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Interview with Stephen Schwartz about songs in Rags

Rags lyricist Stephen Schwartz answered some questions from Carol de Giere during an interview in 2000. Below is a partial transcript. Carol later completed a biography of Schwartz, Defying Gravity, in 2008 that includes a full chapter on Rags.

Note from Carol:

The following notes are mostly unedited so that readers can get a feel for Stephen's speaking style. As you might expect from someone who went to drama school, Stephen animates his voice and modulates it so that it's always fun to listen to him. When you see "really," for example, imagine him saying it with emphasis and with his slight New York accent.

Carol de Giere: You tell this wonderful anecdote about "Children of the Wind." It was a situation in which you felt the music was fine but the audience wasn't responding and so you offered to rewrite the lyric. Who was the audience?

Stephen Schwartz: We were doing backers' auditions and playing the song for producers. It was well before the show existed as a show. Charles had written what I thought was a superb melody. I wrote two sets of lyrics. One of the was called "I Will Find a Way"; it was like "I will find a way to you...." I can't remember what the second one was called. Neither of them came off, and finally Charles said, "Well, I'll just write a better tune." I said, "No, this is a great tune. It's really not you, I really believe in this tune. I have to take another shot at this." I guess it had been revealed to me by the fact that "I Will Find a Way" and the other one didn't make it, I needed a new approach. I just said, "Well I guess I have to be more poetic about it and find an image and talk less personally in this particular song and write more about the whole idea of the immigrant experience." It was such a lesson for me.

CD: Do you think that is why it caught on after that, because it touches people in a way that hardly any other songs do?

SS: I don't know why. I think the image worked. I'll tell you, this is theoretical but it occurs to me just talking about this now, that the other two lyrics were too small for the music. The music has a kind of epic quality to it. When I first heard it I thought this is a lovely little plaintive folk tune. I'll write a little personal song. But it just didn't go to the music. Then when the words had a kind of larger thematic quality, they were riding correctly on the music. That was such a valuable lesson about lyrics and how they have to fit the tone of the music and how the same tune can either work on not depending upon what the words are. You don't think of it that way normally, but it was a great lesson.

CD: This is a question about the interrelationship of composer and lyricist. You said earlier when speaking about collaboration: "I did express my opinions and preferences while the music was written, as did Alan and Charles about my lyrics when I had written them." So I'm trying to figure out how you and Charles and Joseph worked together specifically for songs like "Three Sunny Rooms" and "For My Mary" because they are very book-based songs. And yet I can't imagine how they could write music without your lyric because the lyric ended up fitting so perfectly.

SS: "Three Sunny Rooms" I think there was a scene first. Almost always I will try to work from Book so there will be a scene first. Now I can't remember, because it's been so long, whether I came up with "three sunny rooms" and then Joe added it or whether Joe had written "I have my own place, three big sunny rooms, it's very nice but alone it's no life," and I got it from that. I DO remember there was some controversy for awhile where Charles was saying, maybe it should be called "Two Sunny Rooms" and I said, "No Charles, it has to be three."

CD: [laughing] Why, because it sounds better?

SS: It's just better.

CD: Two is not abundant enough.

SS: Yea, it's not the same. (Stephen sings to himself to recollect,) "A girl her age, she needs a mother, You know what I'm saying?" I think that existed as a lyric and then the tune, (Ya da da da) existed before the lyric. .....

CD: I don't remember if the beautiful song that's on the DUETS CD is in the original.

SS: No it got added later. There was a production done at the American Jewish Theatre in New York City, which was actually a very good production. That song got added for that.

CD: Did that become the opening number?

SS: Yea.

CD: Did that work, the feeling of it?

SS: It did for me. I prefer it to what's there...

CD: I was curious if "Blame it On a Summer Night," was inspired by a summer night? Did you write it during that time of year? Or was it just the feeling of the music.

SS: It's just the feeling of the music.

CD: And the dramatic need of the time?

SS: Yea. I mean, that was not something that came out of my life particularly. It was really what the music sounded like to me.

CD: This gramophone thing, I don't know any of the history. Was there an old song "For My Mary?"

SS: Oh no. I just made up a song. I wanted to do a song that sounded like a song of the period. It's a take off on a George M. Cohan song. .... [more details will be published at a later time.]

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