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Inside the mind of legendary Broadway, Disney composer Stephen Schwartz

Matthew J. Palm
Contact ReporterOrlando Sentinel Arts Writer
"Wicked," "Godspell," composer brings his friends to Clermont for a concert

When you're a major creative force behind Broadway hits "Wicked," "Pippin" and "Godspell" — not to mention animated films such as "The Prince of Egypt," Disney's "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" — it stands to reason you might get a little cocky.

Not so for composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz.

Creating a film or musical "is such a long process, with so many speed bumps in the road, so many things could go wrong," he says. "I'm always surprised when everything works."

A lot has worked for Schwartz, 68, the man behind "Defying Gravity," "Corner of the Sky," "Colors of the Wind" and "When You Believe." Among his many awards: four Grammys, a Golden Globe and three Oscars. He'll perform on Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Clermont Performing Arts Center in a show titled "Defying Gravity: Stephen Schwartz & Friends."

"It's me at the piano," he says of the show. "And we are singing songs that I have had a hand in writing. Some will be familiar, presumably, and some the audience won't have heard before."

The "friends" who join him are singers Scott Coulter and Debbie Gravitte. Schwartz says even the familiar songs will have surprises.

"There are tweaks," he says with a laugh. "We do various medleys and mashups."

He tells stories, too.

During our conversation, Schwartz recalls his first-ever collaboration with Alan Menken, the Disney legend behind the music of "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," among others. The two were working on "Colors of the Wind," Menken writing the music and Schwartz the lyrics. It was just a few days before the song was to be recorded for Disney's "Pocahontas" when Menken announced, "I just don't like the last three lines of the lyrics, and I just felt like I had to say this to you."

Schwartz had written "For your life's an empty hull/till you get it through your skull/you can paint with all the colors of the wind."

With limited time, Schwartz racked his brains for an alternative.

"If your collaborator is unhappy about something, you discuss it," Schwartz says. "And if he's still unhappy, you change it."

In the nick of time, Schwartz came up with the recorded version: "You can own the earth, but still/all you'll own is earth until/you can paint with all the colors of the wind."

"It's so much better," he exclaims. "I'm thankful to Alan for that because I have a really nice Oscar for that song. Without that change, who knows?"

Since those days, the two have become good friends, working on projects such as Disney's "Hunchback" and "Enchanted" together.

"We're very comfortable with each other," Schwartz says. But he's never forgotten that early lesson: "If your collaborator is unhappy, it's probably because it needs to be better."

He doesn't find working with a partner any more difficult than working alone — it's just different, he says. He also doesn't suffer writer's block, thanks to advice from a friend a long time ago.

In the 1990s, he was working on the lyrics to the songs of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" when he unexpectedly became stuck. Schwartz sets the scene:

"It was that old cliche from a Hollywood movie of a writer pulling a paper out of the typewriter and crumpling it up, while chain-smoking. The camera would pan down and show a pile of crumpled papers."

He pauses and adds for veracity: "Except I was neither using a typewriter nor smoking."

A friend diagnosed his problem: "You're being the editor too soon," he said. Schwartz took those words to heart and stopped second-guessing himself.

"Sometimes you just have to put down the imperfect word and go on," he says. "Then you go back later and look for the perfect word. I haven't had writer's block since."

When writing for stage or screen, Schwartz works to get in the characters' heads to create their words.

"You are trying to become that person," he says. "There are characters that are fun to be."

They aren't always the good guys. One of his favorites: The evil, self-righteous Judge Frollo from Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," whose chilling song is titled "Hellfire."

"He was so sick, so damaged," says Schwartz, chuckling. "When I was Frollo, I really understood why actors like to play villains. It's a safe way to go to such a dark place."

He's currently involved with the upcoming film adaptation of the Broadway smash "Wicked."

"I don't know how much I can say about it," he says, though he confirms there will be new songs. "There are places in the story that will have new music," he says. There are also plans to bring "The Prince of Egypt" to the stage.

The Clermont show gives him a chance to work off his stage fright — "At first, those shows were quite scary because I had not performed in front of people before," he says. It's fun, not work.

"It's a break from being locked in a room, torturing myself, trying to write," he jokes. "It's nice to get out into the fresh air every now and then."

'Defying Gravity'

What: Concert with composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz

Where: Clermont Performing Arts Center, 3700 U.S. Highway 27, Clermont

When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14

Cost: $49-$99

Call: 352-394-4800

Online: clermontperformingarts.com

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