Stephen Schwartz uses his clout to stand up against anti-gay N.C. law

StephenSchwartz-11-copyStephen Schwartz, the co-composer of Tyler’s Suite (which just got its local premiere this weekend), has long been a champion for gay issues, and this weekend used his clout to hit homophobes in the pocketbook.

Following passage (and enactment) of North Carolina law HB2 — which makes it a crime for trans people to use the bathroom of their choice, as well as walking back many other rights to pursue discrimination claims — Schwartz has banned his megahit show Wicked from touring in the state. In a statement on BroadwayWorld.com. he issued the following statement:

To my fellow theatre writers and producers: As you no doubt know, the state of North Carolina has recently passed a reprehensible and discriminatory law. I feel that it is very important that any state that passes such a law suffer economic and cultural consequences, partly because it is deserved and partly to discourage other states from following suit.

Therefore, I and my collaborators are acting to deny the right to any theatre or organization based in North Carolina to produce any of our shows. We have informed our licensing organizations and touring producers of this, and I’m happy to say have met with compliance and approval from them.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Making ‘Suite’ music together

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

StephenSchwartz-11-copy

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.

DrTSeelig

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.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Theatre 3 announces 2012-13 season

Theatre 3, which for 50 years has been run by Jac Alder, pictured, begins its 51st season this summer with a schedule that includes a world premiere and the regionally-produced debut of a queer hit.

The unofficial start of the season is Avenue Q in the downstairs Theatre Too space. A sassy puppet show with adult themes and gay characters, it’s the first time the show has been mounted locally, although the national tour has been through numerous times. Unlike in recent years, this (and the Valentine staple  I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) are the only shows scheduled for the smaller space. It opens June 29.

The remainder of the seven-show schedule upstairs is as follows:

Present Laughter (Aug. 2–Sept. 1). Gay bon vivant Noel Coward’s witty farce.

Freud’s Last Session (Sept. 20–Oct. 20). An imagined exchange between the atheist father of psychoanalysis and Christian author C.S. Lewis.

Godspell (Nov. 15–Dec. 15). T3’s music director, Terry Dobson, recently met with Stephen Schwartz, who dubbed him one of his “official” arrangers. That will no doubt apply to this revival of the off-Broadway classic musical.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Jan. 10–Feb. 9). Rajiv Joseph’s recent Broadway hit starring Robin Williams, narrated by a giant cat.

Idols of the King (Feb. 28–Mar. 30). Longtime T3 collaborator Ronnie Claire Edwards debuts her new play about Elvis Presley.

Enron (Apr. 25-May 25). A quasi-musical drama about the notorious collapse.

City of Angels (June 13–July 13). The season closes with the Tony-winning hit about the movie business.

 

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Sorry? No, ‘Grateful’

John Bucchino calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend and Stephen Sondheim his mentor. So how come he’s not a huge fan of musical theater?

I WRITE THE SONGS  |  Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

I WRITE THE SONGS | Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

………………

AN EVENING OF CABARET
Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Nov. 17. 7:30 p.m.
$50. Theatre3Dallas.com.

………………

If you look at John Bucchino’s web page, you’re immediately struck by how, under “biography,” he lists only the compositions he’s written and recordings made of his songs and awards he’s received. No date of birth, no hometown, no pet peeves. It’s as if his life story can be expressed through his work alone.

And the thing is, Bucchino doesn’t really disagree with that.

“I guess I do feel that way,” he says with a sudden flash. “I figure on a website, it’s not about me as a person but me as a songwriter. I do feel the work — especially It’s Only Life and the albums — are incredibly open and incredibly vulnerable insights into me. Ninety percent of them are directly from experiences in my life. I’m so wrapped up in what I do — probably unhealthily so — but I’m perfectly open. I need to get those two things in a better balance.”

In fact, doing so might make for a good song.

It’s not as if Bucchino doesn’t have a fascinating story of his own. One of the most respected composers of cabaret songs for more than two decades, he broke into Broadway with the acclaimed 2008 musical A Catered Affair, which wraps up its regional premiere at Theatre 3 Saturday. But that’s hardly your last chance to experience Bucchino. On Nov. 17 — his birthday! — he’ll perform his one-man show at Theatre 3, and the next day, previews of his revue It’s Only Life begin in the Theatre Too space. It’s a mini-festival of Bucchino in Uptown.

It’s surprising — to Bucchino, especially — that he’s become a staple of Theatre 3’s schedule, since he personally never had much interest in musicals. Even today, while he numbers Stephen Sondheim as a mentor and calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend of 25 years (he even claims credit for getting Wicked made; more on that later), he doesn’t really “get” lots of theater references. In fact, he never intended to be a composer at all.
“When I started writing songs, my goal was to be a singer-songwriter,” he says. “I started out playing piano at age 1; it became my favorite toy and still is. I just started noodling around with songwriting, which naturally evolved out of playing piano in high school. I figured I’d be a [piano playing pop star] a la Elton John or Billy Joel. But noooobody was interested in me — they wouldn’t give me the time of day. It wasn’t on my radar that other people could sing my songs, but that’s what took off.”

His songs have been recorded by everyone from Barbara Cook (“It doesn’t get better than Barbara Cook — her version of ‘Sweet Dreams’ just knocks my socks off. But her version of anything knocks my socks off”), Kristen Chenoweth, Audra MacDonald and Patti LuPone; he wrote the music for a children’s book by Julie Andrews and her daughter; he calls Grateful probably his most important work. The song was also a watershed for him.

“It was Saturday. I was cleaning house and suddenly found myself at the piano playing the chorus for ‘Grateful’ and I just started to cry. But that’s as far as it went for month. Then came the sweat of crafting these lyrics and bridge around this perfect chorus,” he says.

Bucchino invited his friend Art Garfunkel over to listen to it and give feedback. As soon as it was over, Garfunkel said, “Don’t give that to anyone else: It’s mine.”

“From that reaction, I knew something was going to happen with it,” he says.

Still, his ascension to Broadway was a long one.

“I didn’t really know about live theater. I kind of thought of pop songwriting as somehow cooler — theater writing as less complex and two dimensional,” he says. “But Stephen Schwartz is the one who encouraged me to write for the theater.”

How can a gay guy involved in music not be a theater queen? Bucchino seems unfazed by the idea. He says he “wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim” when Broadway’s greatest composer-lyricist called to say he was “really excited by my work.” But then came the pressure to produce something he wasn’t wholly conversant in. “It became terrifying to write for musical theater, because all these lofty people were encouraging me.”

A Catered Affair is his only show to open for a Broadway run, but his song cycles have been staples of regional theaters; Theatre 3’s Terry Dobson has been an especially enthusiastic supporter. (“I’m still not a musical theater geek just because I’ve done it,” he says.)

So how does he take responsibility for Wicked?

“Holly Near [for whom he has been a long-time accompanist] and I had gotten a gig to do a lesbian music festival on Maui. Stephen [Schwartz] was working on [the score for the animated film] Prince of Egypt in Los Angeles. I told him to come with me and we could hang out. He did. We were on a snorkeling trip with Holly and her partner and she said, ‘I just read the most interesting book.’” It turned out to be Wicked. When she described it to Schwartz, he immediately saw the potential to become a musical. “So if I hadn’t invited Stephen to vacation with us, it would never have happened!” Bucchino crows.

Bucchino acknowledges some have called his songs “not immediately hummable,” but that’s a good thing.

“That’s because you haven’t heard them before. I’d like to think that’s a reflection of my unique voice. What I go for in my writing is surprising inevitability — a chord progression or turn of phrase that makes you say, ‘I didn’t expect it to go there but, gee! How satisfying.’ I think the songs that are immediately memorable are derivative or formulaic in a way,” he says.

He also strives for a timelessness of sentiment, which is why, although often recorded by gay artists, his songs are usually gender neutral.

“If you look at the love songs on the Grateful CD, because I had not come out or to terms with my sexuality, I just decided not to use pronouns. There are no ‘he’ or ‘her,’ but ‘you.’ Maybe that’s a copout but also makes them more universal. We’re all people — gay or straight, male or female, we all go through the same stuff. I’m trying to reach that commonality which transcends gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes I wish my art were more overlapping into commerce, but I’m happy doing what I do.”

What’s the word? Oh, right: Grateful.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens