THE Prince of Egypt is having another moment in the desert sun. The 1998 animated film on Moses and the Exodus story was turned into a musical in London.
And in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the original film’s music is getting online love from fans who are being soothed by soundtrack tunes such as Oscar-winner When You Believe.
Hearing this amid the Covid-19 virus situation “just comforts me,” one listener wrote on the song’s YouTube page.
“You made me cry from joy; this is what we need to hear right now. Italy thanks you!” another comment read.
The song’s prolific composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, was moved by the remarks. He’s written music for a range of other blockbusters, from Wicked to Pocahontas.
“This is the most gratifying thing a writer can hear,” he said. “We write to communicate, to share our feelings and philosophies with the world.
“A lot of times you put stuff out there and don’t know how it’s being received. So if people have found something inspiring or comforting, there’s just no greater gift a writer can ask for.”
For The Prince of Egypt musical, Schwartz, over the past five years, has written 10 new songs that tell the Passover story.
The play was at the start of its West End run at London’s Dominion Theatre when the pandemic forced it and all the other shows to close for now.
An original cast recording of the songs was released shortly before Pesach on Ghostlight Records.
Schwartz, 72, said he’s been “very aware of the dramatic implications” of the Exodus saga since early childhood.
Born in New York City, he and his sister were raised on suburban Long Island by their businessman father Stanley, who will turn 100 in June, and their mother Sheila (née Siegel), a teacher who’s now 95.
“We always celebrated Passover and continue to with my parents every year,” said Schwartz, who was not barmitzvah.
“When my children Scott and Jessica were young, my father wanted to make the story more interesting for them, so he invented two characters named Charlie and Susie, who were stand-ins for them.
“They appeared in the Passover story, assisting Moses, and that went on for six or seven years when they were little.”
Schwartz, who studied piano and composition at the Juilliard School, has been creating memorable music since his college days.
While attending Carnegie Mellon University, Schwartz composed and directed an early version of Pippin (entitled Pippin, Pippin) with the student-run theatre group, Scotch ‘n’ Soda.
On Broadway, a reworked version of Pippin ran for nearly five years and 2,000 performances from 1972.
He started his career in New York City as a producer for RCA Records, but began to work in Broadway theatre.
He was asked to be the musical director of rock opera The Survival of St Joan and was credited as producer of the double album of the soundtrack.
His first major credit was the title song for the play Butterflies Are Free.
But his career truly took off in 1971, when he wrote the music and lyrics for Godspell, for which he won several awards, including two Grammys.
By 1974, Schwartz had three musicals playing in New York simultaneously.
His prolific spell continued with a number of award-winning musicals — and he even found time to write a children’s book, The Perfect Peach.
He also wrote the lyrics for the musical Rags, about Jewish immigrants in the “shmatta business” — it was revived last year by Aria Entertainment for a run at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre.
By the 1990s, Schwartz was collaborating with Alan Menken on scores for Disney movies such as Pocahontas, for which he received two Academy Awards, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In 1998, he wrote five songs for The Prince of Egypt, the first animated feature produced by Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks studio.
“I have to say,” Schwartz recalled, “when they first approached me about doing an animated feature, I didn’t really see it, until Spielberg said the idea he had was to emphasise the relationship between the two [adoptive] brothers [Moses and Rameses, who became Pharaoh].
“That really appealed to me, because I like to do stories where real human relationships are caught up in big events.”
Schwartz’s 1991 musical Children of Eden was actually his original interpretation of the book of Genesis. While it didn’t run on Broadway, it has become one of the most frequently licensed pieces of theatre around the world.
He also wrote the lyrics to the 2012 choral piece The Chanukah Song — We Are Lights.
“A friend of mine was directing a performance of Christmas songs at the Lincoln Centre tree lighting and wanted to do a Chanukah song as well,” he said.
“I was very pleased to get an opportunity to contribute a Chanukah song because I feel there aren’t nearly enough of them.”
Schwartz’s place in the pantheon of legendary Broadway and film composers was well established before the 21st century, but he’s perhaps best known for Wicked.
Some 60 million theatre-goers worldwide have seen the clever Broadway musical take on The Wizard of Oz, which has grossed $5 billion.
He often hears from fans who tell him the show’s song Defying Gravity has changed their lives.
“All of us who worked on Wicked are astonished by what’s happened,” Schwartz said. “Obviously we were passionate about the idea and tried to do the best show we possibly could, but for it to have become such a cultural phenomenon was completely beyond our expectations.”
Schwartz’s parents and grandparents were all born in America, but his Jewish roots date back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and many ancestors were from Vienna as well.
While working in the Austrian capital, with the help of the Jewish museum there, he found records about relatives from both sides.
Now Schwartz is looking forward to the expected release next year of the film version of Wicked and the reopening in London of The Prince of Egypt, of which he’s quite proud.
“It was a very exciting experience theatrically, extremely imaginative, with athletic choreography,” he said.
At the weekend, Schwartz delighted fans with an online event in aid of New York’s Jewish institution 92 Street Y.
He was joined by songwriter and friend John Bucchino and music director and conductor Andy Einhorn for a conversation about why the world needs music and theatre more than ever.
And to celebrate the release of the original cast recording of Prince of Egypt, Schwartz took to his piano to share selections from the score.
* A recording of the event can be watched at tinyurl.com/SchwartzJT
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