Watching a composer play his own works can be electrifying — you see the artist physically creating the very melodies that flowed from his soul.
So it was on Sunday afternoon watching Stephen Schwartz perform at the Clermont Performing Arts Center. A musical mainstay of theater and film, Schwartz and three vocalists created a thrilling portrait of what, for those in my age group, is the music of our times.
Schwartz composed the music to "Godspell" in 1971, shortly after I was born. "Pippin" followed soon after. By my college years, he was writing lyrics to movies such as Disney's "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Vanessa Williams recorded the Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind," Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey teamed on his "When You Believe" from "The Prince of Egypt."
Then it was back to the stage for Schwartz, who in the early 2000s wrote the music to one of Broadway's biggest modern hits, "Wicked."
Sunday, seated at a grand piano, he gave a behind-the-scenes look at how musicals are created. Schwartz, 68, took the audience through an early "Wicked" song that eventually was discarded except for a few introductory lines of melody and turns of phrase in "The Wizard and I" — which he lustily performed.
Schwartz sings with a composer's voice; he's not vocally ready for Broadway, but he knows how to sell a song — especially when the passion in the music and lyrics comes from himself. At show's end, he performed "For Good" from "Wicked" with a masterful mix of wistfulness, intensity, regret and — dare I say it? — a smidgen of hope.
Professional singers Scott Coulter, Tony winner Debbie Gravitte and Michael McCorry Rose delivered old favorites and lesser-known works with pizazz. Coulter, with an amazingly high yet resonant tenor, took lead on a mash-up of "Just Around the Riverbend" and "Corner of the Sky" that nicely married the songs' imagery of nature.
Gravitte was feisty waitress on a snappy rendition of "It's an Art" from "Working." Rose gave a full-voiced "Proud Lady" from "The Baker's Wife."
What Schwartz termed an "obligatory hits medley" stretched from "Godspell's" "Day by Day" through "Pippin's" "Magic to Do" to "When You Believe."
Without directly referencing the recent election, perhaps wisely in deeply conservative Lake County, Schwartz said he was feeling low.
"I'm not feeling very hopeful now," he said. "I've realized change is not always for the better and progress is not always forward."
He introduced "Beautiful City," a song from "Godspell," saying "Right now these words sound hopelessly naive to me, and that's why I'm going to sing it anyway."
"Out of our night of struggle, can we see a ray of hope? One pale thin ray reaching for the day," he sang. When he finished, he turned to the audience and said, "I feel better now."