On the 1st of October, the Theatre Cafe opened its doors to a private viewing of Theatre Channel’s Episode 8, dedicated to living legend Stephen Schwartz and the musical ingenuity he has gifted to the world of musical theatre. With Mr Schwartz himself in the audience, who flew over straight from New York to participate in the Q&A session after the screening, it was an unmissable opportunity.
Although perhaps not everyone has come across the name Stephen Schwartz before, most of us, at least in the Anglo-speaking realm, have definitely heard of Wicked. One of the most successful and longest-running stage productions on Broadway, as well as in London, and most recently in Germany, Wicked demonstrates how universally identifiable Mr Schwartz’ music and lyrics are, but also his overall influence in shaping the field of contemporary musical theatre. Critics and audiences alike have supported his creative output since he started writing for the stage in his early twenties, when the Pippin broke onto the scene, a show he co-authored alongside Roger O. Hirson in the early 70s.
Almost 50 years later, productions of both Pippin and Wicked still fill the interiors of the Charing Cross Theatre and Apollo Victoria respectively with synchronised heartbeats, in the testament of their timeless, intergenerational appeal. Songs from both musicals, specifically 'Magic to Do' (Pippin) and 'I’m Not That Girl' (Wicked) were selected to feature in the latest instalment of Theatre Channel’s new web series, which was launched in response to the pandemic in order to keep musical performances alive and as an alternative way of experiencing it at home.
The subtlety of emotion afforded to the performers is something particular to the screen in contrast to the stage, where one has to put on much more of a ‘larger than life’ persona, leaving the audience somewhat removed from the action or character portrayed. This aspect was illuminated in the after talk by Joe Eaton-Kent, who sang Elphaba’s part in ‘I’m Not That Girl’ as they especially referred to the potential for close-ups and framing innate to cinematic techniques, allowing for a more nuanced characterisation. In this particular instance, besides giving a wider platform to issues of adequacy experienced by the trans community, the medium also enabled Joe to explore the romantic aspects of the story from a much more realistic perspective, without feeling reduced to their gender, sexuality, etc.
Apart from those songs already mentioned, the episode included five more songs taken from five individual shows:
- Alice Fearn and The Cafe 5 - 'It’s An Art’, Working
- Melanie La Barrie & The Café 5 + Supporting Dancers - ‘Prepare Ye/ Beautiful City’, Godspell
- Louise Dearman featuring Mark Manley - ‘Meadowlark’, Baker’s Wife
- Christine Allado & Stewart Clarke - ‘Dream Big’, Schikaneder
- Stephen Schwartz & The Café 5 - ‘When You Believe’, Prince Of Egypt
For someone, who doesn’t normally frequent musicals, in fact, who has never been to see one before, I find this fresh format quite appealing, in the sense that it highlights key moments, moods or themes giving you a feel for the bigger production. On the other hand, by being able to breathe on their own, away from the overall narrative of the rest of the play, the songs lend themselves better to a wider spectrum of possible interpretations. This also happened to be an aspect that was discussed later on during the interview with Mr Schwartz, who, when asked by an audience member what it was like for him to see these classic songs performed again in such a unique context, commented on how pleased he is for these songs to have found a contemporary resonance. To be more specific, he gave ‘It’s An Art’ from the musical Working as an example for putting the meaning of the labour performed by essential workers during the pandemic into the spotlight.
From the discussion which ensued afterwards, it was clear how much meaning this new approach to musical theatre has provided the community with during such a difficult period of time as the pandemic was. From the skip in my own step, walking outside the Theatre Cafe, it was clear how that positive effect continues to work its magic beyond the screen in a post-lockdown world of readjustment.