- The Musical Theater of Stephen Schwartz: From Godspell to Wicked and Beyond by Paul R. Laird
As one of the most popular and enduring composer/lyricists in the US musical theatre canon, Stephen Schwartz’s career has spanned four decades. Schwartz’s triumvirate of wildly well-loved musicals, Godspell (1971), Children of Eden (1991), and Wicked (2003), along with his myriad of lesser-known pieces, has firmly ensconced him as a leading figure in the field. In The Musical Theater of Stephen Schwartz, Paul R. Laird likens Schwartz to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Both have achieved vast commercial success, but scholars have largely dismissed their music. Laird, who is a professor of Musicology at the University of Kansas, uses his expansive technical knowledge to explore Schwartz’s musical compositions for both film and musical theatre. He rigorously discusses the scores themselves as well as the musical influences—both those inherent in the idioms of the music and those expressed by Schwartz himself—and effectively demonstrates Schwartz’s legitimate musical abilities and talents. Laird also puts Schwartz’s works in nuanced conversation with each other, commenting on the progression of his compositions throughout his career and the ways in which his earlier music influences his later pieces.
Previous researchers have certainly considered the social implications of Schwartz’s musicals, as in Stacy Wolf’s Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, which includes a chapter that focuses on a queer reading of Wicked. But Laird’s scholarship fills a void by exploring the musicology of Schwartz’s scores and analyzing in detail the dramatic effects of his music. In each chapter he tackles a different work by Schwartz, such as The Baker’s Wife (1976), Pippin (1972), and Children of Eden. While Laird does include some biographical information (collected almost exclusively from Carol De Giere’s comprehensive biography, Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked), he concentrates largely on Schwartz’s creative process in developing pieces with different collaborators. Laird delves into a series of previously unavailable primary sources for the bulk of his analysis, including [End Page 175] various versions of musical scores and scripts, a wealth of correspondence between Schwartz and his collaborators, and a series of personal interviews that Laird conducted with Schwartz and other key members of his artistic teams: director John Caird, Schwartz’s son and sometimes director Scott Schwartz, composer Charles Strouse, and many more.
Laird begins the book with a brief description of Schwartz’s professional and preprofessional biography. Schwartz’s career in music seemed a forgone conclusion from an early age; he was a childhood prodigy in classical piano, spent four years studying musical composition at Julliard, and took his first steps as a musical theatre composer with his fellow theatre majors at Carnegie Mellon. Laird discusses Schwartz’s lack of success with the Tony Awards—he received his first Tony in 2013 for the revival of Pippin—and debunks the significance of the awards by showing the arbitrariness of each year’s competition. The book then progresses in approximate chronological order, beginning with Godspell and concluding with Schwartz’s latest work, an opera called Séance on a Wet Afternoon (2009), followed by a short discussion of Schwartz’s minor, yet notable, projects. Laird also devotes chapters to Schwartz’s work as a lyricist and as contributor to the music and/or lyrics of animated features. His chapter on Wicked is deceptively short. Instead, Laird refers readers to his much more exhaustive 2011 monograph about the musical, Wicked: A Musical Biography (Scarecrow Press). He also writes extensively about Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The project transpired during the period in which Laird was writing the book (2005-2007), allowing him invaluable firsthand access to Schwartz’s creative process. Laird’s writing and research on Schwartz’s musical scores is extensive and thorough. In some instances, such as Children of Eden and Séance on a Wet Afternoon, he includes charts to...