Renowned Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz said he loves taking a familiar story or character that his audience already knows and “spinning it” in a new direction.
That’s what he did with the witches in “Wizard of Oz” when he turned the classic tale into a Broadway phenomenon. And that’s what he — and two of his New York colleagues — did this week as they helped build and transform both the confidence level and on-stage performances of a group of Wright State University’s acting and musical theater students.
Schwartz came to town as the first Distinguished Visiting Artist for CELIA (Collaborating, Education Leadership & Innovation in the Arts), a new university program that will bring nationally and internationally known artists to campus for short-term residencies.
“We want to provide as many of our students as possible with a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Hank Dahlman, professor and director of CELIA. “Forty years from now — when our students are on Broadway or singing at the Met — they’ll look back and say they were here and met Stephen Schwartz.”
Dahlman says the New York composer, who once had three major hits on Broadway at the same time — “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “The Magic Show” — was a natural choice for the initial residency.
“He’s somebody who has written amazing music over the last 40 years,” Dahlman said. “He has star power and talent, but we knew he could also spend time with our students and be relevant and helpful to them.”
Joining Schwartz in that endeavor were Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte and multi-award winning cabaret vocalist Scott Coulter, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The three led master classes and demonstrated their own skills at a Monday evening performance featuring Schwartz’s songs. Chatting between numbers, the composer illustrated the evolution of a song explaining that before ending up with “The Wizard and I,” there were other versions of an Elphaba solo titled “Making Good.”
When Schwartz was working on the lyrics for the movie “Hunchback of Notre Dame” with composer Alan Menken, the two were sent to Paris to do research.
“They made it possible for me to get into Notre Dame, and I would climb up the steps to the bell tower and try to imagine what it would be like to live all your life there as an outcast,” he said. That show is now being developed for the stage.
Everyone involved — students, professors, visitors — declared the experience a hit.
“I am so knocked out by these kids!” said Gravitte, who has appeared on the Broadway stage as well as symphony halls and won the prestigious Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” along with a Drama Desk Award and the New York Showstopper Award. “I’ve done this before, but I don’t know if I’ve ever done it with students at this level in every way.”
On stage with students Tuesday morning, Schwartz echoed her sentiments.
“I do want to say I feel that the level of technical proficiency is very high here,” he told the performers. “You don’t have a basis of comparison, but we do. That’s going to stand you in very good stead — now you can take all of this technique and work on the nuances that will make the difference between getting a job and not getting a job.
“Everyone is going to have natural abilities and be pretty well trained,”he added, ” but it’s how you take that and do that little bit more.”
Among his suggestions for that “little bit more”: that the singers smile during their songs, and that they think about the real meaning of each word as they are singing it.
Of the 300-500 who audition to come to Wright State each year, only 12 acting students and 12 musical theater students are accepted, explained Joe Deer, the head of the musical theater program. He said 50 percent of the students are from Ohio, the other half are from other parts of the country.
Many of those involved in this week’s intensive two-day workshop can be seen on stage in the current production of “Grand Hotel,” which runs through March 31.
Those fortunate enough to be performing for one of the pros came to the stage with sheet music in hand. After exchanging a few words with the accompanist, they took a deep breath and began to sing. Many admitted they were “terrified.”
“I don’t get nervous; I get excited,” said Beth Ann Wipprecht, a musical theater major from Mason. “Wicked was the first thing that got me interested in musical theater when I was in the 10th grade. It’s beautifully crafted.”
Wipprecht said she was on the edge of her seat and in tears all through Schwartz’s Monday night show. On Tuesday morning, she performed an animated “Defying Gravity” and her idol labeled it “an excellent performance.”
“It was wonderfully acted, and I felt you were right inside it,” Schwartz told her.
In both of her sessions Gravitte invited all of those in the audience to make a circle on stage, then asked each to tell her where they plan to be in five years. When many talked about cruise ship stints and national Broadway tours, she urged them to dream bigger, aim higher and to head directly for New York and Broadway.
Though students had been pre-selected to perform for the visitors, Gravitte decided to extend the opportunity to anyone who wanted to sing.
Emsie Hapner of Springfield had only come to watch but told herself she should definitely take advantage of that offer. She was glad she did.
“The positive reinforcement is awesome,” the relieved freshman musical theater major said afterwards. “I learned that it’s OK to be yourself.”
Downstairs in the Herbst Theater, Scott Coulter urged those he was coaching to think of themselves as the greatest singer in the world when they perform.
“We defeat ourselves with our thoughts,” he told them. “If you’re going to be a singer and nerves are a problem, get over it. I want you to look at an audition as a chance to share your gift.”
Cameron Blankenship, 20, of Hamilton, picked “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” from “Camelot.”
Coulter encouraged him to play with the song and make use all of the space and props available to him. The suggestion made a world of difference — when Blankenship repeated the song, he cavorted around the space, jumped on chairs, interacting with the surprised pianist.
“The first time was really scary, but the next times were fun,” he said. “I learned that the more comfortable you are and the more you bring to a song, the more it will shine.”
In a question-and-answer session, Deer queried Schultz about his life and his career.
“When I was a kid, my sister and I did puppet shows with stuffed animals and dolls, and I wrote the songs for it,” Schwartz related.
While still in high school, he headed for the Julliard School of Music (“except when I played hooky and went to see a matinee.”) He graduated from the Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in directing.
Asked about how he approached writing lyrics, Schwartz said he doesn’t always start at the beginning of the song, but does typically begin with a title. “At first I get pieces of things and then start to assemble them in such a way that it feels like it’s flowing.”
In the case of “For Good” from ‘Wicked,” he asked his daughter, Jessica, how she would feel if she were never going to see her best friend again.
“I wrote what she said, and she basically said the first verse,” he said. “I just made it rhyme.”
Schwartz, who grew up in Long Island and now lives in Connecticut, admits he never envisioned being connected to Dayton, Ohio, but it’s a bond that has grown stronger over the years.
“I’ve been here a lot because Human Race has done a few of my shows, and I came (in 2007) to work on ‘Snapshots,’ he said. “It was a great experience and a wonderful place to work. There are very few cities with such vibrant programs for new musicals — you’d expect new work to be developed in cities like (Washington) D.C. or Chicago, but it’s unusual for a city of Dayton’s size.”
Kevin Moore, producing artistic director for Human Race, said he grew up as a huge Stephen Schwartz fan and has locally staged Schwartz’s “Working” in 1980 and “Children of Eden” in 1999. In 2007, Dayton was hand-picked by Schwartz to workshop his musical, “Snapshots.”
“Shows are all about being rewritten, and a path for a Broadway musical is typically at least seven years,” Moore said. “It was amazing to have Stephen here for a week and talking about the show.”
Moore believes Schwartz’s talent lies in his ability to write with emotion, understand melodies and write for a character.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for audiences to buy into the idea that someone is on stage singing what they’re thinking or feeling, and the best musical theater makes that so natural — that character can’t do anything else but sing at that point, and Stephen has mastered that ability.”
In 2007, the Human Race also instituted a scholarship fund in Schwartz’s honor for high school and college students and he’s returned almost every year for the award presentations. This year’s scholarships were awarded at the conclusion of Monday night’s musical presentation “Stephen Schwartz & Friends.”
Awards went to Centerville High School’s Carly Snyder and Wright State’s Andrew Quiett.
At the end of the residency, Schwartz told students how impressed he was with both their technical ability and their passion.
“I know this is a really tough business, and I have the scars to prove it,” he said. “But you just have to persevere. It requires talent and a lot of people in this room have talent, but it requires a thick skin and persistence. Be willing to hang in there and take the blows.
“There used to be these things called Weebles and the slogan was ‘Weebles Wooble But They Don’t Fall Down,’ ” he concluded. “You have to be Weebles!”
What I Learned …
Students reflect on their experiences working with Stephen Schwartz and his colleagues:
Stephen Schwartz and his work are as much a part of and influence on my generation as The Beatles was to our parents. His work with Disney shaped our childhoods, and his Broadway hits helped inspire and shape our decision to pursue the art of theater. In talking and listening to him talk about his life, work and career, it was incredibly inspiring to realize that he is simply another artist who started out just like us and just yearned to create as we do. Our professors instill in us the idea that art is about the process of creating, not the product.
I sang “Just Around the Riverbend” from Pocahontas for Stephen Schwartz. Pocahontas IS my childhood, my favorite Disney princess. Her strength, wisdom, power, and passion as a character are qualities I live by, so getting to sing her material is a gift in itself. Singing it for the man who created it — beyond words. He gave me the simple note to smile, and while instantly brightening up my sound as a vocalist, it also energized my performance.
It was an incredibly magical two days. I know all the students walked out full of inspiration, recharged in the desire to work and create what we love. Standing on that stage in Schuster Hall next to the ever-inspiring Stephen Schwartz and looking out at all my peers, teachers and fellow artists who inspire me daily, and feeling the love in that room of people all united by the same desire to create and inspire others … THAT is something you can’t buy, can’t plan for, and can’t put into words.
— Ria Villaver, Senior Musical Theater Major, Cincinnatti
“Throughout this workshop, I’ve learned that one of the most important things you can do as an artist is to bring what makes you special as an individual into your work on the stage. If you show who you are, then your work will shine.
I’ve also learned that if you use the music to express what you, as the character, are feeling on the inside, the song will take care of itself in terms of how it sounds. The music expresses what the character can’t put into words.
My favorite part was hearing what Stephen had to say during the Q&A session. He was so sincere about the business, and very humble about his own beginnings. His advice about perseverance in the acting world will stick with me as I pound the pavement in search for work in the big city.”
— Cameron Blankenship, Junior Acting Major, Hamilton
“Debbie made a great point by making people think about where they want to be in five years and encouraging everyone to aim high. I truly believe that people walked away with a lot to think about and more confidence in what they want to do and walked away thinking their dreams to be more real and possible than they have been told or than they tell themselves.”
— Monique Cooper, Freshman Vocal Performance Major, Kettering
“In the master class with Scott Coulter, I learned different ways of inserting myself into a song. To keep me from thinking too much about singing, I had to walk around the room in a big circle with one shoe off like Cinderella.”
— Amanda Bessler, Junior Music Education Major, Tipp City
How to Go
What: “Grand Hotel: The Musical”
When: 2 p.m. today, (Sunday, March 24); 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28; 8 p.m. Friday, March 29; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday, March 30 and Sunday, March 31.
Where: Festival Playhouse, Wright State University
Tickets: $20 for adults, $18 for students and seniors. Call the Theatre Box Office at (937) 775-2500.
“I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return.”
— Excerpt from “For Good” in the Broadway musical “Wicked”
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
To see video of Stephen Swartz’s visit to Wright State University see: