- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Whoever said, “In life, there are no do-overs” never met Stephen Schwartz. The composer of the musicals “Pippin,” “Godspell,” “The Baker’s Wife” and “Wicked” has made a career of returning to shows for either a tweak or a major overhaul. Mr. Schwartz considers reworking one of the perks of being a Tony Award-winning lyricist and composer.

“It’s a great opportunity to improve something you know can be fixed,” said Mr. Schwartz during a recent phone interview from his home in Connecticut. “Shows take a long time to do and are an enormous investment, and often it is wise to return to certain musicals so that all that time and money do not go to waste.”

Reworking a show is like clinging to the baby in the family you just can’t let go of. Mr. Schwartz says his particular “baby” was “Children of Eden,” the 1991 musical (with a book by John Caird) about the original first family: Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel.

“Because of [Mel Gibson’s] ‘The Passion of the Christ’ there seems to be renewed interest in Bible stories,” observes Mr. Schwartz. “It’s a good time for a revival of ‘Children of Eden.’ ”

In its spiffed-up form, the show opened at Ford’s Theatre yesterday for a run that ends June 6. “When I saw a revival of it at Kent State a while back, I was reminded how dearly I hold this show,” says Mr. Schwartz, who was also responsible for the musicals “Rags” and “Working,” as well as music and lyrics for the animated films “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Pocahontas” and “The Prince of Egypt.” The latter two films earned Academy Awards for Mr. Schwartz.

Significant changes were made on “Children of Eden” shortly after a production in London in the early 1990s. First, Mr. Schwartz did a crazy thing. He read his reviews.

“John [Caird] and I decided to learn from the London production, so we got hold of all 40 reviews and read them in a lump,” he recounts. “I never read my reviews, so it was quite a raw experience for me. Out of all of them, it became clear where we weren’t communicating our intentions directly to the audience.”

By 1997, the show was pretty well fixed for a run at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and there have been minimal revisions since then. “There were many flaws — it really was more of a work in progress than John and I ever realized,” Mr. Schwartz says. “We recognized several major storytelling flaws and took it from there.

Among the revisions were new songs, developing the role of the Father, and greatly expanding the amount of storytelling done by the chorus. “The chorus is now central to the piece and is a character in and of itself,” the composer explains. “We also worked on the Cain story and gave it strength and depth.”

This revisiting process is par for the course for Mr. Schwartz. “It was very similar with ‘Working,’ ” the musical based on Studs Turkel’s book, he said. “It was not very successful at all when first done in New York in the 1980s. But then there was interest from regional theaters and universities, so I got the chance to improve the piece, and it has gone on to great success all over the country.”

The same thing happened to 1976’s “The Baker’s Wife,” which closed after a calamitous out-of-town tryout tour. A cast album was made, however, which attained cult status. Director Trevor Nunn headed a London revival in 1988, allowing the show a second life. “Trevor was instrumental in seeing what changes could be made,” says Mr. Schwartz. “It is great when someone can step in from the outside and see the flaws not just as flaws, but as challenges that could be overcome.”

Mr. Schwartz also read his reviews during out of town tryouts in San Francisco for “Wicked,” a variation on “The Wizard of Oz” story, which opened on Broadway in the fall to mostly unfavorable reviews but has gone on to become a popular smash.

“[‘Wicked’] obviously has struck a chord with people,” Mr. Schwartz says.” ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is so culturally iconic and has such a strong frame of reference that it is similar to ‘Children of Eden’ in that regard. I like the idea of writing and seeing things where you spin familiar stories from a different emotional or philosophical angle.”

The downside, he notes, is that some people don’t like their icons messed with. “The key is whether you diminish the icon, or bring something to it.”

Mr. Schwartz enjoys Bible stories for the challenge of bringing something unexpected to the familiar. “The Bible has stories most everybody knows, big stories, big issues. These stories lend themselves successfully to musical adaptation, as ‘Godspell,’ ‘Pippin,’ ‘Prince of Egypt’ and ‘Children of Eden’ prove. I guess I have an affinity for this sort of material.”

Of course, these days he has some company in the genre.

“Mel Gibson has the Passion covered, so I’d like to tackle the Book of Revelations,” he says. “I’m just waiting for someone who wants to do something that theatrical and visionary. The time is ripe — we are living in apocalyptic times, and the book asks such great questions. I see Revelations as something very operatic, a choreographic piece that is almost performance art.”

Sounds like a good idea. Here’s an even better one: Hire Mel to do the marketing.

WHAT: “Children of Eden” by Stephen Schwartz and John Caird.

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth St., NW.

WHEN: Now through June 6.

TICKETS: Individual tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by telephone at 703/218-6500 or 800/955-5566 or online at www.Tickets.com.

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