, on the west coast. I have never been involved with a show that got that kind of audience response – more than Wicked, more than Godspell, the show, every night, got a standing ovation before it ended. During the last number, before the number was over, people were on their feet screaming and cheering and weeping, etc. And then it opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse and the New York critics came to see it and just decided that it wasn’t appropriate for Disney to be producing something like that or be involved with that. I don’t know what they were talking about but, anyway, that was the end of that. So sometimes the critics just kill it. You need a very strong, devoted producer who just is determined to try to reach the audience over or in spite of the critics. We were able to do that with Wicked, we were able to do that with Pippin, etc., but not always.
Ken: You worked with your son, Scott, on Hunchback.
Stephen: I did. He’s one of my favorite directors to work with.
Ken: He’s a terrifically talented director who’s actually done this podcast. How was that process, to work with a family member, your son? When he gave you notes, did he ever tell you, “Dad, this song . . .”
Stephen: Of course, but he’s been doing that for years! And vice versa. We have become so collegial in terms of how we relate to one another – obviously not as father and son, but when we’re working as professionals. I have always asked him to come see shows I’m working on. I asked him to come and see Wicked and he had very, very helpful suggestions, he came to an early reading of that. I just went to the first preview of a new show that he’s doing and I called him today and said, “Here’s what I’ve got for you. Here are the notes I have for you, for whatever they’re worth.” We’ve always done that so it was really, simply, like working with a colleague that you like and respect. But he has no bones about saying what he thinks doesn’t work and, frankly, neither do I.
Ken: How it should be. That’s exactly how the relationship should work.
Stephen: It’s really no different in that regard than working with Joe Mantello or Diane Paulus.
Ken: So a producer comes to you today that you may not know and says, “I want to produce Children of Eden, I want to produce Godspell, I want to produce something.” What do they have to say or do or show you in order for you to give them the rights to your work? What are you looking for?
Stephen: I’m looking to understand, number one, why do they want to do it? And, number two, how do they see it? Not necessarily, “The curtain will go up and we’ll see this or that,” but what is their big picture of the show? What is their emotional response to the show? Does that resonate with me? With Pippin, Diane came to me and had this idea to do the show set in a sort of circus, which I didn’t really understand what she was talking about . . . it seemed kind of like a hackneyed idea to me . . . but I was a big fan of her work and I just thought, “Well, sure, we’ll see it at ART and if it works, great, and if it doesn’t, it was just another regional production of Pippin that didn’t quite come off,” and then, when I saw what she had in mind in rehearsal, I started to understand what she was talking about. So sometimes it’s just the person and your feeling about them. When you came and talked about Godspell, it wasn’t like, “Well we’re going to set it here, we’re going to do it like this,” it was just your response to the material and sort of a passion that I felt from you about the show that made me feel that it would be fun to work with you.
Ken: You were obviously a young writer when you came onto the scene. Do you think it’s easier or harder for young writers today to get involved in writing for Broadway?
Stephen: I think in some ways it’s harder because it’s so expensive now, and also when I was starting it was the transition from theater music to what we call “pop music” or “rock music,” however you want to describe it, and very few people were writing that style of music for theater, and producers who were older didn’t really understand it that well and didn’t exactly know how to find that kind of music so I think there was an opportunity for people like me who wrote in that style to get an early entree. That being said, there are a lot of young writers who are very, very talented and getting produced. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are good friends of mine, and Griffin Matthews doing Invisible Thread, that’s a show that I actually brought to Diane, and of course Lin-Manuel. People who are really talented, I think they get an opportunity.
Ken: Advice for any young writers out there listening?
Stephen: My advice would be to write something, to have something that you have written, that you can show. That’s what happened for me, is that I came to New York with this show called Pippin. Even though, by the time it opened in New York, not one single word, note or lyric of the show was the same as the show that came out of Carnegie Mellon, nevertheless I had written something and people could hear it and say, “Oh, I think this guy could maybe do this.” Speaking of Benj and Justin a moment ago, I first met them because they sent me this collection of songs.
Stephen: Edges, yeah.
Ken: They sent that to everybody.
Stephen: Yeah, well I heard it. They just did it at the University of Michigan with a bunch of kids who were in the musical theatre program. Now, that happens to be one of the three best musical theatre programs in the country so they had very talented kids, but nevertheless that’s what they were, and I heard the songs and thought they were really talented and ultimately communicated with them and gave them some feedback, etc. But the point is that other people heard this work too and it wasn’t as if anybody was ever going to produce Edges, but they heard that these guys could do this kind of work and gave them the opportunity to do other shows.
Ken: I’m so glad you brought them up because I talk about them a lot. They burst on the scene as well but, again, they had this portfolio, this thing that they had done, and when I say they sent it to everyone, it got on my desk, it got on everybody’s desk, because they had a resume, a picture and resume, if you will, like an actor, with a body of work and it was good.
Stephen: And it was good. If you listen and you think, “This isn’t very good,” you’ll listen to a song or two and that will be the end of it, but if you listen to something and think, “Oh wait, these guys are really talented. They don’t know what they’re doing yet but they’re really talented,” then you pursue that.
Ken: Okay, my last question. It’s another Lipton-like question so get ready for it . . . what color are you? I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes a-knocking on your door and says, “Stephen, your contributions to the American musical theatre are so great and I want to say thank you for everything you’ve done, and for your advice for writers,” not only here on this podcast but I know you work with a lot of young writers and you’ve helped me and my writers a lot, so this genie wants to thank you for all of that. He wants to grant you one wish, one wish to change the one thing that drives you the craziest about Broadway, the one thing that makes you so angry, that keeps you up at night, that makes you fly off the handle, the one thing that you really hate about this industry. Only one, though. What’s the one thing you’d ask this genie to change?
Stephen: That’s hard, to think of one, because I can think of a few. I just wish that Broadway theater were a nicer place to work. That has to do with critics, it has to do with the sort of “It’s not enough for me to succeed, everybody else has to fail” attitude. We’re just putting on shows and they’re not all going to be good but everybody’s just trying to do the best he or she can, and I just wish it weren’t so mean.
Ken: You know, when you talk about how you felt with Godspell and then coming here and realizing it was all different, sometimes I say exactly what you just said but in the terms of, “If we could all just remember why we started doing this, and the Godspell in our own life, whether that was at college or whatever, it would be a better place.”
Stephen: I do theater in a lot of other places and I have a really good time. I’m doing a show now that’s going to premiere in Vienna next year and I’m just having so much fun on it. Maybe as it gets closer to production it won’t be as much fun, but right now it’s a lot of fun and there’s no reason, really, that that couldn’t be true of Broadway, it’s just not right now. So that would be my wish.
Ken: Well it’s a good one. Thank you so much for everything that you’ve done for the theater, and for me personally, and thank you for being here. All of you, thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for the next one.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.