Intersections: Stephen Schwartz's Musical Ghosts

Broadway Composer Finds Inspiration in Varied Chords

Composer Stephen Schwartz in NPR's studio 4A

Stephen Schwartz in NPR's studio 4A Paul Schomer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Schomer, NPR

This season, the new musical Wicked has taken Broadway by storm. Based on a novel of the same name by Gregory McGuire, Wicked is set in the land of Oz before Dorothy blew in.

Wicked has won over audiences by forcing them to re-imagine the well-known tale of good v. evil, presenting them with a Wicked Witch of the West that's a smart, misunderstood feminist and a Glinda the Good that's a peppy, ambitious beauty.

The show's composer and lyricist is Stephen Schwartz. His best-known musicals are Pippin and Godspell — shows that have played on Broadway and become high school staples. As part of Intersections, a series on artists' inspirations, Schwartz speaks with NPR's Neva Grant about the patchwork of influences that have shaped his musical style.

Schwartz's best tunes sound surprising and newly minted no matter how often one hears them. But Schwartz says that, to him, his style feels like a conglomeration of everything he's ever loved.

Web Extra: Inside the Mind of Stephen Schwartz

Schwartz shares more insights on:

Listen 1-'Scavenging' from Other Music

Listen 2-Beethoven and Other Early Influences / Hear the Influence in 'For Good'

Listen 3-Laura Nyro's Influence

Listen 4-How Suzanne Vega's 'Calypso' Influenced 'Stranger to the Rain' / Hear 'Stranger to the Rain'

Listen 5-How Sting's 'King of Pain' Influenced 'Stranger to the Rain' / Hear 'King of Pain'

Listen 6-The Trick to Writing Good Lyrics

Listen 7-Why He Admires Certain Pop Writers

Listen 8-Using Triple Rhyme in Lyrics / Hear Triple Rhyme in 'Popular'


Music Info: 2-'For Good,' from 'Wicked,' sung by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth; 4-'Stranger to the Rain,' from 'Children of Eden,' as recorded by the Paper Mill Playhouse; 8-'Popular,' from 'Wicked,' sung by Kristin Chenoweth.

"My style of writing has been influenced by sort of scavenging the pieces of music that I've heard, and it'll just be a moment" that he might use for inspiration, he says.

When he sits down to write, Schwartz usually starts with the title of a song. Then comes the scaffolding (chords), melody and last of all lyrics, which he says should cling to the silhouette of the music. Schwartz names dozens of artists who've influenced him over the years — everyone from Beethoven to Sting.

Perhaps this medley of influences explains what people have come to identify as the "Schwartz style." The best of his music carries a universal emotional power, echoes of chords and melodies that people have loved for generations and continue to resonate.

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