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Happy Birthday, Mr. Wizard

April 16th, 2013
Stephen Schwartz’s 65th Birthday Celebration with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. (photo: Richard Termine)

While most teen boys probably want to sneak a six-pack and get drunk behind the bleachers for their 16th birthday, I reveled in a mix tape artfully crafted by two of my favorite show-choir girls. Their heartfelt (albeit somewhat flat and lacking vibrato) rendition of Stephen Schwartz’s “Day by Day” left me as inebriated on musical theater as if I had bathed in an overflowing tub of champagne — or in those days Bartles & Jaymes sparkling wine coolers.

It was my first introduction to Schwartz’s folk/rock chamber musical Godspell and I was hooked. I then discovered Pippin, followed by a spat of a piece called The Baker’s Wife, which everyone knows because of the mega-belting “Meadowlark” but I fell in love with “If I Have to Live Alone” because it was in my baritone range and suitably depressing for a teenager.

After a few commercial flops, Schwartz disappeared (and I moved on to Les Misérables). Not really. He went to Hollywood and cranked out lyrics for a bunch of Disney animated features only to return to Broadway in 2003 with Wicked, adapted from the fantastical novel by Gregory Maguire.

Stephen Schwartz (photo: Richard Termine)

With a career spanning more than 40 years (watch out for Houdini, slated for Broadway 2014), it seems only fitting that Schwartz recently celebrated his 65th birthday at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops. Helmed by Music Director and Conductor Steven Reineke, the concert featured stars of stage and screen, including Jeremy Jordon, Julia Murney, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Norm Lewis, along with the Essential Voices USA choir.

The concert was the final hurrah in the Pops’ 30th anniversary season and its fifth sold-out event of the year. The program spanned Schwartz’s diverse career with selections from his musical theater compositions as well as lesser heard works from his opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon and a powerful choral piece titled “Testimony” that was originally written for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Julia Murney, who played Elphaba in Wicked on the national tour as well as on Broadway, shared a story of first auditioning for Stephen Schwartz back in 1996 for a review of the composer’s work. He was so taken with her voice that he asked her to sing “Meadowlark,” a notoriously difficult song. She did it on the spot (“after throwing up in my mouth a little bit”) and hadn’t sung the piece again since that audition.

Jennifer Laura Thompson (left) and Julia Murney. (photo: Richard Termine)

Revisiting the number, she shook the rafters of Carnegie Hall but was not to be outdone by Jennifer Laura Thompson, who tackled the equally difficult “West End Avenue” from The Magic Show. The men of the evening had their shining moments, too — particularly Jeremy Jordan, whose soaring tenor voice seemed to effortlessly glide over powerful ballads from Children of Eden, Godspell and Pippin.

Schwartz took to the stage to share some backstory on the creation of “The Wizard and I” from Wicked. Originally conceived as a song titled “Being Good,” he and writing partner Winnie Holzman revisited the song several times, taking into account original actress Idina Menzel’s strengths and crafting a song and situation that would fit more naturally with her voice. Murney delivered her rendition of the piece in an appropriately emerald green dress.

This was the final concert in this season’s series, but you can celebrate the New York Pops’ 30th birthday at their star-studded gala on April 29. The event honors artistic collaborations and the work of Frank Loesser, Jule Styne and Danny Kaye.

“I am thrilled,” says Dena Kaye, “and so very touched, that The New York Pops has chosen my father, Danny Kaye, to honor at their 30th Birthday at Carnegie Hall, as we continue a year-long tribute of the Danny Kaye Centennial. As my father was born and raised in New York, this is the perfect celebration for a man who has brought his laughter and joy to generations through his talent as an actor, singer, dancer, conductor, comedian and humanitarian.”

Next season’s performances have also been announced and include Chris Botti, Tony award-winner Montego Glover, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley and others. Season tickets start at $150.
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