by Sophia Romma
Enthusiasts and admirers of musical theatre and pop culture caught an enthralling overdose of Steven Schwartz on April 16th, when a star studded ensemble of one hundred performers gathered together at legendary Symphony Space on the Upper West Side to witness “Wall to Wall Stephen Schwartz,” a free eight-hour musical smorgasbord for the discriminate palate.
“Wall to Wall,” especially Segment Three, which I had the pleasure to attend, featured a myriad of songs from Schwartz’s popular Broadway Musical hits, performed by famous and infamous artists of musical theatre, even humble humorous Stephen himself. Mr. Schwartz is rather brilliant in arranging a cacophony of virtuoso melodic compositions complimenting a spectrum of musical theatre voices, glorifying those brilliant and majestic operatic sopranos and underscoring the mediocre subdued talent of plastic elastic contemporary fluff. It is immeasurably admirable for a composer who belongs at heart to the ebbing and tumultuously experimental 1970’s, to bring the house down by applying the lofty art over which the muses of lyric poetry preside. In Segment Three, Schwartz is literally restrung in order to sublimely appeal to the ears of the masses, crafting a definitive psychological formula which ignites practically all of his musical compositions and imbues his hit Broadway musical scores with alluring lyrical ambiance, producing the effect of an eternal flame mirrored in the deep chords of sensual innuendos—hypnotic like Bollywood and delectable like amour. At times his redeeming melodies are melancholy like the precious patter of midnight rain over dilapidated European rooftops. Mr. Schwartz, a veteran composer, has an innate talent for concocting cocktail bombshells fizzing with an expressive combination of dancing enlightened tones. These tones are trained like lions at the circus, to tear through the misty panes of the human spirit, luring us with brushstrokes of pleasure, fear, trepidation, emulation, deceit, treacherous ardor and a divine candor. Schwartz’s music, bursting from its scientific shell, baits us with the art of pleasing—which is the very yolk of the populist genre of musical theatre.
Segment Three of “Wall to Wall” beckoned an operatic chorus of vocals. Schwartz’s rhythm was defined by a slew of musical instruments, representing musical drama which skillfully involved the tender appropriation of the maestro’s signature melodious declamations, arias, duets, fables, and a few fractured contrapuntal notes in which accidentals and foreign notes to the mode were introduced, albeit fearlessly. The Master of Ceremonies, Jeff Kready, who is lofty with musical comedy provided the comedic relief in contrast to the dipping falsettos of some of the stray performers who apparently were trained to sing at high pitched decibels, invoking sympathetic applause from embarrassed yet supportive Upper West siders—folks who refrained from entering the Gershwin Theatre to enjoy Wicked but instead chose to indulge in the echoing walls of Jericho as they were upheld by the sturdiness of Mr. Schwartz’s inexhaustible gem of a talent.
Playing at Musical Chairs while juggling an array of fashionista Broadway performers, I entered sacred Jerusalem as Schwartz’s musical game unfolded. “Wall to Wall” was a feast of tantalizing bits from Stephen’s prolific career, comparable to a Cliff Notes session when one has no time to read volumes amid cramming for high school exams. Segment Three commenced with “Generations,” performed by the formidable Wall to Wall Ensemble of eclectic vocalists, differing in their appearance and their vocal-range, conducted by the magnificent Alvin Though, Jr. When Stephen’s orchestration of “Children of Eden” stroked the air, the audience was mesmerized as the story of Genesis entered a new realm of pulp fiction mingling with a modern biblical paradise. The captivating Aurelia Williams sang her heart out with “Ain’t It Good” and received standing ovations. The sexy Raul Esparza crooned the “Chanson” in Schwartz’s “The Baker’s Wife” and Max Von Essen belted the life out of “Proud Lady”. When Patti LuPone took center stage, delivering “Where is the Warmth?” with feline finesse, Symphony Space flooded with an ethereal harmony as if a specter from Mr. Schwartz’s heydays had set in and taunted our soulless technological cellphone addicted society, filtering funk through LuPone’s agile and potent resonance. Ms. LuPone’s earth shattering performance was followed by the bland piano movement of Joseph Thalken who mournfully exclaimed: “Now let’s see how I can follow LuPone!” and thus sealed his downfall. Joshua Rosenblum, Schwartz’s dear friend, played his composition, “We All Need Help toFeel Fine.” That tune, in a silently primitive fashion, lulled me to sleep and certainly failed to light up the world, as its alternate title suggested. The light of this Wall Party was Schwartz’s raw-chested “Prince of Egypt.” Schwartz relayed that Prince of Egypt was inspired by Hebraic melodies which were delicately laced throughout “Through Heaven’s Eyes.” Then, in their duet, ravaging Betsy Wolfe and a coy, courageous Nikki M. James glorified the instantly recognizable “When You Believe,” conducted tenderly by Judith Clurman.
Part Three reminisced of Classical Schwartz, tripping down memory lane with the delightful “One Little Lie,” (from Séance on a Wet Afternoon) performed by the mesmerizing Lauren Flannigan with the voice of a nightingale, accompanied by the humor of Stephen on the piano, mouthing lyrics of the kidnapping plot. When Wicked arrived, the audience swiftly returned to magical Oz, where the psychedelic world of competitive witches, Glinda and Elphaba, reprised the contagious “Popular,” and the heart-stopping “Defying Gravity” which rocked Symphony Space, performed by the adorable Patti Murin and the astounding Merideth Kaye Clark, accompanied by a boisterous Ted Arthur on the heated piano. Perhaps the most illuminating part of the final segment of “Wall to Wall” was the Alan Menken Collaboration highlighting “Happy Working Song” coquettishly sung by the gorgeous Laura Osnes and “Colors of the Wind” an all-time 90’s classic from Disney’s Pocahontas, shedding light on the devastation reeked upon the Native Americans by our “noble” founding settlers fleeing the tyrannical British Crown. Our MC finally appeared as a performer, singing “Bravo, Stromboli!” from My Son Pinocchio and was truly impeccable whence he hit those impressive high notes.
In one of the longest evenings of musical repertoires of my life, “Pippin” unveiled the brilliant cadences of singing sensation, Patina Miller, who was suave and cool as she jazzed her way through the shores of Faust’s Burlesque with elegance and Vogue style. The legendary and super fit Tovah Feldshuh accompanied by the Yale Vocal Ensemble, brought the very best out of the Upper West siders as she enlisted the voices of the audience members to join her in marching to the tune of “No Time at All,” thematically grappling with the onset of old age. Tovah praised and honored Schwartz and recalled with pure nostalgia, her treasured time spent with Steven’s wife, who graced Symphony Space with her presence. Moments later, it was refreshing to discover the vibrant talent of a young Joshua Colley, lending a bravado depth to his duet rendition of “Wings of a Swan” from My Fairy Tale.
The evening culminated on a genuine note, as Stephen Schwartz thanked his fans, sat at the piano and masterfully played, “Can You Imagine That?” and ended with “For Good” which brought a tear to my eye, knowing that Mr. Schwartz and his generations of musical scores shall remain with us, for good.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto (Photos represent the entire 8 hour day of Wall to Wall)