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Stephen Schwartz talks 'Wicked' film and how 'My So-Called Life' inspired the musical

The creative force behind many beloved musicals opens up about the film adaption of "Wicked."
/ Source: TODAY

You may not be quite familiar with his name, but you probably know his work.

Stephen Schwartz has written the music and lyrics to iconic films and musicals, from “Wicked” to “The Prince of Egypt.” The former is becoming a film soon (more on that later), and the latter is about to reopen as a stage show in the West End of London. It initially opened right before the pandemic, and for that, Schwartz is very grateful.

“It's been a really, really tough time for live arts,“ Schwartz, 73, told TODAY. “I feel with ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ we were fortunate that we got to open and had begun to build an audience and sales were going well. We just had the very beginning of momentum, and whether we'll be able to recapture that remains to be seen, but I feel so bad for shows that were supposed to open in New York, which never got to open at all.”

The show also got to record a cast album, which was nominated for best musical theater album at the 2021 Grammy Awards, and is available now through Ghostlight Records.

Prince of Egypt
Based on the 1998 DreamWorks animated film, "The Prince of Egypt" was a hit in London before shutdown and is slated to reopen in June 2021. Matt Crockett

“It's been an incredibly difficult time, I think particularly for performers and musicians, directors, you know people who make their living when live theater is happening,” he said, adding that the show is slated to reopen in June 2021. “It's been tough enough psychologically as a writer, just to maintain some kind of motivation, but at least I can do what I do without having to be in front of an audience. But I’m excited my colleagues will be able to get back to work.”

Produced by DreamWorks in 1998, the animated film “The Prince of Egypt” featured music and lyrics by Schwartz, including the popular song “When You Believe.” The pop version, produced by Babyface and recorded by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, went on to become a commercially successful single, and snagged the Academy Award for best original song for Schwartz as well.

“Again, I've obviously heard rumors that she might be difficult to work with or she might have a bit of a diva personality, but I did not see that at all."

Stephen Schwartz

Part of what the world loved so much about “When You Believe” was that it brought two of music’s brightest stars together for a duet. Many ending-credit pop versions from Disney films at that time were between a man and a woman, but this one featured two fabulous, belting divas.

“I heard the rumors just like everybody else that there was a rivalry between them,” Schwartz said. “I never experienced it. I did not work directly with Mariah, because she was in Spain, and she recorded her vocal there and she sent it in.”

Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston
Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston perform "When You Believe" during the 71st Academy Awards March 21, 1999.TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP via Getty Images

But Schwartz did work intimately with Houston on the track. “I was in the studio when Whitney recorded and I was so impressed with what a pro Whitney Houston was,” he said. “She matched exactly all that phrasing and all the vocal filigree and pyrotechnics that are such a specialty of Mariah's. Whitney was able to match and harmonize with her recording perfectly. That is so difficult to do, and she did it with such professionalism and such good humor.”

“Again, I've obviously heard rumors that she might be difficult to work with or she might have a bit of a diva personality, but I did not see that at all,” he revealed. “She was a consummate professional, a great artist, and just delightful in my experience with her as a human being.”

Not only does Schwartz have glowing things to say about the late Houston, but she returned the favor to him once during an interview as well. When talking to BET in 1998 about the song’s popularity, she called it “a powerful ballad” and labeled Schwartz “a genius.”

Stephen Schwartz
Stephen SchwartzNathan Johnson

Born in New York City, Schwartz studied music at Julliard while still in high school before pursuing a B.F.A. in drama at Carnegie Mellon. He first rose to prominence in 1971 with the musical “Godspell,” but also stroke success with other enduring musical works like “Pippin." He also worked with songwriter Alan Menken and contributed lyrics to a number of successful Disney films, including “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Enchanted.”

"It is because of ‘My So-Called Life’ and how she writes young women that Winnie and I did this show together and we created what we created.”

Schwartz is only an Emmy away from the coveted E.G.O.T. status, as his trophy case already includes three Grammys, three Oscars, a special Tony and even one Golden Globe. (His life and work are so distinguished, there's a documentary about him in the works.)

Probably his best known work is “Wicked,” which after opening in 2003 is now the fifth longest-running show on Broadway, having been deemed "a cultural phenomenon" by Variety. Schwartz found some unlikely inspiration when he started to adapt the book it is based on for the stage. He brought in Winnie Holzman to write the musical’s script, who was most known for writing for television at the time. The brightest star on her resume was the show “My So-Called Life,” which while only on air for one season in 1994-1995, developed a cult-like following and launched the careers of Claire Danes, Wilson Cruz and Jared Leto.

This wasn’t a coincidence, Schwartz says.

“Well, actually, it's not random in that it was because of ‘My So-Called Life’ that I wanted to work with Winnie on ‘Wicked,’ because I was such an admirer of that show,” he said. “I felt like she was the only person who could do this because I thought she really understood young women of that age. And so that's why I thought she was a good choice to write ‘Wicked.’"

My So Called Life
Claire Danes and the cast of "My So-Called Life"Everett Collection

"It is because of ‘My So-Called Life’ and how she writes young women that Winnie and I did this show together and we created what we created.”

Universal Pictures, which is owned by NBCUniversal, the same parent company as TODAY, is producing the film version that has been in development since 2004. But according to Schwartz, the production process is really gearing up, with casting of the two main characters Elphaba and Galinda about to be underway.

“We don't know who that's going to be yet,” he said. “You know we're just now at the stage where we're really seriously starting to talk about casting. It's really exciting. Yeah, but I have no idea. I'm not even being coy. I literally have no idea who's going to be Elphaba, who's going to be good, but, you know, that's something that we're going to have to know pretty soon.”

Schwartz said he is writing new songs for the film adaption, but they won’t just be written so that the film can snag more trophies, since music needs to be original for film adaptations to win Golden Globes or Academy Awards.

Idina Menzel of "Wicked" performs onstage during the 58th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 6, 2004 in New York City.Getty Images

“If there's going to be a new song, or more than one new song, it will be because the story is demanding that particular moment or idea or situation to be musicalized,” he said. “There's not going to be a new song just because we say let's stick something in and see if we can win an Oscar.”

But Schwartz is really excited about what audience members can expect from the movie adaptation, because its origins are based on “The Wizard on Oz," a film that redefined and revolutionized the cinematic experience.

“‘Wicked’ is a show that lends itself very well to becoming a film,” he said. “You know that's not true of all Broadway shows, but because it's set in Oz, a place that we know about from a movie in the first place, these are all things that will be really exciting on film.”

“It's something that can become very cinematic, and that's the experience that Winnie and I are having now working with our director, Jon Chu ("Crazy Rich Asians"),” Schwartz said. “It's just so exciting... the ideas that emerge and as we start to see some of the designs that they're working on. John keeps showing us stuff and I'm like, ‘Oh, I really want to see that movie.’”

Schwartz pauses to apologize for his giddiness over the project, which as of right now has no set release date, but has massive amounts of possibility.

“Forgive me if I'm a little over the top when I talk about it but I just think if we do it right, it can be fantastic and a really cinematic experience," he said. "It just lends itself to it. So we all have to do our jobs well, but I think that the possibility is really there.”