Making ‘Suite’ music together

Posted on 01 Apr 2016 at 6:00am

How the legendary Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz marshaled giants of the music world to create a chorale work about anti-gay bullying

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DEFYING BIGOTRY | Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz helped gather his famous composing friends to create a choral work about anti-gay bullying and suicide.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Stephen Schwartz remembers quite clearly the first time he heard the name Tyler Clementi.

A college student in New Jersey, Clementi was having sex with another man when his roommate surreptitiously streamed it online on two nights.
The resultant humiliation led Clementi to kill himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

“That was in my neck of the woods,” says Schwartz, who lives in Connecticut but maintains a pied-a-terre in Manhattan. “It was a local story — and a huge one. I don’t know how long national coverage extended, but it was covered extensively here from the arrest to the trial. It was a story with what they call legs.”

Flash forward: Schwartz received a commission from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to create a piece Testimony. The man behind the request was the SFGMC’s artistic director: Tim Seelig, the long-time head of Dallas’ Turtle Creek Chorale. That experience led to a personal friendship between the two men.

About a year later, “Tim was in New York and while we were having breakfast, he told me the idea of commissioning a piece about Tyler Clementi to raise awareness of bullying,” recalls Schwartz. A woman named Pamela Stewart had already been interviewing the Clementi family and had the basics of a libretto. “As we spoke, [I realized] an interesting approach would be to ask multiple composers to do a piece [and turn it into] a suite. Tim liked the idea of approaching different composers and since most of them were people I knew, I volunteered to get in touch with them.”

Schwartz is underplaying the impressiveness of the composers being “people he knew.” As one of the titans of Broadway theater — he’s written some of the signature musicals of the last 50 years, including Pippin, Godspell and Wicked, and has won three Oscars for his film work — Schwartz’s Rolodex

is a who’s-who of contemporary music-makers. Among those he contacted, and who ultimately contributed pieces, are John Corigliano and his partner Mark Adamo; Jake Heggie; Ann Hampton Calloway; and Stephen Flaherty. They formed the basis for what became know as Tyler’s Suite.

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Former Turtle Creek Chorale artistic director Tim Seelig initially approached Schwartz about creating a work for men’s choir.

Schwartz took the lead in coordinating the pieces, serving, as he puts it, more as curator than major-domo. “I got in touch with the various composers in consultation with Tim, and they [each] decided what they would do. [We] then left everyone to their own devices.” But among those missing from the initial lineup of composers? Schwartz himself.

“I think originally there were going to be five or six sections and I was not intending to write any of them,” he says. But as it started to expand, “I became forlorn about not writing one. Now I think it is eight or nine sections.”

The process has been an organic one; as it has progressed, Tyler’s Suite has changed and evolved with each contribution, each performance.

“As you might imagine, in the early days, as things came in, the overall piece took a while to find its own coherence,” Schwartz explains. “We played around with different orders of pieces, individual composers did some changes and editing to their own. I would make some suggestions to individual composers. Some of the contributors were able to see early performances; some were not and were enthusiastic about getting feedback.
Everyone was taking a shot in the dark.”
One of the additions was to include an explanation of who Tyler Clementi was as part of the performance. “One of the things Tim and I realized was that while we knew Tyler’s story, many in the audience didn’t.” Now, though, Schwartz describes it in good shape, and basically in a final, polished state.

“I love the sound of a chorus. I love a lot of voices singing together — maybe my favorite sound in the world is a chorus singing very quietly,” he says.

Screen shot 2016-03-31 at 11.20.30 AM“I’ve [written choral parts] a good deal both for men’s chorus or mixed chorus in a lot of my shows. The way vocals combine, how they will blend with one another, is a whole craft in itself. And writing for men’s chorus is very different than writing for SATB [soprano-alto-tenor-bass]. It’s different working out the blend.”

And this work in particular is one of the more rewarding projects he has worked on.

“I’m very happy to talk to you and very proud of the part I played in bringing to life Tyler’s Suite,” he says. “It’s an important piece that helps people be aware of bullying and its important implications.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2016.

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