Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stranger to the Rai-- I mean, Stephen Schwartz

One evening, shortly after my arrival in Paris, my French host mother jovially broke out in song at the dinner table. "I'll bet your family in California never sings at dinner," Mme. Benichou gushed after finishing her ditty. Oh, if only she knew.

I was five years old when I was first exposed to Stephen Schwartz. It was 1989. My mother had a perm and I was likely dressed in neon colors. It was May 1st and I was seated next to my dad on a scratchy orange seat in Servite Theatre. We were there to see Pippin, the very first musical in the very first season of Tri-School Theatre, the program Mom founded earlier that school year. I don't remember much about that night and, to be honest, I couldn't tell you what Pippin was about, but I was enthralled with the song "Corner of the Sky."

The ballad gripped me. I sat on my knees in my seat, leaning forward and slightly to the right so as to see around the giant man in front of me and watched as one much older and wiser (probably 16) sang about wanting something more. I was convinced by the end that I needed my own corner of the sky.

Since then, I have had some other run-ins with Schwartz. At 12, I found myself masquerading as a peacock ascending Noah's Arc in Children of Eden. Four years later saw me as a hippie follower of Jesus in a Woodstock-esque rendition of Godspell. Last March, I was relieved to be a member of the audience of Wicked at Pantages Theater in Los Angeles.

All of these formative experiences, and others, have brought two truths to light: 1. My mom knows how to put on a damn good show, and 2. through no fault of my own, I know Stephen Schwartz better than many. I like him, too, which always helps.

That's why, when Mom called a few weeks ago to tell me that Schwartz was in town and she bought tickets to see his "intimate cabaret" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, I was pretty thrilled. The evening promised a superlative performance. I dug out my black velvet heels and off we went to Samueli Theater, prepared for the opportunity of a lifetime.

The cabaret was, indeed, a treat for the ears. I feel lucky any time I have the opportunity to hear an artist perform his or her own work, whether it be a poet or an author doing a reading, or a musician at a piano playing his original score. I love the insight into the artistic process, and Schwartz wasted no time explaining how "The Wizard and I," from Wicked, came to be. He played three drastically different versions of the song and explained why they didn't make the cut. The trick was, he said, to make the audience wait for the obvious. In this case, the crowd would expect to hear Idina Menzel belt, so he wrote the song to start out slowly and build until she gives them what they want.

Crowd pleasing seemed to be a theme for the evening. Schwartz admitted to disappointment when musicians don't play their "obligatory hits" when they perform. So, with the help of Liz Callaway, Scott Coulter and Debbie Gravitte, he covered a lot of ground thanks to tightly woven medleys fitting everything from "Day by Day" to "Colors of the Wind" into one long and entertaining number. To my own disappointment, not much from Children of Eden was featured and Debbie Gravitte's execution of "Defying Gravity" was downright dark, not at all the spectacular, soaring anthem that ends act one of Wicked. Callaway made up for any shortfalls, though, with her stirring performance of "Meadowlark," adding to the "vocal pyrotechnics" of the show.

The most memorable scene, however, came after the standing ovation and encore. Stephen Schwartz and friends finished the night in the lobby, selling their own music and signing autographs at tables buried behind a small but disorderly crowd. Mom and I gathered our courage and worked our way up to the front, only to be found speechless in front of Liz Callaway. She sat patiently unwrapping the CD that we bought from her so she could sign it. Awkward and adoring, Mom faltered, trying to tell her what a huge fan she is. I followed, stammering and explaining just why we might be fans ("She sang 'Meadowlark' at her own cabaret" I blurted out, referring to my mother). Callaway's gracious response endeared her in our hearts forever.

By the time we got to Schwartz, we had regrouped. Mom reclaimed our dignity with shoptalk about Children of Eden and I claimed my newly autographed program with a word or two expressing my admiration.

Moral of that story: Have a plan before you find yourself in front of talented people whom you admire.


Carol said...

oh I really hope Wicked comes to Seattle!

G. Lee said...

I don't see it on the schedule for Seattle yet...Maybe you just need to come to LA to see it!