How Stephen Schwartz Changed The Game…

I confess that I am extremely resistant to listening to soundtracks of new musicals.

A hit song or two from a show is fine — it’s what I use to train Broadway singers, but I’m a composer also. I don’t want to be influenced by someone else’s hooks constantly looping in my brain.

Entire soundtracks do that to me.

And I don’t need to write LES MIZ music.

It’s been done.

A lot.

By the same guys, as a matter of fact.

Show after show after show…

So, I rarely listen to Original Broadway Cast Albums unless forced.

And that’s how I got into listening to WICKED.

Two years back, my five year old daughter insisted on listening to it every day on the way home from kindergarten.

She could read a little bit by that time and her vocabulary really increased by reading and singing along with the WICKED soundtrack lyrics. It was fun to hear her sing in the back seat.

Oh sure, we listened to “Popular” three or four times a day. “The Wizard and I,” “Defying Gravity,” “I’m Not That Girl” and that guy with the funny sounding pudding-in-the-throat tenor voice on the first track always got a laugh from her.

“No One Mourns The Wicked!”


So, my resistance became futile and, having been a “Son of Sondheim” these last thirty years, I finally had to come to the conclusion that musical theatre had moved on and, with WICKED, Stephen Schwartz had just changed the game for us all;


No “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry”

no repetitive “this is the moment,” “this, too, is the moment,” “and, oh yeah, this is also the moment”

no already drawn “Send In The Clowns” summations.

These are “high fiber lyrics.” They have layer upon layer of character exposition and development.

Each character speaks to, and in many cases, denies/accepts, their own truth. The King in THE KING & I had three hours to debate with himself. The folks in WICKED have about three minutes before making a move.

Inside rhymes are EVERYWHERE. And not the obvious clever composer, “look at my lyric” inside rhymes — these rhymes are rhythmic, conversational and belong because they are right.

Philosophy: Not every character has their own musical theme (in an opera sense) but each character has a definable philosophy through song. Wagner would be proud.


Elphaba is a rock star. She belts a high F (as do all my student/client belters), but good on ya, Stephen Schwartz for recognizing that the use of one’s true vocal chords can also be “unlimited” for eight shows a week.


It’s already happening, but in the next five years, a “critical mass” of interest in musical theatre will occur at the junior high and high school levels due to WICKED.

And where the chicks go — green though they may be — so do the boys.

So, yeah, Stephen Schwartz changed the game with WICKED; artistically (high fiber lyrics), physically (uh, high fiber belting), and, best of all, he guaranteed those of us who love musical theatre a whole new generation.

Oh, lol, and I still haven’t seen the show.

Why We Should Sing “Athletically”

Because when you get out of bed in the morning, you don’t wonder if you’ll be able to walk, do you?

So why should you get out of bed and wonder if you’ll be able to sing?

Athletic singers put the body in charge of the voice.

If you can walk, you can sing.

Unathletic singers allow the voice to be in charge of everything.

That’s why they always have to drink this, gargle this, swallow this…

It’s counter-intuitive.

Let the body lead the voice.

The voice will follow.

(The voice has no choice!)

Stephen Schwartz

The Dramatist Guild held its first “annual” West Coast membership meeting yesterday at Theatre West on Cahuenga.

I put “annual” in quotes because you can’t really have a “first” annual because annual events only become annual when you have a “second” annual.

Go figure.

Anyway, Stephen Schwartz was the special guest and, as he is a member of the Dramatist Guild board, the discussion was mostly around the mission of the DG, assistance they can offer to playwrights, composers, et al, and some of the current issues facing dramatists.

About a hundred members and guests attended the meeting.

As a musical theatre composer, I felt a little outnumbered — most of the attendees were obviously non-musical playwrights who asked about copyright, copyright infringement and submission policies. I figured many of them would be able to sing “Day By Day,” but was confident that only two or three of us actually knew the lyrics to “Lion Tamer.”

I didn’t get around to asking Stephen whether he writes lyrics or music first or both at the same time.

I kinda wanted to know that.

I also wanted to ask him about “Meadowlark” (from “The Baker’s Wife”) and how it came to be at such a young age that he composed what is easily one of the greatest musical soliloquies for a woman in the theatre — next to, of course, his newest greatest musical soliloquy for a woman in the theatre, “The Wizard and I.”

And then I wanted to ask him where is the male counterpart to “Meadowlark” and “The Wizard and I.”

Of course, afterwards, I didn’t ask him any of those questions because I had a more important mission.

I wanted to get his autograph for my daughter Julia Rose (who could sing the “Wicked” score backwards and forwards at the age of five).

For those of you with five year olds running around, you KNOW how much they like to listen to their favorite music in the car….over and over and over and over….

I saw it this way: getting Stephen’s autograph for my daughter (now seven) would have been like my dad getting me Richard Rodgers’ autograph or Cole Porter’s or Willie Mays, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. I wouldn’t have cared if my dad had talked to any of those guys (he was a bartender in Santa Monica in the early 60’s, I’m sure he talked to plenty of athletes and artists) — that wouldn’t have been a big deal.

But what’s thrilling to a child is a person of achievement or celebrity taking a moment — albeit an incredibly quick moment — to recognize them.

Upon my request, Stephen immediately obliged and signed his name on a lined sheet of paper in my notebinder.

And when I brought it home to Julia

and told her that I met the guy who wrote all the music for “Wicked,”

and that I got his autograph for her,

her eyes got big as she read the lined piece of paper

“To Julia Rose, Defy gravity! Stephen Schwartz”

Then she laughed and jumped up and down and cheered “Oh, wow!”

It’s now in a frame on the family piano.


Daddy did the right thing!

Mandy Patinkin and “Leading The Fun”

L.A. Times February 4th — Daryl H. Miller reviews Mandy Patinkin at the Kodak Theatre.

One passage of the review seemed particularly apt for An Uptempo and a Ballad:

“Yet what was increasingly apparent was how comfortable in his skin Patinkin appears to be nowadays. He is a prickly perfectionist, but he seems finally to trust himself and his material. He doesn’t oversell, as he did in the days that earned him a spotlight parody in “Forbidden Broadway” as “Super-Frantic-Hyper-Active-Self-Indulgent-Mandy.” Aside from occasional indulgences in showy, chesty, buzzing-with-vibrato fortissimos, Patinkin spent most of the concert in focused stillness, suspending notes — softly, tenderly — in his impossibly high, pure upper range.”

Keyword: Stillness — if you have a spare minute, take a look back to my October posts.

For the last few months, I’ve been telling students to “lead the fun” in performance.

If your mantra is, “I am the leader of the fun,” your audience will pick that up and trust your leadership. If they’re going to heckle, they might as well leave, right?

If you abdicate your leadership of the fun, choosing instead to “push the fun up a hill from behind,” it all becomes work, obvious work, and no one has any fun at all.

“Pushing the fun up the hill from behind” is a performer waiting for the audience to start having fun first.

It’s a long wait…

It doesn’t matter if you like to sing big and loud (omg; “showy, chesty, buzzy”!) or soft and quiet (“impossibly high, pure upper range”).

Mandy Patinkin was just leading the fun.

Own yourself, you own the stage.

Lead the fun, the audience follows.

“I’ll Do It After The Strike…”

I’ve been a member of SAG since 1979 and have witnessed several big strikes since then.

And after all this time, I can tell you the one mistake we performers constantly make (and will continue to make) during a strike;

We treat it like a vacation.

Which it isn’t.

It’s an opportunity.

It’s a chance to go to the gym more.

It’s a chance for us to get in that dance class, voice class, acting class and improve our skills.

It’s a chance to READ more and become more literate.

It’s a chance to volunteer in something meaningful instead of waiting for the union to set up a Blood Drive.

Write a letter to the editor.

Meditate in an open field — even when it’s raining.

Do something instead of nothing.

Or do nothing.

But don’t blame the writer’s strike for it!

Our Demo Tracks…

Every gig we do is a learning experience.

And if it’s not, then we’re not paying enough attention to what we’re doing.

That’s why, when my students/clients/pals record these vocal samples, I only give them three takes straight through the track to deliver.

My reasoning is thus:

1) With digital recording, three complete vocal takes should give me plenty of material to “comp” the vocals, which means that I simply take the best phrases — sometimes, even, the best word — and put them all together in a single vocal take. If there are too many takes to choose from, or if we start “punching in” single words, etc., the performance gets lost because we are seeking perfection over performance. I’ll always take performance first because it’s real and real humans are seldom perfect;

2) With three full takes on one song, the singer has to “go for the gold” each time. It’s a good practice to get in to. The singer is pushed to get to what that song means pretty quickly. No “warming up” for five or six takes and then expecting magic. Music producers come in all shapes and sizes with different demands and a singer has to be prepared for a session that could last fifteen minutes or five hours. If a singer goes for the gold on each take, giving it his or her all each time, then a producer is less inclined to throw out entire takes and ask for another one while also respecting that the singer is there delivering a high quality, fully energized product (the vocal line) in as efficient a manner as possible (studio time costs money — be a hero, not a diva).

Finally, digital pitch correction.

I don’t use it. The demos you hear are demos. Some major artists now touring are using pitch correction software in their live shows.

We don’t call that art. We call that “cashin’ checks”!

Featured Singer: Amy Langer Schwartz

A few years back, Amy Langer Schwartz did a national tour of “A Chorus Line” where she sang the 11th hour standard “What I Did For Love.”

Only thing is, on that tour, Amy had no confidence in her voice, no real vocal technique, and, to top it off, she used to ask the sound guys to turn down her microphone whenever she hit the high notes.

That’s what I love about our featured singer Amy Langer Schwartz. She is brutally honest, tremendously dedicated, funny, engaging, phenomenally talented and to top it off, she’s now a bona fide belter, baby!

Click on the little widget above to hear what I’m talking about.

Amy Langer Schwartz.

Even her name sounds like a trustworthy product.

V.O.: “Amy Langer Schwartz…a ton o’ talent in a tiny package…available now at finer theatres everywhere.”

Happy New Year! (Uh, Time To Get In Shape…)

I just turned 50 the other day. Nathalie insisted that I go to the doctor because when you turn 50 that’s the first thing you’re supposed to do.

So I went to my old, fat doctor who told me I need to lose 36 lbs., whereupon, with his expert analysis, I, too, suddenly became old and fat. Ah, the magic of modern medicine..

Of course, that BMI (Body Mass Index) chart he brought out was all lies. I haven’t weighed 189 since I started gaining weight after playing Danny Zuko in 1982. Plus, I’m sure the doctor’s scale was all messed up and they weighed me with my shoes on, and you know, all that accounts for at least an extra 10, 12 lbs. right there.

So, by rights, I should only have to lose about ten or 15 lbs.

But that doesn’t get me “in shape,” does it?

I mean, if I lost ten or 15 lbs., I still wouldn’t be running any marathons anytime soon would I?

Maybe a potato sack race, but that’s a BIG maybe.

I think the point is; to have a longer, happier life with my friends, family, and students, I need to get in shape and stay in shape.

Same thing applies to singers and voices.

So, this year, let’s all get in shape and, fer Pete’s sake, let’s stay in shape.

Might as well.

2008 is going to be a huge year for us all!

Hydrate, Spray, Hydrate, Spray, Pee, Hydrate, Spray

For a singer, the only solution for nerves (and the resultant disease, “cotton mouth”) is a humble little thing called “acceptance.”

Nerves are nerves. We get anxious or we overthink something and, “wheee!,” there they are.

No amount of water from the fountain, a cooler or 10-gallon plastic bottle is going wet your whistle enough to overcome a case of nerves before that callback, meeting with the director or producer, or life-changing performance opportunity.

Truly, the best way to deal with nerves is not to focus on them at all. Don’t expend good energy on trying to suppress something very normal. Accept nerves as part of your current condition.

Yeah, some singers go nutty with their water and throat sprays, lozenges, etc., because –at that point/by that time — it’s too late for them to treat the cause and they are now stuck treating the symptom.

How to avoid the cause?

Train your body to lead your voice, not your voice to lead your body.

Train athletically, incorporating your body into your voice, not just leaving your vocal cords to do all the heavy lifting.

Don’t think against yourself. Circumvent the mind by first training your spirit into your singing. The use of energy is crucial, whether you want to conquer a stage or a stadium.

Train body, spirit, voice in that order and the mind won’t be able to play the naughty tricks we like to play on ourselves.

Like talking ourselves out of our passion for singing, bringing up old wounds, rejections, resentments, criticism, childhood traumas… ferget ’em!

As in a 100 meter dash, when we train our voices athletically, nerves disappear at the sound of the starting pistol (or at the bell tone of our audition song). There can be no nerves, nor any awareness of nerves, when we are only focused on winning the race.

Joe DiPietro, You Bastard!!

Actually, Joe isn’t a bastard at all — far from it.

I just thought that would be a catchy title for a post.

In truth, Joe is an amazing writer, terrifically funny, human and humane, a soft-spoken sports book of knowledge and an all-round very decent kind of fella.

Along with Jimmy Roberts, Joe wrote “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” A catchy title in and of itself and also a musical that will probably run Off Broadway until the year 2525.

Maybe longer.

Joe also wrote, along with Jimmy Roberts, the Off-Broadway musical “The Thing About Men,” which was called “Men” when it made its world premiere at Tim and Buck Busfield’s B Street Theatre in Sacramento several years ago. I had the great fortune to play the lead character, Tom Ambrose — a role I still believe is one of the great men’s roles in American musicals.


Tom Ambrose gets to sing and ride a bike, wear a gorilla mask, boxing gloves and a robe, play the ukelele, scheme, scream and plot and ultimately twist the audience into a direction they didn’t expect. And he makes people laugh the entire time.

The run was sold out and we got standing ovations every night. True.

I hate having to give a standing ovation, but I sure don’t mind getting one.

Just call me “The Happy Hypocrite.”

Anyway, Joe is a chronic re-writer and a massive “cutter.” He would apologize profusely at giving me rewrites, new pages, new dialogue to learn during the week of opening (and a couple shows after that) — but I was glad to do it because a) Joe is an inspiration and b) He was making the show better. Nothin’ wrong with making a show better.

So where was I going with this?

Oh yeah. I had to turn down the East Coast run of “Men” because my daughter Julia Rose had just been born and it’s very difficult feeding a family on $15 a day while performing in small houses in New Jersey and Florida. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I was told I was the second choice for the East Coast tour because a super talented Broadway actor suddenly couldn’t get out of his contract to do Joe and Jimmy’s show. So, it was, “Uh, Bill, can you leave L.A. in three days and come rehearse with us?” In truth, that didn’t bum me out, that was just business, but I still had to turn it down.

Nathalie and I sent Joe a birth announcement. Jimmy, too.

Flash forward seven years.

Julia Rose has turned seven.

Joe has written at least a play a week and a musical a month including the open and closed (sadly enough) Broadway Elvis musical “All Shook Up.”

And now the regional theatres are getting ahold of the rights and this breakdown just came out:

Breakdown for
ALL SHOOK UP (Combined EPA/ECC Singers)
Musical Theatre
WestLong Beach, CA

NATALIE HALLER (20’s- 30): a mechanic. A small town girl who dreams of more. Lusts after Chad. Dresses up as ‘Ed’ to get closer. LEAD

CHAD (25-35): a great-lookin’, motorcycling, guitar-playing, leather-jacketed roustabout. The “Elvis” character. LEAD

JIM HALLER (mid 40’s-50’s): Natalie’s widowed father. Middle-aged and messy, he still
longs for his wife. SUPPORTING

Last part of the story…

Yes, my wife Nathalie is 20 years younger.

We’ll be turning 80 together this November/December.

You’re invited.

Especially you, Joe DiPietro!

(and even if all of this is a super strange coincidence, I’m still gonna stick to my story!)