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About the Playwright: Pippin

About the Playwright: Pippin

By Josh Stavros
From Insights, 2005

Shakespeare penned the words “Two households, both alike in dignity,” to describe the star-crossed families of Montague and Capulet, but this phrase could be applied to the collaborators behind Pippin, the hit musical penned by Stephen Schwartz and Roger Hirson.

Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for Pippin, was born in New York City on March 6, 1948. He studied piano and composition at the Juilliard School of Music while in high school and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a B.F.A. in drama. He worked for a time as a producer for RCA Records, but soon found his way to Broadway.

His first major credit was the title song for the play Butterflies are Free; the song was also used in the 1972 film version. In 1971, he wrote the music and new lyrics for Godspell, for which he won several awards including two Grammys. With the success of Godspell, Schwartz found himself hyper-propelled to Broadway fame at the ripe age of 23. He instantly became the media darling of Broadway, and seemed to be destined for greatness. While Godspell was Schwartz's first musical produced on Broadway, it wasn't the first he had written. Along with several other shows, he actually began Pippin in college, under the title Pippin Pippin. He described it as a musical version of The Lion in Winter, with “court intrigue and everyone singing really . . . sarcastic songs” (“Stephen Schwartz, It's an Art: Reflections on a Life in Song,” interview by Jem Aswad,, January 2005). The show evolved over the next six or seven years into a semi-disguised autobiographical story, and after meeting Roger Hirson in 1969, the pair reworked the show, keeping some of the plot and story, but changing all of the songs and music. Hirson commented that the show was written without any advice or support from a producer or director, but Pippin, as it was now called, was eventually picked up by producer Stuart Ostrow (who also produced such hits as 1776 and M. Butterfly) and Broadway legend Bob Fosse signed on as director. The show opened in Washington in 1972, and went to Broadway six weeks later.

Schwartz's golden age, however, was already beginning to wane. He experienced major creative differences with director Bob Fosse. Schwartz described himself at the time as being on a bit of an ego trip, and that combined with Fosse's reputation in New York and lackluster reviews of Schwartz's The Magic Show two years later and The Baker's Wife, which closed even before it reached Broadway due to a disastrous out-of-town tryout tour in 1976, seemed to spell the end of Schwartz's Broadway career. In his words: “My career in the theatre basically lasted seven years. I stopped in 1978 [after doing Working] and briefly came back to do Rags [1986], and that wasn't a very good experience, and I never worked in the theatre in New York again” (Aswad).

That, however, proved to be untrue. He stayed away from working and writing until 1981, when he was approached to adapt Working for television. His next major production was the music and lyrics for a Biblically based show called Children of Eden. The show, which never made it to Broadway, has enjoyed major success regionally.

Next, after the death of lyricist Howard Ashman, Walt Disney Studios was looking for someone to team up with composer Alan Menken (the dynamic duo responsible for Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). Schwartz teamed up with Menken and wrote lyrics for the Disney films Pocahontas (for which he won two Academy Awards) and Hunchback of Notre Dame. He then wrote songs for DreamWorks's smash hit Prince of Egypt, garnering another Academy Award for the song “If You Believe.”

Schwartz's bittersweet return to Broadway finally came in 2003, with the opening of the Tony Award-winning Wicked, the “real” story behind The Wizard of Oz. While various aspects of the show were recognized, Schwartz himself failed to win the Tony for composition. He recently released a solo album, and currently is working with ASCAP organizing and teaching music and theatre workshops.

Roger O. Hirson collaborated only once with Schwartz—by writing the book for Pippin. The play, however, has cemented both in the annals of musical theatre history. Hirson already had an established career as a television writer. He wrote for such programs as The Kraft Television Theater, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Philco Television Playhouse, and Studio One. He had written the book for one musical, Walking Happy, in 1966.

One thing both men have in common is a great sense of humor. Stephen Schwartz's official bio notes that some of his most coveted awards include his “handful of tennis trophies.” Hirson mentioned that while he and Schwartz remained friends, they have never worked on anything since. Pippin also proved to be his last musical. He went on to write several screenplays, including Bridge at Remagen (1969), Demon Seed (1977), and the teleplay for The Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott (1984). He is currently retired and living in New York City. Hirson also mentioned in a recent letter that a part of his and Schwartz's friendship includes the occasional bridge game, adding that they played “just last week, and although [Hirson and partner] played better, Schwartz and his wife won” (Letter to Josh Stavros, January 2005)