Composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz and writer Susan Orlean have relentlessly inquiring minds, resulting in works of stunning originality.
Stephen Schwartz is an award-winning composer and lyricist for musical theater and films.
Schwartz was born in New York City in 1948. He composed his first musical, Pippin, while a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A heavily reworked version of the musical premiered on Broadway in 1972 and won five Tony Awards from eleven nominations. Around the same time, Schwartz composed the music for Godspell, which had a successful Off-Broadway run in 1971 and was adapted into a film in 1973. Its Broadway production earned Schwartz a 1977 Tony nomination for Best Original Score. His most successful musical, Wicked, premiered in 2003 and is still running, making it one of the five longest-running shows in Broadway history.
Schwartz has also written lyrics for several hit animated movies, receiving Academy Awards for songs in Pocahontas (1996) and The Prince of Egypt (1999) and nominations for his work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1997) and the live-action film Enchanted (2008).
Susan Orlean is an acclaimed nonfiction writer, best known for her 1998 The Orchid Thief, which inspired Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-winning film Adaptation (2002).
Born in Cleveland in 1955 and raised in nearby Shaker Heights, Ohio, Orlean studied literature and history at the University of Michigan. She began her career as a journalist writing for the alt-weekly Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon.
Her first book, Saturday Night (1990), looked at American weekend habits. Her next work, The Orchid Thief, expanded upon an article for the New Yorker about a horticulturalist arrested for poaching rare orchids. Kaufman’s adaptation deconstructed the process of turning a book into a movie, creating a fictional storyline about Orlean herself (played by Meryl Streep).
A staff writer for the New Yorker since 1992, Orlean has also contributed to Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and other leading publications. An article of hers in Women’s Outside inspired the 2002 surf film Blue Crush. She is a writer for the HBO show How To with John Wilson and published her eighth monograph, The Library Book, in 2018.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that brings you insights into the human condition from some fine creative thinkers. And on this episode, “The Insatiables.” Composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz pairs a prodigious devotion to music with an urge to understand the inner lives of others.
Stephen Schwartz: I’d love to be able to just go into other people’s heads just for a brief time and look through their eyes and see the world as they see it and feel how they feel about it.
And writer Susan Orlean is driven to objectively explore unfamiliar slices of life. Her discoveries are inevitably insightful, surprising, and delivered with wit.
Susan Orlean: The assembling of facts to me is a very delicious part of the writing because I feel like if I arrange them the right way, I’m not making a joke, I’m not like using a pun or doing some word play but the simple existence of this absurd list is funny and yet it’s factual.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
By any measure, Stephen Schwartz has lived an extraordinary life, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
Stephen Schwartz: I was such a romantic, you know, I’d grown up 35 miles from the heart of Broadway and had this vision of what it was gonna be like if I could possibly work in that world and how I was gonna feel and what the people were gonna be like. And, you know, none of that was true.
And he has come close to walking away from his beloved musical theater more than once. But he says these ups and downs have often turned out to be useful life lessons.
Schwartz: And I think that’s the truth that, you know, we constantly keep learning and keep being surprised, sometimes pleasantly and sometimes not so pleasantly surprised, and then try to bring these new insights and things we’ve learned to the work we’re putting out into the world.
Schwartz has fashioned these insights and surprises of his own life into powerful stories of broad appeal while constantly striving to understand the perspective of others.
Schwartz: I’d love to be able to just go into other people’s heads just for a brief time and look through their eyes and see the world as they see it and feel how they feel about it. What people say about themselves is very, first of all, it’s surface no matter how honest we’re trying to be. Secondly, one of the interesting things about people that I think about frequently, is when we encounter someone we are seeing them right now. We’re seeing a very, very skinny cross section of who they are. We don’t know what happened to them 10 years ago. We don’t know what happened to them in their childhood.
Like many, Stephen Schwartz came to musical theater as an idealist. He had talent but the world he thought he was becoming a part of was quite different from what he had imagined.
Schwartz: I think a lot of people’s, in, you know, in show business, a lot of the careers are kind of like a steady kind of advance. Mine has not been that way. Mine is gone like this. It’s been very much of a rollercoaster, but the fact that no matter how much one feels once you hit bottom if you will, there is the opportunity to continue to try again.
And he has tried again and again. Schwartz was born in 1948 and raised on Long Island, the son of a school teacher and a businessman. While in high school, Schwartz studied piano and classical music composition and orchestration at Juilliard on weekends. He also assigned himself extracurricular study.
Schwartz: I was, you know, going to see shows. I was going to the library and taking out scripts. I would take out the libretto, so, I suppose you would call it the book of a musical that to which I didn’t know the score and I would look at the lyrics and I would write songs and then I would get the cast album and hear what they did.
AJC: Very clever, wow.
Schwartz: And yeah, I just was always interested in other people’s process and how they were achieving things that were affecting me emotionally, you know, trying to analyze why is, why am I finding this song so exciting?
In 1964, Schwartz enrolled as a drama and playwriting major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There he and a fellow student wrote an early version of a musical about the son of Charlemagne titled Pippin, Pippin. After graduation, he got a job as a producer at RCA Records but soon began to work in Broadway theater. Success as a composer and lyricist followed quickly. And by age 28, Stephen Schwartz had three hit shows running simultaneously on Broadway—Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show—but he felt strangely unfulfilled. So when his next four shows didn’t do well, Schwartz became convinced that Broadway was done with him. So he packed it in and went back to school.
Schwartz: And that was when I had gone to NYU and started pursuing you know, being a psychotherapist. And then I happened to be in Los Angeles and got a call to have a meeting with Disney about working on animated features for them.
That animated feature was Pocahontas, which he worked on with Alan Menken, a friend and longtime Disney composer. Schwartz found at Disney an artistically adventurous mindset, and soon discovered that Hollywood’s risk taking culture was very different from the cautiousness he had often had to work around in New York.
Schwartz: It’s not a secret that I found a lot of the sort of culture of working on Broadway challenging. And I was surprised that I felt much more comfortable working in the movies. So, I mean, at least for Disney animation, which at that time was taking great risks and constantly trying to push the envelope forward. It was a great place to go, to be able to work.
Yet Schwartz had not abandoned the stage. All the while continuing to tinker with his own theater projects. One of which was a documentary style musical called Working based on a Studs Terkel book of the same name. It tapped into Schwartz’s longtime desire to understand the lives and perspectives of other people. It also changed his own attitudes.
Schwartz: I basically read a description of the book, a review of the book, and it contained an excerpt which was a telephone operator because back in the day they had such things. And at one point she said every now and then you get someone on the line and they say, how’s your day been operator? Has it been a tough day? And she said, you’re so thankful for those people. And I realized that I was blithely going through my life viewing many of the people with whom I was coming into contact on a daily basis as functions, not even really thinking of them as people, phone operators, parking lot attendants, to some extent, wait persons, et cetera.
This desire to tell the stories of peripheral characters would manifest itself again almost two decades later. In 1996, a friend raved about a book by Gregory Maguire called Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It told the familiar story of the Wizard of Oz but from the point of view of the witches. The premise suited Schwartz to a T.
Schwartz: It’s what attracted me to the idea of doing a show called Wicked, that the title says we look at things in black and white. There is wicked, and consequently, there is good. But life doesn’t really work that way, even though it’s attractive to us to try to see that way. It makes life so much easier if we know who the hero is and who the villain is and what is right and what is wicked.
Through his work and throughout his life, Stephen Schwartz has continued to question his own attitudes and assumptions, constantly learning from the choices and the mistakes he has made.
Schwartz: I try to be as truthful with myself as possible, much more so than I would be with anybody else but really to be cold-eyed and truthful.
AJC: That sounds very unromantic.
Schwartz: It’s not very romantic but I think it’s important to, you know, to look at your life and, you know, I’m very conscious of and regretful of mistakes that I’ve, I’ve made and things I’ve done that I wish I hadn’t done and places I let myself down and let other people down and didn’t behave as nobly.
AJC: You’re not a saint.
Schwartz: No, I know, but, but still one, no one is a saint, but one you know, looks at one’s life and says, you know, I don’t want to do that again. I don’t want to let someone down in that way again. I don’t wanna betray my own principles in that way again. I don’t want to be tempted by this shiny thing that allows me to make choices that I come to regret again and so on. And, you know, we keep having to learn these lessons.
AJC: Right, but almost the definition of wisdom is that those you forgive your self, but you don’t forget.
Schwartz: I love that. I actually hadn’t heard that. Yes, I mean, I think that that is a great definition of wisdom and it’s a good way to be, you know, and you have to forgive yourself as you say, or you would just, you know, not be able to go on, but yeah, but I think it’s important not to forget and to, I mean, as I think my dad used to say, you know, if you’re not gonna learn from your mistakes then don’t make them.
Wicked opened on Broadway in 2003 and to date has been seen by more than 60 million people in 100 cities worldwide. At its 2021 post-pandemic reopening, Schwartz took a much deserved bow with the cast. Not surprisingly, Stephen Schwartz views life in theatrical terms, seeing in the everyday, a series of acts that propel stories always with the possibility of redemption.
Schwartz: I think is it Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “there are no second acts in American life.” Less true words were never spoken. American life, it seems to me, in many fields, is nothing but second acts and third acts and fourth acts. That’s one of the good things is that you can re-find your own passion and your own enthusiasm. You can keep learning and finding a new point of view and bring it to bear on a new pursuit whether it’s changing careers as I once thought of doing or finding new projects to work on. And you know, in some alternate universe somewhere, I’m probably happily being a psychotherapist.
And in that alternative universe, Stephen Schwartz would no doubt have been great for those he treated but not so great for those of us who would not have been treated to his transcended music and stories drawn from a life well lived and beautifully observed.
Susan Orlean’s explorations of the world are clear eyed and curious. Observant, with a wry sense of humor she sniffs out the facts, more interested in truth than in fiction.
Susan Orlean: It’s a different challenge to see the world as it is and try to make a narrative from it as opposed to creating a narrative that is, fits more tidily or somehow ends the way you want it to end.
The bestselling author of 12 books and a staff writer at the New Yorker, Orlean feels a responsibility to examine even the most uncomfortable subjects.
Orlean: And I’m curious about both things that I like and also things that make me a little ill at ease. And particularly if it’s something that other people seem to enjoy, my impulse is I wanna learn about it because I’m curious that I find this thing off putting and yet other people find it appealing. I’m not saying I like everything that I learn about but I think the learning is the whole point of being alive.
For Susan Orlean, learning is taking a step into the unknown. She’s rarely sure where the journey will lead.
Orlean: It’s a little bit like getting on a plane. You don’t know the destination, you land, you don’t know the language. You don’t know the roads. You know nothing. And it’s misery, it’s absolute misery. And the whole time you’re thinking, why did I get on the plane? Over time, if you’re lucky, you begin thinking, oh, I see, this road connects to that road. And I have begun to understand a few words of the language. And if you have enough time, you arrive at a point where you think, oh, this is a wonderfully interesting place. I can’t wait to tell people about it.
And though she aims to educate, you’ll never catch Susan Orlean lecturing. Instead, her fascinating tales aim to touch hearts, to change minds.
Orlean: What it has to be is you’re at a dinner party telling the most interesting story that has a lot of factual information that people don’t realize, you know, it’s like boiling a lobster, they don’t realize that they’re actually learning all of this information. And people love facts. People love facts, but it’s more appealing I think, to feed those to them in a way that’s got the arc of a narrative and the pacing of poetry, you know, something that makes them, it’s the aftertaste, where they think well wow, now I know a lot about rabbits.
Orlean often writes about animals, a fascination that dates back to her happy and what she calls uneventful childhood in Cleveland, Ohio. In her 2021 essay collection On Animals, Orleans brings together a lifetime of observations about the critters we dote on and the ones we raise for food.
Orlean: Animals are everywhere in our world. They are woven into our lives. So writing about them to me feels quite integrated into the idea of writing about humanity. It just happens to be a different lens.
Susan Orleans’s animal stories are as much about the people and their capacity to care as they are about the animals in their care. In one story, “Show Dog”, an award-winning boxer named Biff Truesdale is shaped by his owners, the kind of people who make sure all of their pets have monogrammed Christmas stockings.
Orlean: There really isn’t a single story in the book that doesn’t include people. Even the one that I was determined to write without human interference, which was the profile of a show dog, is overwhelmingly about the people who manage this show dog. And of course, watching the crazy kind of subculture around show dogs was fascinating. The dogs in their own way were much, you know, they were dogs and they did dog things but the people were irresistible and revealing and funny and eccentric and passionate.
(Excerpt from Susan Orlean’s “Show Dog”)
If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, good-looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children—actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun. What Biff likes most is food and sex. This makes him sound boorish, but he’s not—he’s just elemental. Food he likes even better than sex. His favorite things to eat are cookies, mints, and hotel soap, but he will eat just about anything.
Susan Orlean digs deep in pursuit of reality knowing that truth telling is a serious business. It just so happens though that under her gaze, real life often has a funny side.
Orlean: The assembling of facts to me is a very delicious part of the writing because I feel like if I arrange them the right way, I’m not making a joke, I’m not like using a pun or doing some wordplay, but the simple existence of this absurd list is funny and yet it’s factual. This dog liked to eat chocolate, pasta, and aspirin, and hotel soap. It’s like, why would you eat hotel soap? And also just the specificity of it being hotel soap which made sense because he travels a lot. He’s a show dog.
Orlean observes that people sharing a common bond often get along well despite their differences. At the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for example, she says that everyone is just a dog person and nothing else really matters.
Orlean: I think one of the uplifting facts of subcultures is they often do cross all of the other lines that we’re used to. If you’re passionate about orchids and you meet someone else who’s passionate about orchids, nothing else matters. And you know, this is a passion that attracts people of every sort.
AJC: And supersedes who you voted for in the last election.
Orlean: Yeah, and in fact, it doesn’t generally come up in those conversations.
Fascinated by the arrest of a renegade plant dealer, Orlean followed him through the swamps of Florida for an article in the New Yorker. The story became a 1998 non-fiction bestselling book, The Orchid Thief. In 2002, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, with an all-star cast and a character played by Meryl Streep who was called Susan Orlean.
Orlean: And they really wanted my name. I thought, and I said to people actively, this is gonna ruin my career. I mean, I’m gonna be portrayed as this lunatic and drug user and that I’m having sex with my subjects and it’s just insane. One day I woke up and just thought, oh, why not? I mean, it was just this, honestly, this weird thing where I went from being dug my heels in no, no, no, no, no, no, no, to suddenly thinking, well, whatever, I mean, what the hell.
But Susan Orlean enjoyed Adaptation. It didn’t hurt that one of the world’s greatest actors played a version of her, or that the film brought considerable attention to her own work.
Orlean: It’s really staggering to appreciate the sort of ripple effect of a film versus even a very successful book. It just is a different animal.
In the past two years, Susan Orlean says she hasn’t been able to write without tipping her hat to the new circumstances of the world, but rather than write about the human pandemic, in her story “The Rabbit Outbreak” she wrote about a virus that started in China and killed 140 million bunnies there while spreading elsewhere in the world.
Orlean: I felt like, how could I focus on something else when I was suddenly obsessed with what the day to day experience of wearing a mask felt like and the present was so, interfered so much with my ability to think, and that’s why it was so gratifying to come across a story like this story about the rabbits that I wrote during COVID. It was almost this weird allegory about COVID.
Susan Orlean believes that bringing order to a chaotic world is her job and the job of stories and books in general. And that is as important now as it has ever been.
Orlean: It makes perfect sense to me that we increasingly gravitate to stories that have internal logic and that make you think, okay, this is the way the world works, in a time when a lot of our feeling is how does the world work or does the world even work? It’s chaos, it’s confusion. It’s, you know, we’re in the middle of a story with COVID that everybody wants to know, how does the story end?
Susan Orlean will continue to bring order to chaos with humor and compassion, whether writing about people, places, or pets, and in the stories she chooses to tell, all roads will have been traveled and all noble facts unearthed, leaving her and us with a satisfyingly full understanding.