Renowned songwriter Stephen Schwartz talks local production ‘Working’

Musical theater lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz talks about his career spanning more than four decades. Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com
Musical theater lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz talks about his career spanning more than four decades. Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Composer/lyricist known for ‘Wicked’ and ‘Enchanted’ is still working in theater vineyards

Songwriter Stephen Schwartz never stops working.

Up early on a Saturday morning, he puts in some time rewriting lyrics for a new Disney movie musical before sitting for an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The movie, “Disenchanted,” currently in production, is a sequel to the 2007 hit “Enchanted.” It teams him up again with composer Alan Menken, and they’ve already written seven new songs, with more coming.

In the meantime, Schwartz is making plans to film the movie version of “Wicked,” a Broadway musical that has earned more than $1 billion. Appropriately, he’s in town to see the premiere of the Alliance Theatre’s new staging of his 1978 musical, “Working.”

The show is based on a book by the great Chicago oral historian Studs Terkel, a celebration of the dignity and drudgery of the working class.

It introduces us to a supermarket checker, a delivery driver, a long-distance trucker, a hospital aid — in other words, the people who have kept us alive during the past 12 months.

Schwartz, looking fit at age 73, is delighted to see the musical revived in this pandemic year, a perfect time to recognize the people who stock our shelves and take our temperature.

“I’m glad there seems to be a more global awareness of these people who sustain our lives,” he said, during an interview on The Coca-Cola Stage at the Alliance Theatre. “We don’t think about the people who are making our lives possible.”

In a wide-ranging chat with the AJC (see the video here) Schwartz spoke about the return of live theater after the COVID-19 hiatus, the movie version of “Wicked,” the musical that reinvents itself and that elusive Tony award.

First, Schwartz had some breaking news: “Wicked,” the movie, will film in Atlanta, though the production almost went elsewhere.

When the Georgia Legislature passed new voting restrictions, the movie’s creative team hit the pause button. “I do feel (the legislation) infringes on people’s right to vote,” said Schwartz.

“Certain movies that were due to film in Atlanta decided not to, and frankly we had that discussion,” he added.

“But then those of us involved in the movie talked to (voting rights activist) Stacey Abrams, who strongly asked us not to boycott because she said the boycott hurts the very people that you’re trying to help.”

Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, writer of songs for such Broadway hits as "Wicked," "Godspell" and "Pippin," chats with staff at the Alliance Theatre before the premiere of a new production of his 1978 show "Working."  The Alliance Theatre is performing in the temporary space "Under the Tent" now set up in the Woodruff Arts Center plaza for pandemic safety. Jenni Girtman for The AJC
Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, writer of songs for such Broadway hits as "Wicked," "Godspell" and "Pippin," chats with staff at the Alliance Theatre before the premiere of a new production of his 1978 show "Working." The Alliance Theatre is performing in the temporary space "Under the Tent" now set up in the Woodruff Arts Center plaza for pandemic safety. Jenni Girtman for The AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Instead, the filmmakers, while shooting the movie here, will contribute to organizations working to help Georgians get voter IDs, and will help promote federal legislation that protects voting rights.

“Wicked,” to be directed by John M. Chu, begins production in the fall, and will continue throughout 2022, he said. “We are scheduled to be here for a long time.”

With these items on his plate, Schwartz still had time to consult with members of the Alliance on their production of “Working,” which incorporates new material gathered in interviews with Atlantans and a new Atlanta-centric song penned by Kristian and Brandon Bush and Carlos Andrés Gómez.

That the show was refitted for the city, with many new ideas from director Tamilla Woodard, is in keeping with its history. “Working” has continuously evolved through new productions in the 1990s and the 2000s, as characters representing outdated occupations (goodbye newsboy) were jettisoned and new songs created.

Stephen Schwartz, center, looks over the playbill at the Alliance Theater's temporary Under the Tent theater before the premiere of a new production of his 1978 show "Working." Jenni Girtman for The AJC
Stephen Schwartz, center, looks over the playbill at the Alliance Theater's temporary Under the Tent theater before the premiere of a new production of his 1978 show "Working." Jenni Girtman for The AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

With that in mind, Schwartz began developing (for a new hometown production) a template for a convertible “Working” that could adjust to not only the times but to the locale where it’s being staged.

That was happening at the same time as Woodard was updating the play for contemporary Atlanta. She asked if she could change things, and he said yes.

“There was a little bit of guidance,” said Schwartz. “We sent her the template that we were starting to develop, but I thought that she’s a very accomplished director, and I thought well, let’s see what she does, and I’ll learn something. And I did. She put in a couple of old songs that had been cut, and both of them worked very well.”

The sort of attention that Schwartz has given to the Alliance production is typical of his willingness to work with young playwrights and regional theaters, an attitude that won him an honorary Tony in 2015, the Isabell Stevenson Award, given to a member of the theater community who spends time and effort on behalf of others.

Stephen Schwartz (left) is introduced by Alliance Theatre's Artistic Director Susan Booth to theater supporters Lila Hertz and Doug Hertz at the Alliance Theater, before the premiere of a new production of his 1978 show "Working."  Jenni Girtman for The AJC
Stephen Schwartz (left) is introduced by Alliance Theatre's Artistic Director Susan Booth to theater supporters Lila Hertz and Doug Hertz at the Alliance Theater, before the premiere of a new production of his 1978 show "Working." Jenni Girtman for The AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Shockingly, it’s the only Tony he has. Yet his accomplishments speak for themselves: he wrote the songs for “Pippin” at age 23 and followed that up with “Godspell.” He’s one of the few composer/lyricists to have three shows run for more than 1,500 performances.

Right now, after attending the Alliance’s premiere, he’s happy just to see actors back in front of live audiences again,

“There is lots of great stuff on television and cable, etcetera, and cool movies to watch, but there’s just nothing that beats live theater,” he said. “Just having the sound of the audience laughing. And after a musical number, that kind of roar of appreciation. You just don’t get that anywhere else.”

THEATER PREVIEW

”Working: A Musical.”

April 22-June 6. $50-$245 for two- and four-seat pods.

Presented by the Alliance Theatre Under the Tent, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org

All Under the Tent productions will be recorded and streamed on-demand on the Alliance Theatre Anywhere streaming app.

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