Stephen Schwartz did not attend my wedding, but he was present in music. With my groom and I, my wedding guests and participants sang “Day by Day” from Schwartz’s musical Godspell as one of the two congregational songs at the ceremony. I first heard the song because my mother sang it when I was a child. I first played it because I found it in a piano book of “favorites” when I was a pre-teen. The reason the song made it into the wedding plans, however, was because I learned something about myself this year: Stephen Schwartz is my favorite musical theater composer.
Invited by a friend in the cast, I was a teenager when I first saw Godspell in a joint high school and college production in my hometown. In the opening speeches, I recognized the words my friend quoted from the 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards. I had never seen anything like it in church or in a theater. I loved hearing Jesus’ words from his time in Galilee and seeing parables acted out on stage.
I did not pay attention to Schwartz’s work for the next fifteen years, except footnoting that he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on some songs in the composer-conductor’s MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. I relished listening to the entire album of songs from Wicked without knowing Schwartz wrote them. A few times in conversation, I mentioned “Savages” from Disney’s mostly fictional film Pocahontas, for which Schwartz wrote lyrics, as useful in talking about racism. I heard versions of “When You Believe” from the movie Prince of Egypt performed by singers ranging from opera to pop star to student talent show.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s PRiMA Theatre shredded my ignorance. I jolted to attention in September 2015 when PRiMA presented Schwartz’s musical Children of Eden in a potent and acoustically pristine location: St. James Episcopal Church. When some people I knew seemed dismayed at the alterations to the Biblical narratives, I argued that one should listen to the truths Schwartz shares about the challenges and regrets of parenting through generations of believable, raw characters instead of critiquing the composer on whether he portrayed the Bible as a theologian would. I researched more about Schwartz after this show, and PRiMA’s hints about the 2016 season gave me a clear and exciting prediction of which musical theater composer they would invite the following year.
As a composer, a pianist, and a poet, I was enthralled with seeing and hearing Schwartz’s telling of the process and meaning of his projects over the past four decades. For PRiMA in May 2016, he spoke and played and sang as if the show were an informal invitation to a living room studio. In his demeanor, he cherished the voices of the musicians who performed what he could not alone. I was not surprised to discover that Denmark commissioned him to write songs for the bicentennial of writer Hans Christian Andersen’s birth: why wouldn’t they want one of the most lauded and enduring storytelling composers in the Western world to honor one of their national heroes? At the end of the evening, I realized that while I do not follow musical theater regularly, Stephen Schwartz is my favorite composers of this genre.
This weekend, I return to seeing my first Stephen Schwartz musical: my students and colleagues at Lancaster Bible College are presenting Godspell. I have lip-synced along to rehearsals and previews, and I am thrilled to experience it on stage again.
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