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Wicked Serious

Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz offers master class at CFA

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“This is not a fun business, no matter what people say on awards shows. You just have to have the thickest skin.” Tough words from composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, the man responsible for such hits as Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked.

The Broadway veteran shared observations from his long career during a master class for 100 or so mostly College of Fine Arts theater students Friday at TheatreLab@855 on Comm Ave.

Rubber-faced and expressive, Schwartz bears a passing resemblance to Mel Brooks, and his backstage tales often drew laughs during the two-hour session. But he repeatedly turned serious when talking about the hard-knock life of a theater artist.

“To put yourself out there is to paint a great big bull’s-eye on your heart,” he said, “and everyone will take a shot.”

At times, Schwartz told the students, you may feel the need to step away to lick your wounds. But eventually “a project will come along and call to you” until it becomes irresistible, he said.

Schwartz has worked with a variety of artists, from the late Bob Fosse on the original Pippin to Diane Paulus on the reboot that debuted at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 2013 before moving to Broadway, where it earned a Tony Award for best revival. His numerous film credits include Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt,and  Enchanted, for which he wrote the lyrics. He has won four Drama Desk Awards, four Grammys, and three Oscars, but has yet to win a Tony despite six nominations. His current project is a backstage musical about the creation of The Magic Flute, for a theater in Vienna, and a stage version of Hunchback, which just premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. Schwartz was in Boston last weekend to perform with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC), which was presenting a concert version of his work.

Ty Furman, managing director of the BU Arts Initiative, said he was having a networking lunch with BGMC executive director Craig Coogan a couple of months ago when Coogan mentioned that Schwartz would be in town and have Friday afternoon free. His response? “Sure we’d be interested!”

The master class was cosponsored by the CFA School of Theatre, the BU Arts Initiative, and the Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Musical Theatre Fund.

Schwartz spoke off the cuff about his career and life on Broadway and in Hollywood, regaling students with stories like the one about a huge fight with legendary director and choreographer Fosse over just two words in the ending of the original Pippin, when Pippin is asked how he feels and responds, “Trapped…but happy.”

“Bob Fosse decided he had to cut ‘but happy,’” Schwartz said, his deadpan not hiding his dismay, which drew a laugh from the students. The dispute nearly went to court before being resolved in the writers’ favor. The show has changed over the years, Schwartz noted, “and if Bob were alive and saw the new ending, he would love it more than anyone.”

He also answered questions from Christine Hamel, a CFA assistant professor of theater, and later from students, on topics such as shrinking theater orchestras (“One reason I am so enjoying the Vienna project is that it’s a state-sponsored theater and I have a 35-piece orchestra”) and unusual reimaginings of classic musicals (“You really cannot do a post-apocalyptic My Fair Lady”).

The heart of the event, though, was his work with four School of Theatre seniors:  Michael John Ciszewski (CFA’15) Allison Dawson (CFA’15), Kelsie Hogue (CFA’15), and Sarah Muirhead (CFA’15). Schwartz took a seat in the front row—and took notes—while each sang a favorite number, accompanied on piano by Matthew Stern (CFA’16), a graduate student in theater education.

Hogue began with Stephen Sondheim’s “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” from Anyone Can Whistle, Muirhead sang Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s “Daddy’s Girl,” from Grey Gardens, Dawson performed Irving Berlin’s “Supper Time,” from As Thousands Cheer, and Ciszewski closed with a funny performance of “Shiksa Goddess,” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.

Schwartz waited until all had sung before returning to the stage to give notes. “It’s important you only receive what is useful to you,” he told them. “The more you respect someone, the more damage they can do.”

His feedback alternated big, clear verdicts—“Vocally I thought all of you did extremely well”—with more nuanced critiques. He pushed the idea of each song taking the listener on a journey, and the need for spontaneity: “I want you to be sure the words and ideas are occurring to you in the moment…that this is not a speech you have rehearsed.”

“You were very successful in terms of the moment-to-moment-ness of it,” Schwartz told Ciszewski, but suggested he needed more breath control. “If I was an Olympic grader, that was the only thing that could have taken it down from a 10.0 to a 9.8.”

With Muirhead, he offered advice about how to handle  the frequent repetition of the phrase “I’m my daddy’s girl” in her song. “When you get to the title of the song for the first time, something needs to coalesce around it,” Schwartz said. “Each time you come to it again, it should mean a little something else.”

He also gave all the students in the room pointers on auditioning: “Your task is to make it as easy as possible for me to envision you in the role we are casting.”

Schwartz noted that when Idina Menzel auditioned for the role of Elphaba in Wicked, for which she later won a Tony, she wore a black dress and green eye shadow, not unlike the character. That wasn’t the only reason she got the part, he said, “but it didn’t hurt.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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