For more than five decades, Stephen Schwartz has been one of Broadway's most prolific composers, who has enchanted audiences with his scores for "Pippin," "Godspell" and the megasmash "Wicked." So if he took it a little easy during the height of the pandemic, he can be forgiven, even if he personally feels apologetic.
"Why didn‘t I write a symphony while I was just hanging around?" the Roslyn Heights-raised songwriter asked. Instead, he focused on learning to meditate, improving his French and studying Spanish on Duolingo. "Now in retrospect, I’m quite irritated with myself about it but I just didn’t have the motivation to do anything at the time."
As theater returned, so has Schwartz's mojo, and taking a cue from his most well-known tune from "Pippin," he again has got magic to do. First up, he'll be a guest artist working with middle and high schoolers at the Long Island Music Theater Festival at Adelphi University's Performing Arts Center in Garden City, where productions of both "Godspell" and "Pippin" will be performed Aug. 12 and 13.
Schwartz, 74, recently chatted via Zoom about his involvement with the festival as well as the shows he's worked on.
So your role with the festival is described as guest artist. What exactly does that mean?
To me it means I show up and do a master class with the kids and that's something that I like to do. I’ve done it in other places and on other occasions. I'm an alumnus of Carnegie-Mellon University [in Pittsburgh] and I try to get there every year and work with the students there.
The kids are going to be performing "Pippin" and "Godspell," two of your most popular shows. Why have they stood the test of time so well?
They continue to have contemporary relevance. "Godspell," of course, is about the creation of a community out of warring factions and we certainly could use a little of that message currently. And "Pippin" is about a young person trying to figure out what to do with his life. As long as there are young people trying to figure out what to do with their lives, that will remain relevant also.
Were there any programs available on Long Island for you when you were a student?
Not at all. The idea of having musical theater programs is a more recent phenomenon. I will say that I went to Mineola High School and there was quite a good drama program there. I got to direct a production of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" and I got to be in a number of things. for a public high school that was not specializing in the arts, the arts programs there were very strong.
Do you remember the first Broadway show you saw?
I remember it very well. I grew up in Roslyn Heights in a little quarter-acre development that was actually called South Park. Next door to us lived a composer named George Kleinsinger, who had a good deal of success writing concept albums, and one of them, "Archy and Mehitabel," was being adapted as a Broadway show. My family would go over to his house and George would play whatever song he was working on from the show. I was about 6 and I was told that after George would do this, I would go over to their piano and pick out the tune. He recommended to my parents that they get a piano and have me take lessons because I clearly had an ear for music.
A couple of years after that when the show premiered, it was called "Shinbone Alley," and my parents took me to see it. I was immediately smitten, as many people are when they see their first show, and I knew that was the environment in which I’d like to spend my life if I could.
"Wicked" is still such a hit after almost 20 years on Broadway. Did you expect it to become such a phenomenon?
You can never expect something like that. We did have a pretty good idea from the time we were out of town with the show in San Francisco that we did have a good chance of success because it had proved to be popular. The way it has blown up worldwide, that has to do with the cultural moment we find ourselves in.
You mentioned that you still come out to Long Island to visit your parents, who now live in Great Neck. Do you visit any of the old haunts where you grew up?
Whenever I came to Long Island and was heading to the end of the Island where both my kids are in Sag Harbor, there was a fantastic pizza restaurant, which is still the best pizza I ever had in my life, called the Roma Cafe, on Willis Avenue. It's no longer there, but it was one of those family-owned restaurants where they had their own special recipe that they had brought over from whatever small town in Italy they were from. The pizza was so good you wouldn’t want to sully it with pepperoni.
Do you have any new projects you can talk about?
The "Wicked" movie is heating up and I've been working on that. I've also started a new theater project based on the  documentary "The Queen of Versailles." So I’m working on a musical version of that which is in the early stages.
Now that theater is back, how are you feeling to be a part of it again?
The pandemic certainly taught me not to take live theater for granted. …. I didn’t realize how much I would miss it, until it wasn’t there anymore.