A tale worth the telling | Art | Santa Maria Sun, CA
Here's my interview with Broadway and animated film composer STEPHEN SCHWARTZ (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked, Pocahontas, Hunchback, Prince of Egypt, etc.) and his son, director SCOTT SCHWARTZ, along with my review of their new musical, "My Fairytale" which premiered at PCPA Theaterfest in Solvang, California. (The book of the show is by Disney and DreamWorks screenwriter Philip LaZebnik, based on a concept by Fleming Envold.)
Once upon a time, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz and a team of incredibly creative people came together to bring the American premiere of a musical about Hans Christian Andersen to Solvang’s Festival Theater, just in time for the city’s centennial celebration. In the show, Andersen enters the world of his fairy tales and confronts his shadow. But this gracious interviewer also has a “shadow”—the critic who must review the show! What will his opinion be? Find out in the second part of this article.
Stephen Schwartz is a musical theater legend. At one point, three of his shows (Godspell, Pippin,and The Magic Show) were simultaneously running on Broadway. More recently, his musical Wicked (about the Wicked Witch of the West) became a worldwide phenomenon.
Schwartz is also known for his work in animated films: He put lyrics to Alan Menken’s music for Disney’s Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the animation/live action combo Enchanted.He also wrote both music and lyrics for DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt. (Schwartz is currently working on a Bollywood-style computer animated musical for DreamWorks—working title: Monkeys of Mumbai—along with Slumdog Millionaire composer A. R. Rahman).
So how did Schwartz wind up here? It all started when he received an unexpected call from Denmark. The caller was Philip LaZebnik, a writer Schwartz had worked with on Pocahontas and Prince of Egypt, who had since moved to Denmark with his Danish wife. LaZebnik asked the composer about an “unlikely” possibility: Would he want to work on a show in Copenhagen for the bicentennial of Andersen’s birth (in 2005)?
“It seemed like a fun task to undertake,” Schwartz said. “I’d never been to Scandinavia.”
Part of the fun was in the unique challenge of the piece, “not the least of which because it was in Danish,” he said. “I did learn the language a bit. I got along pretty well there.”
Then, in 2009, Schwartz’s opera, Sťance on a Wet Afternoon, premiered at Opera Santa Barbara. Michael Jackowitz (executive producer of
Sťance) introduced the composer to PCPA Artistic Director Mark Booher, who suggested doing the American premiere of My Fairytale as part of Solvang’s Centennial Celebration.
Schwartz noted that the production isn’t intended as an “out of town tryout” for Broadway or some other venue.
“The whole point was to do it for Solvang, as a celebration of the centennial,” he said. “This has really been planned for this, for the particular content of what Solvang is.
“This is a show I never expected to hear in English. ... I’m interested to see how American audiences respond,” he added.
The production is directed by Stephen’s son Scott Schwartz. When asked about what it’s like to work with family, both father and son (interviewed separately) gave a glowing response.
“Obviously, we get along well,” Stephen said. “He’s the director; I’m the [song]writer. The roles are relatively well defined. ... Scott is one of my favorite directors. I really enjoy working with him. I hope to do other things with him as well.”
“For a long time in my career,” Scott commented, “we did not work together, because I wanted to establish my own identity.”
After racking up a long list of credits, Scott did work with his father “a couple of times” prior to this, including directing Sťance on a Wet Afternoon.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Scott said. “He and I are very good friends. I think he’s an amazing writer. Because we’re father and son, we often have similar aesthetics.”
When asked about working with acting students at PCPA, Scott had plenty to say: ““I’ve had a wonderful experience. They have such a great group of actors, a mixture of equity and non-equity, and they’re all so incredibly talented, that you can’t really can’t tell [which is which]. They’ve been so supportive of this project and of me, and delivered a production of which I’m very proud. I’m very grateful to them.”
Previews took place in Santa Maria’s indoor Marian Theater, so the production could be fine-tuned before adding the outdoor element of Solvang’s Festival Theater.
“If all goes as planned, we will be able to adjust things appropriately according to nature. When you’re doing a show in an outdoor venue, you have to be careful to not have too much fabric on your set, or swinging doors, which might get blown open,” Scott said. “Ironically, we have fabric and [swinging] panels in this set—but they lock down.”
When creating visuals of the show’s fairytale world, the production team was inspired by Andersen’s own paper cuttings.
Scott commented on the themes of the show: “It’s about the need for us to all accept and embrace our own imagination, but also some of the challenges in doing so. We utilized our imaginations as artists—myself, the designer, actors, etc.—and also enlist the imagination of the audience as well.”
Stephen Schwartz noted that the show is intended for family audiences: “Our hope is that people of all ages will find stuff interesting and find stuff to enjoy.”
“It’s a great show, for both adults and children,” Scott echoed. “A true family show. There’s quite an adult’s story going on, but it’s filled with fairy tale characters.”
So say the creators of the show. But now their time to speak is past, and I, Parker’s critical shadow, take center stage! Ah, but fear not, PCPA—for I am in agreement with my kinder interviewing side.
Lesley McKinnell opens the show as opera star Jenny Lind, singing a beautiful aria. We are in the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, circa 1830s. The “real world” scenes which bookend the musical are somewhat heavy handed, but they do the job of quickly establishing Andersen’s looked-down-upon status, prior to the success of his fairy tales. His ambition is to write an opera for the Royal Theater that will be taken seriously and secure his place in Danish society.
Left alone in the theater, Andersen enviously contemplates the towering figure of his shadow. The shadow steps out onto the stage, embodied by the (tall) Erik Stein in a sparkling black suit. He’s the perfect physical contrast to Kevin Cahoon’s Andersen, who looks childlike in his slightly oversized top hat.
The pair is soon joined by a small boy who has gone out into the wide world to seek his fortune. Young actress Marisa Dinsmoor steals the show as a kid character who’s not only cute and sympathetic, but spirited and clever as well.
Andersen soon finds himself on a quest, tromping through eerie forests in search of a lost Nightingale whose song will make the ailing Emperor well again. In return, the Emperor promises to show him the way back to the real world.
These paragraphs were cut by the editor: It's impressive how many of Andersen's familiar tales librettist Philip LaZebnik managed to work into this piece. The universe he created for them to inhabit has a dreamlike quality, allowing elements from different tales to mingle and morph together. And it's all done with attention to the internal struggle of Andersen's character. (Also emphasized by Scott Schwartz's strong direction)
Cahoon is at the center of everything: an innocent and overwhelmed Dorothy/Alice type hero, and yet always believable as the genius who created the universe he's lost in.
McKinnell becomes each of Andersen’s very different love interests over the course of his magical journey. Perhaps the best of her many numbers is the mesmerizing “Come Drown in My Love”—in which she plays a little mermaid who wants Andersen to be a part of her world ... forever!
The entire ensemble (also playing multiple roles) is excellent. Choreographer Michael Jenkinson’s talents are shown best in the energetic dance numbers, such as “The Ugly Duckling” and the “Robber’s Dance.”
The production has visual inventiveness to spare (costumes: Alejo Vietti; scenic design: Tom Buderwitz; puppet design: Emily DeCola). Among the fantastic sights are a boisterous dog with saucers for eyes; a barnyard full of giant, menacing ducks and chickens; mermaids with elegantly swooshing tails; and a royal family with a passion for pink. As the capper for Act One, the show takes us flying up into the sky by way of inventive staging and the soaring tune of “On the Wings of a Swan.”
Add in the charming architecture of the Solvang Festival Theater and the stars twinkling overhead, and you have a magical experience that is not to be missed.
Freelancer Brent Parker was a bit distracted by a pea under his cushion. Contact him through Arts Editor Shelly Cone at [email protected].