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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Legendary Composer Stephen Schwartz Inducted Into LIMEHOF


The Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame (LIMEHOF) prides itself on preserving pieces of musical history, artifacts, and memorabilia, as well as inducting Long Islanders who have had significant impacts on culture through their music.

The Hall is no stranger to prestigious guest appearances, often involving their inductees. The Hall is currently displaying a Billy Joel retrospective display, a walkable exhibition that takes the guest from the beginning of Joel’s career to his current musical endeavors.

But LIMEHOF hosted a different figure of legendary status for his late but well-deserved induction in the Hall: Broadway and film composer Stephen Schwartz.

Born in New York City in 1948, Schwartz’s family moved to Williston Park, Nassau County, and Schwartz graduated from Mineola High School in 1964. Schwartz is perhaps best known for his lyrics and composition for the hit Broadway musicals Godspell (1971), Pippin (1972), and The Magic Show (1974). By age twenty-six, Schwartz had three hit musicals running simultaneously on Broadway.

Schwartz would also collaborate with other renowned composers of his time, including Leonard Bernstein, for whose Mass he would compose the lyrics, and Alan Menken, for whose orchestral scores he would provide lyrics for Disney hits Pocahontas (1995), with the notable song being “Colors of the Wind,” and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

Schwartz would also provide numbers for Dreamworks’ first animated feature The Prince of Egypt (1998), with the finale number “When You Believe” earning him an Academy Award. Schwartz would return to Broadway in 2003 to compose music and lyrics for the hit musical Wicked. He would later rejoin Menken at Disney to provide lyrics for the 2007 film Enchanted. Schwartz has been involved in screen adaptations of his stage productions and is currently scoring the music for the film adaptation of Wicked, slated for release later this year. Schwartz is also credited as a composer and lyricist for The Baker’s Wife (1976), Children of Eden (1991), and Geppetto (2000), and as a lyricist for Rags (1986).

Schwartz’s induction into LIMEHOF was slated for 2020, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The induction ceremony took place at the Hall on Saturday, March 23. In addition to the guest of honor himself making the trip out to Stony Brook, a company of talented actors and musicians from the stage and screen performed some of Schwartz’s most well-known numbers. Performers primarily consisted of people who have worked closely with Schwartz over his five-decade-long career.

The Messenger had the rare opportunity to not only be treated to performances by such professionals, but was also able to chat with Stephen Schwartz and discuss his beginnings, inspirations, and future plans.

“My parents were very excited to hear that I’m finally being inducted into the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame,” Schwartz told the press. “They feel like I finally made it. There’s something special about Long Island; it’s where I’m from.”

When asked if he remembers the first time he sat down to write a song, Schwartz described hearing his neighbor, famous Broadway composer George Kleinsinger, play his compositions.

“When I was about six or seven, I was able to go over to the piano and pick out the tune,” said Schwartz, referencing an early ear for perfect pitch. “After a couple of times, George told my parents that they should get me a piano and put me in lessons.”

Schwartz said his first song was for a puppet show called High Dog that he and his sister created.

Schwartz mentioned an early inspiration for the song “Popular” from Wicked, which was about a cheerleader he had a crush on in high school.

“I always pictured her when I was writing that song,” he said. “I think everybody brings his or her background to what they write.”
Schwartz says he’s always subscribed to the philosophy of “follow your bliss.”
“I was nervous about trying to be in show business and I thought I should probably get a real degree, but my father encouraged me to pursue what I want to pursue,” said Schwartz.

The Messenger inquired about Schwartz’s early musical inspirations.

“My parents took me to see Broadway shows when I was very young,” said Schwartz. “I had a lot of influence from Rodgers and Hammerstein and the old classics.”

Schwartz says that as a classically trained pianist, he had specific affinity for the Russian composers of the Romantic Era, specifically Mussorgsky – known for Pictures at an Exhibition and Boris Godunov – Rachmaninoff – known for his elaborate piano concertos – and Prokofiev – known for his ballet Romeo and Juliet.

“I would also always go back to Beethoven and how he voiced chords, as well as the French impressionists Ravel and Debussy,” Schwartz added.

When we asked what his favorite quote, motto, or words to live by are, Schwartz invoked the wisdom of Jesus, as shown in the musical Godspell, which is an onstage modern adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew.

“Always treat others as you would have them treat you,” said Schwartz. “If everybody in the world just did that, we’d be doing a lot better.”
The Messenger also asked Schwartz of his favorite collaborators with whom he’s worked over the years.

“All of the collaborations have been very meaningful to me,” said Schwartz. “Of course, Alan Menken, he and I are very close friends, and he, in some ways, helped resurrect my career, so I’ve always been grateful to him for that. I’ve also loved my work with Leonard Bernstein and Charles Strouse. I’ve learned an enormous amount from all three of them.”

Schwartz provided the English lyrics for Bernstein’s Mass (1971) and collaborated with Strouse on Rags (1986).

The Messenger’s final question to Schwartz was what his advice to young composers, specifically in the film industry, would be.

“I’m still learning,” said Schwartz. “I finally learned Logic and how to link it up to my equipment and instruments. It’s not something I’ve done before, but I’m learning it and having fun with it.”

Logic is a professional-grade software used for composing and syncing music, typically for film and other media.

The Messenger also got to speak with the drummer for the original stage production of Godspell, Rick Shutter.

“It was like being shot out of a cannon,” said Shutter, describing what it felt like to be part of such a hit musical at just nineteen years old. “One of the actresses, Joanne Jonas, recommended me to Steve. I auditioned for him in my house in Malverne and got the gig.”

Shutter played drums for all applicable numbers at Saturday night’s variety show in honor of Schwartz on the second floor of the Hall.
In attendance also was pianist Paul Shaffer, who had a lengthy career as the musical director and band leader for Late Night with David Letterman (1982-1993) and Late Show with David Letterman (1993-2015).

Shaffer began his career in 1972 when Schwartz invited him to be the musical director for the Toronto production of Godspell, which starred Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, and Andrea Martin. Shaffer played piano for Schwartz’s Broadway show The Magic Show in 1974 and then became a member of the house band on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Shaffer told the story of how he was not looking for a job, but just happened to have Schwartz overhear him playing the piano.

“I had just gotten out of college in Toronto. I was accompanying friends of mine who were auditioning for Godspell, and I played one song for a girlfriend of mine, and Stephen Schwartz said, ‘I want to talk to that piano player,’” Shaffer told The Messenger. “And he said, ‘can you stay for the rest of the day and play the auditions?’ And I did. And at the end of the day, he said, ‘do you think you could get a band together and conduct a show?’ I’d never done anything like that in my life. So, Steven Schwartz heard me play a little bit and hired me, and then he brought me to New York after that to play for him in The Magic Show on Broadway in 1974. So, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even be here tonight.”

Shaffer played the piano for several numbers at Saturday night’s show.

Carrie St. Louis, who played Glinda in the Broadway and national touring productions of Wicked from 2014 to 2016, told The Messenger that in addition to Schwartz, her biggest inspiration has been Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

“Stephen is just so incredible and I feel very lucky to be able to honor him today,” said St. Louis. She performed a rendition of “Popular” and “For Good,” the latter of which she performed with Teal Wicks, who played Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in several productions of Wicked.

“Two of my biggest career moments have been in Stephen’s shows,” Wicks told The Messenger, referring to Pippin and Wicked. “He has a brilliant ear for beautiful ear-worn melodies that can lodge into your brain. But then he also has such a huge breadth of other musical vocabulary, whether it’s jazz and blues, classical, or whether it’s like Prince of Egypt. He takes different worlds and combines them into these incredibly catchy songs.”

Dale Soules, who performed in The Magic Show in 1974 said that Schwartz is “the only composer I’ve ever worked who sat down and taught me the song himself.”

The tribute show consisted of numbers from Godspell, Wicked, The Magic Show, and Pocahontas. Schwartz himself performed a new number for his upcoming musical with Kristen Chenowth, The Queen of Versailles.

Band members from the original Godspell show were able to perform several numbers from the play, and the entire company closed with the curtain call of Day By Day.

“This was so very moving for me,” Schwartz told the crowd after his formal induction. “This means so much to me as a Long Island boy.”

The Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame is located at 97 Main Street in Stony Brook at the easternmost end of the Stony Brook Village Center.

Matt Meduri
Matt Meduri
Matt Meduri serves as the Editor in Chief of the Messenger Papers and writer of America the Beautiful and This Week Today columns. As a graduate of St. Joseph's University, Matt has been working in the political journalism field for over 5 years. He is a multi-instrumentalist, enjoys cooking and writing his own recipes, and traveling throughout the United States including Guam.