In the biography Defying Gravity, Carol de Giere explores the creative life and career of composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who is perhaps best known for his show Wicked. The Broadway revival of one of his earlier shows, Pippin, is opening April 25 at the Music Box Theatre in New York.
The biography gives readers a close-up look into the creative mind of Schwartz, using material from more than 80 hours of interviews with him and more than 100 interviews with his friends and colleagues.
But what truly sets this book above comparable literary fare is that de Giere concludes every chapter with “Creativity Notes,” in which Schwartz and others offer invaluable insight regarding the creative process and artistic life.
De Giere counts this aspect of the book as the greatest triumph of the project. “The ‘Creativity Notes’ are what I’ve been getting the most praise for,” de Giere said.
Schwartz’s early creative pursuits led to quick successes. At age 23, fresh from Carnegie-Mellon University, he wrote the score for Godspell, immediately followed by Pippin and The Magic Show. Later he worked on several Disney features, including Pocahontas, which brought him Academy Awards for best score and best song (“Colors of the Wind”).
In 2006, Kansas City’s own Coterie Theater debuted the stage adaptation of Geppetto & Son, which was based on the 2000 TV musical that Schwartz wrote for The Wonderful World of Disney.
Schwartz, now 65, had the idea to convert Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked into a stage musical, as he had done with Pippin and Working. As part of the book’s appendix, de Giere includes Schwartz’s original outline for the show.
“If you read through Stephen’s outline, ” she said, “then look at the original novel, and then at the final production, you’ll find it’s a complete lesson in the manner by which Schwartz’s theatrical genius brings such a colossal undertaking to life.
“I think it‘s really illuminating for anyone who’s either an admirer of Wicked — or who’s working on anykind of adaptation of their own.”
This biography’s name, Defying Gravity, refers to the rousing Act One climax of Wicked. Yet the title has another meaning, as well. The book, which came out in 2008, explores not only the challenging collaboration issues and decisions that led Schwartz to such phenomenal hits, but also those that resulted in expensive flops, even after they had all the earmarks of certain success in their initial stages. These are the experiences that had him seriously considering early retirement at one point.
But the author said the book wouldn’t have been so exciting if it had just focused on his great successes.
De Giere said, “Stephen had to overcome his own ‘story’ that he was telling himself about supposedly only being a ‘three-hit wonder.’ He had to overcome his attitude — both about himself and the industry in which he was working — and in doing so, defied his own gravity — and the gravity of the critics around him.”
The story behind the book is as remarkable as many of the incidents it details. De Giere was not very familiar with the business of theater before starting work on the manuscript. But the Madison, Wis., native said, “When I was growing up, my mother loved musicals and would play things like The Pajama Game, The King and I, and a lot of wonderful classics on vinyl LPs — and I think the first movie I saw was South Pacific. These tunes were the music of my heart.”
Her outsider status may have worked in her favor. “I think one of the reasons Stephen consented to let me do this book was that I was interested in how musicals were made and how creativity works,” de Giere said. “So I came in with a lot of those questions myself.”
A former librarian living in Iowa, de Giere had been around books all her life when she decided to turn her attention to the other side of publishing by becoming a freelance journalist. One assignment had her preparing musician biographies, working from an alphabetical list.
“Out of all of the possible musicians, I was given the letter ‘S’ for last names, and that encompassed Stephen Schwartz,” she said.
During her research, she was struck by the insights regarding creativity posted on his website, she recalled. “I became sort of absorbed by these and thought he would be a really interesting person to write about.”
She became so committed to the project that eventually, she and her husband relocated to the East Coast to make her work easier.
“I needed to be near New York City,” de Giere said. “I needed to know what Broadway was about in person — and I needed to be near enough to catch Stephen on subway rides or those occasions where I could just pop out a tape recorder. So we packed up and drove across the country.”
Besides the book, de Giere is responsible for a quarterly e-newsletter that keeps devotees informed about the composer and his shows.
“While gathering materials, I wanted to offer something to the book’s prospective audience,” de Giere said. “So I started www.MusicalSchwartz.com. And because a lot of websites have newsletters, I asked Stephen if he would sometimes write updates for it.”
The result is “The Schwartz Scene,” which has received such an overwhelmingly encouraging response that it spawned a website of its own: www.TheSchwartzScene.com. There, enthusiasts can sign up and receive regular bulletins about Schwartz’s work.
When asked about her personal favorites among his works, de Giere said, “I like this upcoming version of ‘Pippin’ and how they’ve re-imagined it. And I’ve seen Wicked about 14 times. … But what my husband and I see whenever we get a chance is Children of Eden. The music is so grand. Some of it is just epic, and the story [a musical retelling of the Bible’s Book of Genesis> is mythic and stirring at a deep level. There’s also much of the music of Godspell that lifts me.”
Thanks to Schwartz’s talent and perseverance, he seems to be at last getting, as the Wizard in Wicked would put it, his “due — long overdue!”
Defying Gravity is available in paperback as well as e-book formats from all major book-sellers. For more information, check out www.DefyingGravityTheBook.com.