Stephen Schwartz on Prince of Egypt and "total joy" of Wicked movie
The legendary musical theatre composer speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com to mark the digital release of The Prince of Egypt: The Musical.
The idea of creating filmed versions of hit stage plays is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but it's a practice that has taken off in a whole new way in the last decade or so.
The National Theatre started bringing live versions of its biggest productions to cinema audiences around the UK in 2009, while during the pandemic, a recorded performance of Hamilton became a major streaming hit on Disney Plus.
This is a development that Stephen Schwartz – whose musical The Prince of Egypt is the latest to spawn a specially filmed version – is very much in favour of.
"There seems to be more of an appetite to try and get a wider audience that maybe can't get to the theatre or can't afford to get to the theatre," he tells RadioTimes.com during an exclusive interview. "I think it's obviously a great development, and I'm happy to be part of it with The Prince of Egypt."
While Schwarz notes that certain aspects of the live experience are impossible to replicate in this format – specifically the unpredictability and unique energy of watching something unfold in the same room – he reckons that there are also advantages to pre-recorded versions that make up for those shortcomings, not least the ability to make use of close-ups and to appreciate the piece from angles that would be impossible from a theatre seat.
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And he also likes the idea of immortalising live performances that might otherwise be lost to time.
"There are so many performances from the past that... even myself, being of a certain age, there are still things that I never saw, performances I never saw that are legendary that it would have been lovely to be able to have a recording like this to be able to see," he explains.
The idea of a filmed version of The Prince of Egypt seems especially fitting given that the musical is itself adapted from the 1998 animated film of the same name.
Schwartz had composed several songs for that original film – including the now-iconic When You Believe – and returned to pen some new numbers for the stage version, which was originally performed in 2017 before coming to the West End in 2020.
He said the process of developing the project for the stage was one he greatly enjoyed, and he particularly relished the opportunity to give "much more depth" to some of the characters.
Meanwhile, it was also enjoyable to revisit his musical research from the original project, even if nothing could quite top the experience that initially gave him the inspiration for When You Believe all those years ago.
"We were on a tour that DreamWorks had arranged, and we were actually in the Sinai desert," he recalls. "And one of the directors, Steve Hickner, was talking about wanting a kind of anthemic sound for when the Hebrew tribes finally succeeded in getting their freedom.
"So the next morning, we actually got to climb Mount Sinai, and got up before dawn so we could be up at the summit to watch the sunrise come up. And I kind of had this tune in my head... I didn't write the whole song then, but that was basically the genesis of the song!"
Those kinds of circumstances might not have been recreated this time around, but he did find it useful to dip back into his research – which included "recordings that purported to be of Egyptian court music" and "kind of Middle Eastern folk music".
"We used a lot of authentic instrumentation in the orchestration for the show," he adds. "And it was a matter of kind of going back to what was the musical palette that I was using originally, and trying to draw upon that."
Another thing that's notable about the stage musical is that its director was none other than Schwartz's son, Scott Schwartz. The composer describes Scott as "one of my favourite directors" – but stresses that that doesn't mean "we don't have our differences".
"I think that's a positive thing," he adds. "He definitely brings his point of view, he has an extremely strong visual sense, as I think anyone seeing the video is going to realise. I thought the production was just simply beautiful to look at and the flow of the way he stages things is something that I like very much.
"I really like the concept that Scott and his choreographer, Sean Cheesman, came up with, that they wouldn't do very high-tech things all the time – that a lot was made from dancers' bodies," he continues.
"So that dancers are making a chariot race or dancers are becoming the Nile or kind of a haunted desert as Moses is sent out into the desert. So much is done with the actors and the use of their choreographic skills - and I think that was one of my favourite things about this production."
The Prince of Egypt is not the only production Schwartz has written that has its roots in a biblical story. One of his earliest and most famous works, Godspell, is based on the Gospel of Matthew, while his lesser-known 1991 musical Children of Eden is adapted from the Book of Genesis, telling the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Flood.
So what is it about biblical subject matter that particularly appeals to him as being ripe for musical adaptation? "Well, they're big stories," he says. "Big events occur and people are put into very extreme situations – and, therefore, there's a lot to sing about.
"In this case, the idea from the beginning that Steven Spielberg had when we were first making the animated feature was to treat this as a brother story. And the conflict that arises between two brothers who love one another, and then find themselves through their destinies on opposite sides of a major issue and a major conflict.
"So it's both a story that deals with large issues about freedom and personal responsibility, but also a very personal story about the relationship between these two men and how these events affect them.
"And that's what the Bible stories lend you – you're able to deal with subject matter that is still very pertinent to us in contemporary times. I mean, given what's happening right now in the Middle East, the conflicts in Prince of Egypt seem completely modern today.
"And yet there's a remove, because the characters are characters from a long, long time ago. So there's a lot of fertile ground – if you'll pardon the pun – in the Bible stories that I think lend themselves to both musicalisation and to drama."
Of all the works Schwartz has created throughout his storied career, it's perhaps Wicked which is the most beloved of all. The Wizard of Oz prequel has played to sold-out audiences in the West End for almost two decades since it opened in 2006, and is now the subject of a big-budget film adaptation that will arrive in two parts in 2024 and 2025, with Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo in the starring roles.
Schwartz has naturally been heavily involved in the film's production – an experience he describes as "a complete joy" – and says that things are very much on track for next November's release date, despite a few delays during the now-resolved WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, with a few additional days of shooting planned for early 2024.
"All of the production has been done in the UK, and it's been a wonderful place to work," he says. "And there was so much that had been filmed that when the strike happened, the director Jon Chu was able to do a rough cut of the film. And it didn't really stop, fortunately, the progress on the film."
Schwartz also takes time to praise the "great" music team and "phenomenal" cast for the film, whom he calls "wonderful human beings to work with". And he explains that one of the most exciting aspects of the experience had been getting the opportunity to pen brand new songs for both Erivo and Grande, partly a result of the decision to split the musical into two separate films released a year apart.
"We weren't really able to get the whole story into one movie without it being far too long," he explains. "[But] it did leave some room for exploration that has led to a couple of new songs, and it's just been a privilege to be able to write with the voices of Cynthia and Ariana in mind."
Pressed further on the decision to make not one but two films, he reiterates his point that the showstopping anthem Defying Gravity – which closes act 1 of the stage play – was simply too big a number to take place in the middle of a film.
“It was hard to get past, Defying Gravity is such a sort of definitive end of an act that no matter what we tried to do, it just felt as if at this point, the audience was going to want to take a break," he says. "You could just hear the sound of footsteps going up the aisle!"
He adds: "We did even play with the idea of building in an intermission or break into one long movie, as movies in the past have done. But ultimately, we felt we had enough story that it warranted two movies. And I'm very excited about that concept.”
As for future projects, Schwartz is currently hard at work on a new show titled The Queen of Versailles, which will star Broadway great and former Wicked star Kristin Chenoweth in the lead role, and is based on a 2012 documentary film of the same name.
He describes it as an "essentially comic" piece of work that deals "with very contemporary issues" such as "income inequality and what's happened to the American dream".
Meanwhile, he's less sure about the prospect of a previously mooted live-action film remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame – the animated version of which he composed songs for with Alan Menken.
Despite a Deadline report in 2019 claiming the project was in the works, it now appears to have been shelved, and Schwartz confesses that he doesn't know "anything about it".
"I suppose at some point, the phone could ring and it will be just me saying, 'Yes, we want to move ahead with a live-action Hunchback of Notre Dame,' but I really don't know," he explains.
"What I would like to see... I think the stage production of Hunchback is so amazing – so I'd love to see that in the UK, more first-class productions there and in the US."
Menken is just one of many greats with whom Schwartz has worked during his career, and he says that every "collaboration is a great learning experience". But if he could single out one person whose impact on his work had been greatest, then it would be Leonard Bernstein.
When we speak, he is greatly looking forward to seeing the newly released Maestro, which explores the legendary composer and conductor's work as played by Bradley Cooper, who also directs.
"He was very, very influential on me, both as a musician and as a human being," Schwartz says of Bernstein. "I was in my very early 20s when I worked with him [on the musical theatre work Mass], and I learned so much from him.
"I had enormous respect and admiration and affection for him, so I'm very much looking forward to the film. I understand that it's a really good film that really delves into who he was, and yeah, I mean, he's the closest I ever had to a mentor – put it that way!"