The ‘wicked’ man behind the musical

Patricia Esteves - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Defying Gravity is clearly the most popular song in the hit musical Wicked, but there is another song that has been winning people and touching hearts, the poignant song For Good.

And it’s easy to see why, said Stephen Schwartz, the man behind the music of Wicked.

Schwartz recently breezed into town to support and watch the Philippine season of Wicked, which is currently shown at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Main Theater until March 9.

The musical theater veteran said For Good is one of the defining songs that highlighted a central theme in the musical’s plot — the friendship between the two witches, Glinda the Good and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.  

Elphaba and Glinda sang the song in the last part of the musical when they were saying their goodbyes. The song is about how they have been changed by their friendship.

During a recent presscon, Schwartz told entertainment writers how he wrote For Good in a flash the moment he heard the words from the writer of the musical’s book Winnie Holzman.

He was in the midst of writing songs for an important scene in the musical and he needed an inspiration.

“When I felt I was ready to write, I called Winnie, who was in the East Coast at the time while I was in L.A. and had a long talk about the song and she said the song should be about the friendship of these two women who would have an impact on each other and change each other for good. As soon as I heard the word, ‘for good,’ I hung the phone and I said that’s going to be the title of the song,” Schwartz said.

“And then the lyrics came very easy to me,” he added.

For his works in Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show and The Baker’s Wife, Schwartz has won three Academy Awards, four Grammy Awards and four Drama Desk Awards.

Schwartz said he’s thrilled that Wicked is still one of the Top 2 box-office musicals on Broadway today, 10 years after it opened in Broadway in 2003.

He attributed the musical’s success to the story itself and how people are able to identify with the central character of the green-skinned Elphaba as an outcast who’s trying to fit in.

“The staying power of Wicked largely comes from the central character of the wicked witch. People can identify with her, it’s when people feel themselves as an outsider. Of course, the witches’ relationship and friendship resonate with a lot of people,” he said.

Wicked marked its 10th year anniversary last year and it has productions running worldwide including New York, London, Tokyo, Seoul and Mexico City.

The Manila run features some of the top Australian stage actors led by Jemma Rix and Suzie Mathers who play Elphaba and Glinda, respectively. Schwartz has seen the Manila run and is pleased with the performance.

“First of all, it’s one of my favorite companies and the two leads are exceptional, even the local director. I’m happy with what I saw. I have some suggestions, but that’s what I’m here for. The scenery, costumes, production, I can say that that is exactly the show on Broadway. The audience in Manila is seeing the Broadway show,” he said.

Schwartz also briefly talked about the process of developing Wicked and why it took them half a decade to complete it.

The idea of Wicked the musical first came to him when a friend told him about the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the “revisionist tale” of the children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

“When a friend first told me about it, I thought it was a great subject for a musical. We were told that Universal Pictures has the rights to the book and so we talked to Universal about it, which was planning to make it into a movie. Once they agreed, we went to Gregory and he said yes,” Schwartz recounted.

There began a five-year process of developing and completing the musical, including collaborations with Holzman, who created the 1990s cult series My So Called Life.

“It took us three years of writing, plus two years of doing readings with the actors who agreed to sing the songs. (The original Glinda) Kristin Chenoweth was with us for three years in the development process while (the original Elphaba) Idina Menzel was with us for two years,” Schwartz said.

“We were lucky because we didn’t have to worry about the commercial side of who will finance Wicked. We have partners like Universal Pictures,” he said.

After opening on Broadway in 2003, the rest as they say is history.

Schwartz was asked how he’s able to write songs.

“It depends upon the song. But for me, it helps if I know the title of the song and then everything flows,” he said.

Asked how different is the musical from the Maguire novel, Schwartz said: “We invented a bit of a love story that existed in the book, between Elphaba and Fiyero, but mostly, we focused on the relationship between the two witches.”

For his work on many Broadway musicals and Disney movies, he has received many awards from prestigious institutions but never won a Tony. In 2004, Wicked lost to Avenue Q for Best Musical.

How did he feel about it? “I don’t try to win awards. There are stories that I want to tell and the reward for me is to have something like Wicked which means so much to me. When I hear people say that they enjoy the show, that’s a reward for me as a writer,” he said.

Things will be busy for Schwartz this year as he’s currently involved in the upcoming stage adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They’ve just finished a workshop and are currently holding auditions.

He will also do a project with DreamWorks, an animated feature, sort of Bollywood-style. Plus, a movie adaptation of Wicked is in the offing. There have been rumors that Taylor Swift is going to play one of the title roles for Wicked, but Schwartz quickly dismissed the rumors and said they’re still a long way from the movie adaptation.

During the presscon, Schwartz also praised Filipino theater artists Lea Salonga, Ana Perez de Tagle and George Salazar for being world-class talents. Salazar and De Tagle starred in Godspell.

“Ana and George are very good. Lea, on the other hand, is so professional. When you meet her, you will see this lovely-looking woman and if you don’t know her, you wouldn’t know that she has a world-class singing voice. I would always love to work with her,” Schwartz said.

While he was here, Schwartz told reporters that he was able to tour Taal Volcano for some hiking and to a beautiful island he did not disclose.


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