Review – Defying Gravity: the Songs of Stephen Schwartz

By Cameron Peg
February 16, 2016

Opening a Stephen Schwartz tribute concert with Magic to Do from Pippin is a smart move.

The show was an early success for the composer, who went on to win Oscars for his work with Disney and DreamWorks before his payday well and truly arrived with Wicked. Producer Enda Markey assembled a Holy Trinity of Broadway stars – Aaron Tveit, Sutton Foster and Betty Buckley – to sing Schwartz’s praises in Sydney last weekend, and the theatre fanboys (and girls) descended en masse.

Clad in a tux, Tveit gave the audience what they wanted early, delivering Lost in the Wilderness from Children of Eden. Every aspiring tenor has the song on their to-do list, and Tveit wisely opted for a transposed arrangement to safely scale the vocal runs and hit the stratospheric last note. It was a world away from the preening and thrusting of #GreaseLive, the top trending topic on Twitter a week earlier which saw Tveit star as Danny.

Completing the cast were local headliners Helen Dallimore and David Harris alongside Joanna Ampil, a regular on London’s West End. For two generous acts, the small ensemble passed the musical baton between themselves effortlessly. Foster warmed up Just Around the Riverbend from Pocahontas before Ampil unfurled Colors of the Wind like a ribbon. The quality of her rendition compared favourably with the best in the business, including Lea Salonga.

Like Tveit, Foster made her long-awaited Australian debut. An acoustic rendition of When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt accompanied by solo guitar was stunning not for its power, but its sincerity. Foster banished the duelling divas of Whitney and Mariah to reveal the song for what it truly is: a quiet prayer for strength and hope.

Later in the set, the two-time Tony Award winner earned a standing ovation for capturing the heartache and rejection of I’m Not That Girl from Wicked. Defying Gravity, perhaps the most iconic power ballad of its generation, was never in doubt – Foster nailed it.

Harris is a Sydneysider who makes his living these days in New York. He started with the evergreen Pippin ballad Corner of the Sky, before showing off a chest Hugh Jackman would be proud of during That’s How You Know from Enchanted. He and Tveit were a winning match in All for the Best from Godspell, staged with a wink by director Andrew Pole. When Harris flubbed the intro to the next song during the Saturday matinee, Tveit let the laughter subside before picking up the patter like a pro.

Helen Dallimore was not in full voice in the opening numbers – a tough gig when in such company. Dallimore starred in the original West End production of Wicked and perked up for Popular, which showcased her comic timing and unique British take on the role. Her best moment came in an ode to the forgotten art of waitressing from Working, one of the lesser-known Schwartz shows. It was a musical bonbon that Dallimore dressed up expertly.

At 68, Buckley is a bona fide Broadway legend, and among the leading interpreters of Schwartz’s work. She found the truth behind every syllable of Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife, and the song and the character it depicts soared by the last bar. It was a master class in how to sell a lyric, and also validated the long-suffering therapist who urged Buckley to add the number to her repertoire despite losing out on the part in the original production. It’s a good thing that she took the advice – Meadowlark has become her anthem.

Schwartz appeared on stage in the first half by video screen to introduce three different versions of a key number from Wicked. This rare insight into the writing process was a nod to the diehards who thought they knew every one of his songs by heart. They now have two more to enjoy.

Other surprises were in store. Near the end of Act One, In Whatever Time We Have from Children of Eden morphed into As Long as You’re Mine from Wicked. Written two decades apart, the duets are companions in their harmonics and depiction of love against the odds, and heard together became a new song entirely. (An addition to the fine, responsive orchestra led by Guy Simpson was the periodic percussion of the train line that runs underneath the Theatre Royal. Happily, the applause easily drowned it out).

As a parting gift, Schwartz took his place at the piano for the sing-along finale of Day by Day from Godspell. It’s not his strongest number, but the stars gathered around him were in thrall of the man and his music, just as the audience had been for the better part of three hours. Magic to do, indeed.

Highlights from the Stephen Schwartz songbook

  • Godspell – 1971
  • Pippin – 1972
  • The Baker’s Wife – 1976
  • Working – 1978
  • Children of Eden – 1991
  • Pocahontas – 1995 (lyricist; music by Alan Menken)
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – 1996 (lyricist; music by Alan Menken)
  • The Prince of Egypt – 1998
  • Wicked – 2003
  • Enchanted – 2007 (lyricist; music by Alan Menken)