Entertainment » Theatre

Stephen Schwartz :: Hey, Mr. Producer!

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Dec 3, 2010

When composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz came across The Blue Flower, he was immediately intrigued. That was nearly a decade ago when the musical drama was submitted to his musical theater workshop (which he ran in conjunction with ASCAP). But the show slipped back into Schwartz's consciousness until he caught up with a production of the piece seen off-Broadway in 2008. His response the second time around was even more enthusiastic.

This led to Schwartz's involvement with the musical's creative team (music, lyrics, script, and videography by Jim Bauer; artwork, story, and videography by Ruth Bauer, and direction by Will Pomerantz) to help get the work further productions. To this end he contacted Diane Paulus, who about that time was named the artistic director the American Repertory Theater. Paulus saw the show's possibilities and agreed to to join with Schwartz in producing a new production of the show, now playing at the Loeb Drama Center through January 8, 2011.

Schwartz explained his enthusiasm for the show on the ART website:

"The Blue Flower is the most creative and original piece of musical theater that I have ever encountered in my life. The story is beautiful, relevant, and compelling for our times. The music is amazingly accessible. The combination of Kurt Weill and Country Western, which sounds as if it shouldn't go together at all, and yet does brilliantly, is just one of the greatest sounds that I've ever heard. It creates a completely personal musical world and yet is enormously evocative and universal. I love it."

The Blue Flower, then, got a producer whose successful career spans some 40 years in the musical theater and includes such mega-hit titles as Godspell, Pippin and the current smash Wicked, as well as such cult shows as The Baker's Wife and Children of Eden. He has won nearly every major entertainment award: three Oscars, four Grammys, four Drama Desk Awards and a Golden Globe; and has been nominated five times for a Tony Award. More recently Schwartz composed an opera based on the 1964 psychological thriller Séance for a Wet Afternoon, which premiered last year at Opera Santa Barbara and is scheduled for the New York City Opera in the Spring.

This fall, though, Schwartz's attention turned to The Blue Flower, a work that uses four real-life figures from the first half of the 20th century to explore the nature of art and its relationship to the cultural and historical forces of its time. The musical concerns two best friends, Max and Franz, who meet in Berlin, move to Paris and find themselves immersed in the First World War, Weimar Germany and the lead up to the Second War. On their journey they meet up with two women: Marie, a scientist who becomes romantically involved with Fritz, and Hannah, a Dada performer who hooks up with Max.

While its story may sound conventional, it is anything but in execution. Fusing multi-media elements with a score that somehow marries the musical style of 1920s Weimar Germany with 21st century American country, The Blue Flower looks to be a musical that pushes the envelope in every possible way. "I can recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone interested in musicals with a score that's new and edgy yet richly melodic, a fascinating story fitted into a highly theatrical environment-with a director and cast superbly attuned to the show's sensibility," wrote critic Elyse Sommer in a review of the 2008 production for the website Curtain Up.

EDGE spoke with Schwartz recently about his involvement in the show, the state of the musical theater and those internet rumors about a film version of Wicked.


EDGE: Is The Blue Flower your first producing venture?

Stephen Schwartz: Yes. It’s my first and probably my only one. In other words, I am doing this not because I want to be a producer, but because this particular show is something that I believe in and want to bring to other people.

EDGE: How did you come across it?

Stephen Schwartz: I have a musical theater workshop that I run under the auspices of ASCAP and some years ago this musical came to the workshop. It certainly was the most unusual show that had ever come to the worksh op and I was intrigued by it. And loved the music. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. So I became a fan of it, if you will.

A year and a half ago there was a showcase presentation of the show in New York and I went to see it and was blown away completely again. And felt I had to help get the show out there into the world the best I can. And I signed on as a producer-slash-angel, or whatever you want to call me - someone there to help the cause.

Strange and improbable combination

EDGE: What is so unusual about it?

Stephen Schwartz: It’s a little hard to describe because it is unique. It’s mixed media in its presentation. It uses film and third-person narration that’s hooked up to the film that’s very unusual. The leading character for much of the piece speaks in a made-up language because of something that happened to him. There are large sections when he’s not speaking English. You understand what he’s saying, but he’s not speaking English. And the music itself -- I never heard anything like it. It’s a strange and improbable combination of Kurt Weill and country and western, which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but works incredibly well. It’s a really unique piece and that’s one of the reason why I felt someone has to help get this out there. People who are looking for the next thing that’s like everything else are not going to jump on this wagon.

EDGE: Some of the reviews describe the show as a Dada musical. Is that a fair description?

Stephen Schwartz: No. The piece itself is not Dada. One of its leading characters is a Dada performance artist so there are a number of Dada performance pieces in the show, which are part of the story. No, it’s not as incomprehensible as Dada. Dada was deliberately incomprehensible, but this show is very accessible and funny and touching. And very original in the way it is done.

EDGE: Have there been changes since the show was done in New York two years ago?

Stephen Schwartz: Sure. There have been a lot of changes. As they (the Bauers and director Pomerantz) developed it, they’ve made many changes in an attempt to tell the story better without undercutting the tone of the piece. But this is how musicals happen, whether it’s a traditional musical or something like this that is unusual and original. But this process is no different in that regard.

EDGE: In this production you have the role of producer, but over your career you’ve have had a much different relationship with producers. Were those relationships good or bad?

Stephen Schwartz: For the most part, yeah, they’ve been good. One show of mine - the original production of The Baker’s Wife - was produced by David Merrick, and that became a fraught relationship. Not a terrible one. But he was just an outlandish character and that whole process with that show was difficult. But in general I’ve had very good relationships with my producers.

EDGE: How do you see your role of producer in working with the musical’s creative team?

Stephen Schwartz: I think it is a balance of being supportive. Obviously trying to be helpful when you see a way you feel the show can be improved. And also understanding it is their show and in the end the creative team - the authors working with the director - would have the final decision artistically. I feel very strongly about this, because I am a writer. In my relationship with them I’ve made numerous suggestions, some of them they’ve implemented and some of them they haven’t.

EDGE: As a composer, do you offer advice in regards to the music?

Stephen Schwartz: The music is so terrific that I have no suggestions as to improve upon it. My role is to promote this music. I can’t go in that direction with this - the music is so great. I’ve never heard anything like it. Where I feel I can help is in the structure - how best to tell the story. That’s where I try to make some contribution.

Wicked’s muse?

EDGE: I read somewhere that you were the first person to see the musical possibilities of Wicked. Is that true?

Stephen Schwartz: Yes. A friend of mine told me about the book. Then when I read it, I found it one of the best ideas I’d ever heard for a musical and set out on a quest to get the rights and adapt it as a musical.

EDGE: The show recently celebrated its seventh anniversary and is approaching its 3,000 performances and remains the most popular show on Broadway. Eventhough it was your idea, are you surprised by its enormous success?

Stephen Schwartz: I think all of us involved with the show are surprised and overwhelmed by what can only be called a phenomenon. But we always thought that it would be successful from the first reading on. We knew we were onto something. But there’s a difference between having a hit and having a phenomenon. A hit is something to some extent you can control, but the phenomenon aspect involves things you have nothing to do with the creative process.

EDGE: Are you pleased with the current Broadway musical scene?

Stephen Schwartz: To be perfectly honest, if you asked me that questions a few years ago I would given a more enthusiastic response than this year. I was very encouraged a couple of years ago - really interesting things were happening and getting produced in the lines of Next to Normal and In the Heights; shows that I admired a lot. So I was pretty encouraged, but things have vacillated a bit. Last year was a pretty bad year and I’m not sure how encouraging this year will be. But these things go in cycles and waves.

EDGE: Are you still involved in your musical workshop program?

Stephen Schwartz: It is something I’ve had to do a moratorium on the last couple of years because I wrote an opera that was produced in California last year and is going to be done by the New York City Opera in the spring. That and other commitments took up my time. I ran the ASCAP workshop for about 15 years or so. We would have a two-week workshop in New York and also in LA, and I enjoyed doing it.

EDGE: How did your latest project - the opera based on the film Séance on a Wet Afternoon come about?

Stephen Schwartz: The idea was suggested to me by an agent and I remember seeing the movie when I was a kid. I had quite a vivid memory of it. I didn’t think much about it at first, but it must have stuck in the back of my head because when I was asked to do an opera, I immediately thought of the title. I felt the mood of the piece was good for opera. And there are two leading characters who want things really intently and felt like operatic characters to me. A lot of these choices are instinctive. Why when a friend of mine said that they were reading this interesting book called Wicked that tells The Wizard of Oz from the witch’s point of view, I can’t tell you why I immediately felt that was the best idea for a musical I ever heard. I just did. It was an instinctive reaction. So when I was asked to write an opera, I felt this was a really good idea for an opera and feel this is a very good idea.

EDGE: Opera, though, is very different than musical theater. Were there any difficulties on your part in writing in this musical form?

Stephen Schwartz: It turned out to be a steep learning curve for me. There were things about classical trained voices and the way opera singers use their voices that are different than musical theater. So I had to learn that and it was a challenge. And that it is unamplified and the words have to be heard while a huge orchestra is playing influences how one writes and orchestrates. There were lot of aspects that were challenging but also made it very interesting. For instance, unlike musical theater, where one doesn’t do one’s own orchestrations, orchestrating an opera is part of the composer’s job description. The use of the orchestra and the way it sounds is part of the composition. Obviously orchestrations are important in the theater, but they’re not quite as essential as they are in the writing of an opera.

Weimar fascination

EDGE: Back to The Blue Flower. The action in the piece moves from Paris to Zurich to Berlin during the days of the Weimar Republic. Why do you think there’s such a fascination with Weimar Germany and the rise of the Nazis?

Stephen Schwartz: I think people are taken with the idea that there was this republic - this democracy in a civilized nation where there was a flowering of arts in that period - a very free period in a lot of ways. And they are also taken with how it devolved into one of the most (if not the most) heinous dictatorships in history of the world is both fascinating and terrifying, and relevant. When we look at our own culture and ask, is this happening here or could it happen here? In the 1930s Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel about America called It Can’t Happen Here. But can it? I just think there always are reverberations that speak to our culture and our time. I think that is certainly true of The Blue Flower and where we are in America today. Not that I think Hitler-like leader is going to take over America sometime soon, but I think are cultural resonances.

EDGE: How did Diane Paulus and the American Repertory Theatre get involved?

Stephen Schwartz: I knew Diane a little bit. We had spoken and are continuing to speak about my show Pippin. It’s something she’s been interested in and I’m not sure whether or not that will actually come to pass or not. But I’ve admired her work and felt that she was someone who could get this. I think she’s able to grasp musical theater that’s hard to envision when it’s just on the page. And I think she has the kind of mind that can envision that - make that leap - how it can translate in performance. I thought she would respond to it and she did. She’s had many helpful suggestions about the show.

EDGE: Are you working on anything new?

Stephen Schwartz: I just delivered the revised version of the opera to the New York City Opera last week. And I have a couple of other revival of things that are happening. So I am trying to stay even, if you know what I mean. And in a few months I’ll be able to turn my attention to new things.

EDGE: The internet has been ablaze with speculation about the film version of Wicked? What’s happening with that?

Stephen Schwartz: It is a project that will happen for obviously reasons. Though it will be several years away.

EDGE: Will you be rethinking it for the screen?

Stephen Schwartz: First of all that’s part of the fun. And, second, each medium has its own demands and possibilities. There are things we can do well in a movie that we can’t do on stage, so absolutely we will be reworking it.

EDGE: And what about Children of Eden? It played the West End, but never Broadway. Any possibility of it coming to New York?

Stephen Schwartz: I hope so at some point. It’s the favorite of my show. There is always lots of talk about it, and of course it has done well in regional and community theater. But the reality of producing it with this big chorus and choir, it’s hard to figure it out from a commercial point of view. People talk about it from time to time, so maybe it will happen.

EDGE: And any last words about The Blue Flower?

Stephen Schwartz: I can promise people they will never see anything like it. At the very least people aren’t going to leave the theater and say, ’this again.’

The Blue Flower continues through January 8, 2010 at the American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information visit the American Repertory Theater website

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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