We sat down with Stephen Schwarz, famed lyricist and composer, for our new Behind the Music series. Stephen’s known not only for musicals like Wicked and Pippin, but also for some of your favourite childhood films, including The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Pocahontas and of course, The Prince Of Egypt!
He’s won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics as well as three Grammy Awards and three Academy Awards for his music and lyrics. We chatted with him about the moments behind some of his most favourite songs.
“The riff for defying gravity is these deep kind of power chords that was music that I came up with when I was first thinking about the show and I had no idea how I was going to use it, if I was going to use it.
“It was just something when I was thinking about the character of the Wicked Witch; I scrawled it down on a piece of paper and put it aside and then two years later when it was time to write that song I suddenly thought what’s on that paper and I took it out and played those chords again and I thought ‘oh it’s Defying Gravity’.
“So it’s always good to have little notations of things – you never know when they’re going to come in handy.”
“I was on a kind of inspirational journey with some of the other creators of the film in Egypt in the Sinai desert and we were going along in little jeeps looking at the desert and one of our directors, Stephen Hickner, said it would be so good if there were some kind of anthem that the Hebrew tribes could sing when they’re finally released from bondage as they’re crossing the desert and crossing the Red Sea.
“The next morning we got up in the middle of the night to climb Mount Sinai so we could be on the top of Mount Sinai to watch the sun rise and of course I had Steve Hickner’s words in my head and I’m watching the sun come up and this tune came into my head and that became When You Believe.
“So it was so much about being on site to create that song and now all these years later you know I sit in the Dominion Theatre and I see the sun come up on the stage and they sing the song and everybody responds so strongly, it’s a really great feeling.”
“Pippin opens with a song called Magic To Do in which this strange mysterious theatrical troupe invites a character a young man named Pippin to come and participate in this show.
“They have an agenda for him that we don’t know about at the beginning and in enticing him into this world they sing a song called Magic To Do.
“Now that song was for many years – when we were first writing the show – not the opening number of Pippin; it occurred at the very end of the show and after Pippin had gone through his entire journey.
“Then when we were casting the original production of Pippin 50 years ago, we saw a performer named Ben Vereen whom our director Bob Fosse knew, and he brought Ben in and said ‘look this guy is fantastic and he should be in our show, we don’t really have anything for him to do but look at him anyway’.
“So Ben auditioned and then we were talking afterwards and Roger O’Hearson who was the book writer said well maybe I could take several small roles that go throughout the show and combine them into a new character who would be called the leading player and he would be kind of our master of ceremonies.
“So when that decision got made then I said well maybe this song that’s at the end of the show, Magic To Do, if I rewrite it maybe that should be the opening number.
“People have said to me over the years oh well this iconic opening number, and it always makes me laugh because I know it wasn’t originally supposed to be an opening number at all!”