Stephen Schwartz, best known as the enormously successful composer behind "Godspell," "Pippin" and, of course, the megahit "Wicked," is also a fledgling opera composer, and his first effort, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," opened this week to decidedly mixed reviews.
But whatever headaches he may have suffered reading the morning papers must surely have melted by nightfall Thursday as Kristin Chenoweth, Raul Esparza, Ann Hampton Calloway and emcee Victor Garber celebrated his career during New York City Opera's spring gala at the David H. Koch Theater. They were joined by two stars of his current opera, Lauren Flanigan and Todd Wilander.
The actors regaled the audience with anecdotes about the composer, and at one point, Chenoweth, the original Glinda in "Wicked," became so choked up, she could barely sing the phrase, "Because I knew you, I have been changed for good" — from "For Good," the emotional climax to "Wicked."
"Stop crying," instructed Schwartz, ever the pragmatist, at the piano.
Esparza gave his all to perhaps Schwartz's best-known song, "Defying Gravity," the empowering anthem sung by the green witch Elphaba. He also sang two songs from the long-ago hit "Pippin," and teamed up with Garber for a few numbers from another 1970s golden smash, "Godspell." (Garber starred in the 1973 movie.)
As for Chenoweth, who recently starred in "Promises, Promises" and found TV fame in an occasional role on "Glee," she sang the ever-popular "Popular" from "Wicked," along with the wistful "Lion Tamer" from "The Magic Show."
Before the show, Schwartz reflected in an interview on his experience branching into opera — when he surely no longer needed to prove himself.
"Yes, but that's what was so nice about it," he said, while acknowledging that his first outing had been harder than expected. "It gave me an opportunity to do something I'd never done before," he said. "It was very exciting to enter new territory."
He responded to criticism that his opera, based on the 1964 British thriller of the same name, tried too hard to be accessible to its audience.
"I fall on the side of the argument that opera SHOULD be accessible," Schwartz said. "There should be times when the audience comes out humming. I don't know why that suddenly became old-fashioned."
Next up for Schwartz is something totally different: a DreamWorks animated film, "Monkeys of Bollywood," for which he's writing lyrics to music by A.R. Rahman ("Slumdog Millionaire").
And will there be another opera? Schwartz didn't rule it out.
"I don't think in those terms," he said, "I do what's interesting that's in front of me."
Thursday's gala was conducted by Steven Osgood. "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" runs through May 1, the last production of the season for a company said to be struggling financially.
Schwartz, of course, is suffering no such troubles. "Wicked" continues to be the No. 1 show on Broadway after more than seven years and is a hit around the world.
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