Stephen Schwartz’s Sing-Along Séance: The Lauded Lyricist Takes On Opera

In a case in Stephen Schwartz’s living room is an Oscar. It’s not his only one (he has three), but it’s the one whose paper-thin gold plating has gradually peeled off, revealing the dull gray metal beneath. This is the one he likes to show off.

“Everyone says, ‘Send it back, they’ll fix it,'” Mr. Schwartz said recently, sitting at his dining room table. “But there’s something so wonderfully symbolic about it. The symbol of the gold veneer peeling and exposing the gray base metal underneath, there’s something that just reminds you not to take these things too seriously.”

Mr. Schwartz has written music and lyrics for shows like Godspell, Pippin and Wicked and animated movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Persia (one Oscar) and Pocahontas (two). Like many successful people, he has self-deprecation down to a science. The first thing you see in his entrance hall is the sheet music for a song about him written for Forbidden Broadway. To the tune of “It Sucks to Be Me” from Avenue Q, it gleefully mocks Mr. Schwartz’s unpopularity with critics and his frustrating lack of a Tony Award, despite six nominations.

“Broadway is so, you should pardon the expression, fucked because of these fucking Tonys,” he said. “It’s changed a lot. It’s crazy, and really annoying.”

Mr. Schwartz is now having his first big go at a world that could not be less awards-focused. Based on a novel and noir film about a demented medium who kidnaps a child, his first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, has its New York premiere at the New York City Opera on Tuesday.

Conducted by George Manahan, directed by Scott Schwartz (the composer’s son) and starring the veteran City Opera soprano Lauren Flanigan, the production arrives as the line between opera and musical theater increasingly blurs. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has announced a commitment to add a regular musical production to its schedule, as has Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York. But Séance, Mr. Schwartz insists, is not just a musical in operatic guise; it’s in the vividly Romantic tradition of Puccini and Menotti (who wrote his own opera about a medium).

It is fitting that Mr. Schwartz’s work should close a City Opera season that opened with the New York premiere of another opera by a composer better known for his musical theater work: Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place. In 1971, after seeing Godspell, Mr. Bernstein brought on Mr. Schwartz, then just 23, to help revamp the lyrics and structure of his Mass in the frantic lead-up to its premiere.

Those early years passed in a quick series of post-college hits. Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show opened in a blazing three-year period. But a series of flops followed. “I had some disappointments,” Mr. Schwartz said. “I was very burned out and the whole Broadway scene was disillusioning. I didn’t work a whole lot in the ’80s.”

By the early ’90s, he had decided to abandon writing entirely to pursue a career as a psychotherapist. He had arranged to attend graduate school at N.Y.U. in exchange for giving a series of master classes when he got the call from Disney. Mr. Schwartz’s work on its Pocahontas and Hunchback and DreamWorks’ Prince of Egypt revitalized his career, leading to Wicked, which opened in 2003 and became one of the biggest successes in theater history.

“There was something about Wicked,” he said, “where, at least inside me, things changed. It felt like that chapter of my life was turning a page. Starting at Godspell and ending at Wicked, something about that journey of wanting to be a composer for musical theater felt realized for me. Which is not to say that I won’t do musical theater again. But it was time to explore new risks.”

A friend, the house doctor at the City Opera, knew someone at Opera Santa Barbara, which asked if Mr. Schwartz might be interested in a project with them. The result was Séance. A series of readings were followed by a performance of excerpts at the City Opera’s VOX series in spring 2009, and the world premiere took place in Santa Barbara that September.

It was an arduous process; the orchestrations took him and a collaborator a full year. While his musicals have generally started with a detailed structure and outline, with songs emerging in a patchwork, Mr. Schwartz found that he needed to write a complete libretto before he could write a note.

But while he’s not sure if he has it in him to write another (he’s considering two new musical theater prospects, including one with the Wicked team based on another book), he’s at peace with the end result. “In the rehearsal room yesterday,” he said, “I felt that good feeling as a writer: This is what I meant. It’s what I had in my head, but a little bit better than what I envisioned. If people like it, great. If not, well, this is what I meant.”

Stephen Schwartz’s Sing-Along Séance: The Lauded Lyricist Takes On Opera