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"Defying Gravity" details Stephen Schwartz's sometimes difficult dealings with the Walt Disney Company

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"Defying Gravity" details Stephen Schwartz's sometimes difficult dealings with the Walt Disney Company

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Mention the name Stephen Schwartz to a musical theater fan, and they'll automatically list his Broadway credits. Particularly this songwriter's trio of long running hits, "Godspell," "Pippin" and "Wicked."

However, were you to mention Stephen's name to a Disneyana fan, they'd then mostly likely talk about an entirely different part of Schwartz's resume. Identifying him as the Academy Award-winning lyricist of "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Enchanted."

Mind you, those Disney films would have looked & sounded very different if Schwartz had actually gone ahead with his original plan for the 1990s. Which was -- following the failure of his two most recent Broadway productions, 1978's "Working" and 1986's "Rags" as well as the disappointing reception that "Children of Eden" had received following its world premiere in London in 1991 -- to abandon show business entirely and then take graduate school courses at NYU. So that Stephen could eventually become a therapist.


Songwriter Stephen Schwartz

But a phone call in late 1991 made Schwartz reconsider this career change. Following the tragic death of Howard Ashman, Walt Disney Studios was looking for a new lyricist to work with Alan Menken. Previously, Sir Tim Rice had tried to fill Howard's shoes. Writing "A Whole New World" for "Aladdin" with Menken as well as retooling some of the lyrics that Howard had previously written for this animated feature.

But now Feature Animation was getting ready to begin production on "Pocahontas." And as Kevin Bannerman -- Disney's director of development on that project -- explained, Tim Rice ...

" ... was always gallivanting around the world and it was difficult to get him and Alan together ... And so here was Stephen, who had written scores that we all loved and we were huge fans of, and he lived in the New York area."


Copyright 1995 Disney. All Rights Reserved

So thank to his earlier body of work (as well as the convenience of his current location) Schwartz was then recruited by WDFA officials to come work on "Pocahontas." A project that Stephen himself admitted that " ... I actually thought that was pretty bad casting for it."

This recounting of Schwartz's unlikely path to this Academy Award-winning assignment is just one of the great stories found in Carol de Giere's "Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked" (Applause Books, September 2008), a 544-page softcover that takes a delightfully detailed look at this songwriter's career.

Getting back to "Pocahontas" now ... It's genuinely fascinating to hear how unsure Stephen was as he approached writing lyrics for his first animated feature. Take -- for example -- the sample song for that project that Menken & Schwartz sent to Disney executives in early 1992. As Stephen recalled:


(L to R) Alan Menken, actress Shirley Jones, and Stephen Schwartz at a recent benefit concert in Los Angeles.
Photo by Daniel Lam.

"When (we) sent it in, I thought this was the end of my Disney career; they're never going to go for this. It just seemed so outside what they've done before. Instead, they so loved the song that they built the entire (movie) around it. That's why there are leaves constantly blowing in everyone's hair throughout the whole film."

"Colors of the Wind" wasn't the only challenge that Alan & Stephen faced on "Pocahontas." As Schwartz recalled in a recent interview with de Giere:

"We couldn't figure out how to start Pocahontas' story musically. I kept saying, 'This character doesn't want anything until John Smith shows up. How do we launch her? And, because dreams are so important to Native Americans, (my wife) Carole came up with the idea that she had a dream that something's about to happen. Since 'Pocahontas' was a Romeo-and-Juliet story, they thought about another Romeo-and-Juliet-based musical, 'West Side Story.' There, Tony sings 'Something's Coming' as his first song. So basically, 'Just Around the Riverbend' is the Native American version of 'Something's Coming.' "


Copyright 2008 Applause Books. All Rights Reserved

It's this sort of plain spoken approach that makes "Defying Gravity" such a fun read. Stephen being so open about his creative process as he looks back over his career.

And when I say open, I mean open. This paperback is probably the only place where you'll ever read about this composer's 1994 brawl with Disney execs. To put it bluntly, the suits back in Burbank were p*ssed when they learned that Schwartz had been signed by DreamWorks Animation to write the score for "The Prince of Egypt."

Mouse House management immediately began playing hardball. With Peter Schneider, the then-president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, threatening to have Stephen's name removed from any publicity materials that the Studio would be prepping for "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback." And then Michael Eisner himself phoned Schwartz and urged him to back out of his commitment to DreamWorks.


Early development art from "Mulan." Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And when Stephen said "No," Michael reportedly replied ""Then we'll have to replace you on Mulan."

And even though Schwartz was a charter member of that film's creative team, having traveled to China in June of 1994 with "Mulan" 's directors & designers to draw inspiration for that production, he still got bounced off of that project for purely political reasons. Stephen was replaced by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. And the two songs that he's already written for this film -- "Written in Stone" & "Destiny" -- were discarded.

Thankfully, over time, these hard feelings faded and Schwartz was eventually invited to come back and make more music for the Mouse. And among the projects that he's worked on for the Company over the past 10 years are the TV movie "Geppetto" and last year's Academy Award-nominee "Enchanted."


Copyright 2007 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But inbetween those two productions, Schwartz rode herd on "Wicked." And it's in detailing the development of the musical version of Gregory Maquire's novel that "Defying Gravity" really shines. De Griere brings us a blow-by-blow account of that show's often torturous trip to Broadway. More importantly, how "Wicked" overcame its initially middling reviews and eventually became the box office titan that it is today.

So if you're a Disney animation fan and/or a Broadway buff, there's lots of great stuff to be found in "Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked." Everything from photos of the notes that Schwartz took as he was getting ready to write "Colors of the Wind" (Here's a few words that rhyme with "Wind" that Stephen didn't wind up using: thinned, unpinned and chagrinned) as well as his initial story pass on the musical version of "Wicked" (Which is significantly different from the version that's appearing on Broadway right now).

So if you're up for reading a biography that's surprisingly plain spoken when it comes to discussing how some of your favorite films & shows actually came into being, then I urge you to pick up a copy of Carol de Giere's "Defying Gravity."

 

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  • I'll have to get this as I love Schwartz's work.  He's worked on some of my favorites:

    Working, Prince of Egypt, Godspell, Hunchback, Wicked, Pippen....  I could go on and on.  Simply one of the best ever at his craft and a real burning shame that he hasn't won a Tony yet.  How can the Oscars recognize such talent while Tony has its head up its butt?

  • Ditto Mr. Tucknie's thoughts. I have long felt that Mr. Schwartz's work on 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' song "Out There" was quite underrated (as was Tom Hulce's vocal performance of the tune). If "Colors of the Wind" is deserving of an Oscar, "Out There" was worthy of at least a nomination.

  • Tuckenie-

    The Tony voters bypass his work because each of his shows, while enjoyable to listen to, are musically interchangeable. For example, "Spark of Creation" from "Children of Eden" could be swapped for "Corner of the Sky" from "Pippin" or "What is this Feeling" from "Wicked."

    I enjoy his work. I have "Pippin" on rotation on my iPod all the time. But his music is not Tony-worthy when compared to Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Sondheim or even (*grimace*) Lloyd Webber.

    What has made his shows work are the visionary designers, directors, and actors he's had to cary his material. "Pippin" was crap before Fosse got a hold of it. Even today, the liscensed version of the show is nowhere near what the original Broadway version was due to the "watering down" that Roger Hirshon (book writer) and Schwartz did after Fosse had moved on to other projects.

    "Wicked" got middling reviews for a reason. It is fun and technically very cool, but not the best written show. "Godspell" hasn't worked since the original Commedia' inspired production in NYC.

    His music in "Working" is the least interesting of the entire show.

    I could go on.... but I'm at work and should probably actually do some... :)

  • Eh.  I find him to be a generally pretty boring lyricist, as evidenced by his mostly forgettable work on Pocahontas and Hunchback.  (He only won for Pocahontas because it was caught in the afterglow of Disney's "big four": Mermaid, Beast, Alladin & Lion King.  Who thinks of that stuff now?)  Mulan proved to be surprisingly good and obviously did not need him.

    Luckily, he brought his "A" game to Enchanted, simply his best work ever.

  • Excerpt lyrics from Mulans' "Destiny":

    'Destiny, Destiny, Destiny, Destiny;

    There's no need to protest-any..."

    Yes, Mulan did just fine with David Zippel & Matthew Wilder.

  • Jim Hill's back with even more answers to your Disney-related questions. This time around, he talks about "Enchanted" 's score evolves over the course of that motion picture, where Stephen drew his inspiration for "Out There" as well as talking up an

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