Long before Wicked’s composer created songs for characters like Elphaba, Glinda, and the Wizard of Oz, he wrote four shows with religious contexts: Godspell, Bernstein’s Mass, Children of Eden, and the movie The Prince of Egypt that is now being transformed into a stage musical.
Schwartz biographer Carol de Giere’s newly revised and updated edition of Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books 2018) adds new stories to this journey. Here are a few questions and answers about the work.
Life Upon the Sacred Stage: The stage adaptation of The Prince of Egypt film is one of the shows you cover in the second edition of your Schwartz biography. When did the project start?
Carol de Giere: For many years DreamWorks had received letters from theatre directors wanting to stage a version of the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt. Finally, in 2013, they contacted Stephen about possibilities. Right away he said he’d like the screenwriter for the movie, Philip LaZebnik, to write the book of the musical, even though LaZebnik lives in Denmark and they’d need to do a lot of work remotely.
Sacred Stage: Were you able to get interviews on the musical during its development?
CD: Yes, I was interviewing Stephen anyway for the new edition, and then I met with Philip when he came to New York City for a reading of The Prince of Egypt musical in 2016. I devote eleven pages of the second edition to the show.
Sacred Stage: How do the collaborators begin an adaptation like this?
CD: Musicals for stage or film are usually based on source material like a novel, and in this case the film had been based on a part of the Exodus story. So the writers began by reviewing both the movie and Exodus. The movie focused on the brother story: one was Moses, and the other, in the movie (though unknown historically) was Ramses.
LaZebnik and Schwartz decided to go further with the story implicit in the movie, that of two brothers who love each other but are forced by character and circumstance to become antagonists. Interestingly enough, the musical Wicked has a similar storyline but for the girls, Elphaba and Glinda. For The Prince of Egypt, LaZebnik and Schwartz have joked that we’re doing “Wicked with boys.”
Sacred Stage: I understand you went to The Prince of Egypt musical world premiere in 2017. Was that helpful for your research?
CD: When TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley staged a full developmental production, I flew out for the opening. It had many powerful moments, including, of course, “When You Believe,” the hit song from the movie. I gathered a group of fans for a discussion with Stephen and Philip the next day. One of the interesting things they talked about is how they always write more than they need. They know they can more easily cut than invent while they are testing something. I look forward to seeing a revised version.
Sacred Stage: Does the second edition of your book also cover Godspell, Bernstein’s Mass, and Children of Eden?
CD: All of those shows were vital parts of Stephen Schwartz’s creative career, and so there are stories about how these and others developed from page and piano to stage. Because I wrote another book released in 2014, The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, I cut back on Godspell in the new edition to make way for newer material. I interviewed Stephen further about his work with Leonard Bernstein on his theatre piece Mass and included that in chapter 6.
Sacred Stage: What else did you include in the second Edition?
CD: I invited Stephen’s long-time collaborator Alan Menken to write a Foreword. He came up with 10 pages that I was more than happy to include. The book also covers Wicked Worldwide, The Hunchback of Notre Dame stage adaptation, some of Stephen’s newer work in Hollywood, and a catch-all chapter at the end I titled “Always More Magic to Do.”
For the ending of the book, Stephen let me use the text of a commencement speech he gave in which he explores the necessity of bouncing back after failure and disappointment. That’s inspiration we all can use.
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Photo: Stephen Schwartz and Carol de Giere