Monday, February 04, 2013

Review of "Defying Gravity - The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked" by Carol de Giere

Any regular reader of The White Rhino Report is well aware that I have been following closely the development of the new production of Pippin that is about to move to Broadway after premiering at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.  In the course of tracking the show's evolution, I attended a number of performances and enjoyed several conversations with members of the cast, the director, Diane Paulus and the composer, the incomparable Stephen Schwartz.  So, it was natural for me to be waiting backstage after the final A.R.T. performance to say good-bye to several members of the Pippin company.  As I lingered and interacted with cast members, a woman approached me and asked: "Are you affiliated with this show? You seem to know everyone."  I explained that I was merely an enthusiastic audience member and someone who had reviewed the show.  She told me that she is Stephen Schwartz's authorized biographer of his creative career.  Thus was I drawn into the gravitational field of author, Carol de Giere.    As she described to me the book's scope,  I knew that I had to read it immediately.  And so I have. Giere has done  a masterful job of entering into the mind, heart and soul of Stephen Schwartz in learning to understand his creative and collaborative processes.  She has structured her insights with a wonderful dramatic arc - early successes, troubled middle career, recent acclaim amid some continuing travail and disappointment.  The resulting book is a gift to fans of musical theater and to students of creativity.  Mr. Schwartz was very generous in sharing his time with the author; he also gave her broad access to other key persons in Stephen's professional life.  She also was present at some of the key events that she chronicles in this book, including rehearsals, composing and recording sessions, and a wide variety of meetings.  The book is a veritable tome - chock full of interviews, conversations, commentaries, analyses and examples from Schwartz's vast oeuvre of music and lyrics spanning more than forty years of sustained creativity.

I have known the work of Mr. Schwartz almost from the beginning of his career.  I remember vividly reveling in performances of the Boston production of Godspell.  I made the trek to NYC to see Pippin during its five year run from 1972-1977.  I saw an early student version of Children of Eden at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts.  I took in a performance of Wicked in London.  Despite my rather extensive knowledge of his work, I knew little about his professional pilgrimage or about the many forms of "gravity" that he needed to defy in order to soar to the creative heights that he has attained over the years.  This book fills in many of the missing pieces in the puzzle that is the life and career of Stephen Schwartz.

Scattered throughout the book are small sections that the author calls "Creativity Notes."  These asides and added layers of insight shine spotlights on specific aspects of the creative process as Schwartz has come to understand it and to practice it.  I would like to share one such bit of "frosting on the cake," from a section called "Emotional Truth As a Touchstone":

"What I've learned as a writer is that the more I can get to my own emotional truth, the more a song is actually about me, thinly disguised as an Indian princess or the hunchback of Notre Dame or other characters, oddly enough, the more it communicates universally.  For the most personal songs I've ever written, I've had people come up to me and say, 'How could you possibly have known that?  I felt like you read my diary.'  It's really an interesting phenomenon, and of course it makes our job as songwriters a lot easier.  I have this joke where people ask, 'How do you write a song?' and I say, 'Tell the truth and make it rhyme.'  But that's really it.  The more you can tell the truth, the more it resonates with others.  Of all the lessons about songwriting I've learned over time, that's been the most revelatory for me.  I didn't actually go in knowing that.  I had to learn it from experience." (Page 127)

It is clear that Schwartz learned to trust the author enough to be emotionally honest with her about the bumps and potholes he has encountered along the road he has walked.  She has turned that trust into a book that reveals the complexities of the man who has given us so many memorable tunes, lyrics, harmonies and rhythms  - on stage, in the movies and in the albums he has recorded. Ms. de Giere has added her own layer of artistry to the telling of the Schwartz story.  On many pages, she has woven in subtle contextualized puns and allusions that challenge the discerning reader not to speed too quickly through the prose lest he miss a well-conceived turn of phrase.  Here is a wonderful example that is found in the section of the book in which Schwartz is involved in negotiations with DreamWorks to write music for The Prince of Egypt:

"Disney gave him an ultimatum: Be exclusive or leave.  No matter which way he looked at his own destiny, he realized an exclusive contract would not make his own dreams work." (Page 251)

In addition to offering the chronological arc that follows Schwartz's career up to the Broadway run of Wicked, the author has thrown in a number of additional "free prizes" inside this cereal box.  She has added almost 100 pages of extras.  For example, "About An Author and a Songwriter" describes the growing collaboration between Schwartz and de Giere in pulling together the raw material that eventually was transformed into this finished work of literature about a still unfinished career.  Carol  might well have entitled the section that describes her relationship with the composer "The Wizard and I," for it is clear that despite the many human traits to which he confesses - including being a very difficult collaborator with whom to work - that he has performed as a perfect wizard in creating worlds that we love to visit and inhabit.

"I thought there would be more plumes."  Prince Pippin utters those words in the midst of post-battle disillusionment.  Schwartz appropriates these same words for himself in reflecting on his failure - to date - to garner a Tony Award or to be enshrined in the Broadway Hall of Fame housed in the Gershwin Theater that is the New York venue for Wicked.  I read those words with a touch of sadness, but also with a profound appreciation for Schwartz's resilience and his unwillingness to be dragged down by the lack of universal approbation or acclaim.  I am deeply grateful for his willingness to continue Defying Gravity - even as Pippin returns triumphantly to Broadway.

This book takes its place alongside other treasured works that allow us to appreciate just how much it costs to create art that is honest.



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