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A Working Composer 

Stephen Schwartz shows how it's done

Success came early to Stephen Schwartz. Godspell was produced off-Broadway in 1971, when its composer was 23. Pippin followed a year later, The Magic Show two years after that. Both of those Broadway musicals ran for nearly 2,000 performances, at which point Schwartz could have retired and lived a comfortable life off royalties alone. But who retires at age 26?

On February 14 and 15, the now-veteran composer will perform his stage and movie songs at the Edison Theatre in Stephen Schwartz and Friends, which promises to be one of this year's theater highlights. He also is scheduled to conduct a free one-hour discussion at the Edison at 4 p.m. February 15.

When we spoke with Schwartz, he was in New York working on Wicked, his new Broadway musical that opens in San Francisco in April.

RFT: How often do you perform the show you're bringing to St. Louis?

Schwartz: I've been doing it for three years, but only about 12 times a year. After three years the structure is set, but to keep the evening fresh we change some of the songs at every performance.

Does performing teach you things that you can then use as a writer?

Absolutely. Even before I began to perform for audiences, I found I would learn a great deal about my scores when I had to do backers' auditions. If I was working too hard to make a song come off, I knew there was something wrong with it. You want a song to flow naturally for the performer who has to sing it, so when you're the performer and it's not flowing, you realize you'd better fix something.

How much fixing has been applied to Working?

That show is based on Studs Terkel's book of interviews, which was published in the early '70s. But in the 25 years since we wrote Working, the American workplace has changed radically in its specifics. In an effort to be more reflective of today's workplace, we did some new interviews and some edits of the old interviews. Yet even with these alterations, the show's underlying themes and feelings have not changed.

What are those underlying themes?

The overriding emotion is the pride that people want to take in themselves and their work and the desire for recognition in what they do. We tend, in this country, to celebrate actors and sports stars, yet so many of the people who contribute importantly to our lives are often overlooked. Working tries to shine a light for one evening on people who often work in obscurity.

Another of your shows, The Baker's Wife in 1976, was produced by David Merrick, the legendary producer from St. Louis. What was he like?

I found him quite amusing in a dry, mordant way. He either liked to have -- or believed that it was useful to have -- a chaotic, high-stress environment while people were working on shows. It's not my style, and the musical was a failure. But Joe Stein, who wrote the book, and I have stayed with The Baker's Wife. We take great satisfaction that, 26 years later, it finally seems to be a successful piece. I think David Merrick would be very pleased to see where it is now.

You've been writing Broadway musicals for 30 years. Who younger than you is going to carry on?

There are really good young composers out there, and they're getting produced. Jason Robert Brown [Parade] gets produced. Larry O'Keefe got produced with Bat Boy.

What's the last musical you saw that really knocked you out?

Ragtime. I thought Ragtime was a great musical. Since then I've liked other shows. I really enjoyed Hairspray. But in terms of being a classic musical, I thought Ragtime was fantastic.

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