Last year, during the boom in online theatre, one of the most exciting prospects was a series called The Theatre Channel - an episodic series full of standalone performances from some of the biggest names in the West End and further afield, it grew from strength to strength. While the numbers of streams have drastically decreased since theatres have reopened, The Theatre Channel continues to go from strength to strength, now releasing its eighth episode out of a planned 10.
For episode eight, they have upped the ante by celebrating the legendary writer and composer Stephen Schwartz. Not only did he give his blessing for the episode, he got involved himself, speaking about all the songs performed and even performing himself at the end of the episode.
I was invited to a special screening event of this episode with the great man himself. As well as reviewing the episode, I will be talking about what happened when myself and a few others got to sit down with Stephen Schwartz himself for a Q&A.
EPISODE 8 REVIEW
The Theatre Channel started out with all performances being filmed on site at the Theatre Cafe, transforming the space brilliantly. Over the course of the series, it has evolved - first moving around the cafe to the nearby theatres, and now going on field trips for whole episodes on location. After episode 7 visited Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, episode 8 travels to the Park Theatre. These changes only manage to keep the series feeling fresh.
It would be easy to fill an episode devoted to Stephen Schwartz with some of his best known songs. Instead, what we have here is a refreshing mix of fan favourites, hidden gems and even a tease of what's coming next from him. Kicking off with a filmed performance of opening number 'Magic To Do' from the glorious production of Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre, which sadly wraps up its run today. This is a great way to immortalise what has been a momentous production of one of Schwartz's most enduring shows, with the cast of eight including Ryan Anderson, Ian Carlyle, Natalie McQueen and Genevieve Nicole) giving a sensational performance that has been filmed beautifully.
What follows next is a stunning sequence of 'Prepare Ye/Beautiful City' from Godspell led by the incredible Melanie La Barrie with the Cafe Five. The wonderful Alice Fearn follows with a genius performance of 'It's An Art' from Working, which Schwartz talked about taking on more significance as we celebrate the importance of key workers.
We then get a glimpse into the future with Christine Allado, currently wowing audiences in Schwartz's The Prince of Egypt (which announced its closing date just an hour before this screening took place) teaming up with Stewart Clarke for a number from Schwartz's next show 'Making Magic' (formerly known as Schikaneder). If this lovely song is anything to go by, this is going to be another classic from him.
The standout performance of the episode follows as Jo Eaton-Kent tackles one of Schwartz's best loved numbers - 'I'm Not That Girl' from his masterpiece Wicked. With a beautiful intro from Stephen about why Wicked has become such a phenomenon, talking about how we can relate to the sende of being an outsider longing to fit in, and the immortal quote "We all have that green girl inside us", what followed was an incredibly moving portrayal of one of the shows emotional highlights. This sequence in particular was filmed like a short movie with the story playing out on the screen. In the post-show Q&A, Jo talked about how this sequence put trans stories front and centre, making it purely about love. This version does feature a lyric change - "Don't dream too far, don't lose sight of how things are" as opposed to "Who you are". A truly beautiful performance, fantastically performed by Eaton-Kent.
Louise Dearman made history, being the first (and, so far, only) person to play both Glinda (The Ga is silent) and Elphaba in Wicked and here she is again, tackling one of Schwartz's most loved songs, 'Meadowlark' from The Bakers Wife. An imtimate performance that lets Dearman's immeasurable talent truly shine, this really was a great showcase for both Dearmans talent as well as Schwartz's. The final performance of the episode sees Stephen accompanying the Cafe Five for a performance of his Academy Award winning song 'When You Believe' from The Prince of Egypt - surely one of the greatest songs ever written.
The episode concludes with a 30 minute highlights segment of Schwartz's evening at The Theatre Cafe last month with Alice Fearn. As well as a gorgeous performance of 'For Good' together, Schwartz gives insight into his songs (never ask his favourite) with a fabulous sequence, demonstrating how 'The Wizard and I' came to be, which sees Schwartz at the piano singing the first two attempts at a different song 'Making Good' which eventually turned into the number we all know and love today.
The Theatre Channel have so far had 7 episodes, all filled with flawless performances. Episode 8 is no different. With some incredible talents tackling one of the greatest songbooks in musical theatre, all with the presence of the legend himself, what has been created is an hour and 15 minutes of pure joy and a fitting tribute to one of the greatest talents there is. Possibly the best episode in the series so far, it really is wonderful.
POST SHOW Q&A
After the show, I was lucky enough to sit in on a Q&A not only with Stephen Schwartz himself but also with series producer Adam Blanshay, director Fabian Aloise and
Musical Supervisor Michael England with performers Louise Dearman, Jo Eaton-Kent and members of the Cafe Five in attendance to answer all our burning questions about the episode and their careers.
Adam Blanshay introduced the episode while talking about how he first pitched the idea to Stephen Schwartz with the conversation ending with both asking eachother at the same time to do an episode together. Discussing how this series is like a musical theatre of MTV/VH1 felt like a brilliant way to describe something that could really have its own channel with the amount of content it has now produced. This was the first time they had been able to screen an episode in the Theatre Cafe since last October and Adam talked about how the series has kept the cafe busy even when it wasn't allowed to open due to the pandemic, and this series has provided work to around 150 people - which I think we can all agree is extremely admirable.
I cite Wicked as the show that made me fall in love with musical theatre so the chance to be sat next to Stephen Schwartz as he watched the episode, meet him and talk to him was a real pinch me moment. I asked Stephen if revisiting songs he wrote decades earlier for this episode had given him new insight into them and if the events of the last 18 months had brought new meaning to them? Stephen talked about the show Working which is a show with multiple composers. He specifically mentined the songs Lin Manuel Miranda wrote for the show about undocumented workwers doing work others won't do, and how key workers now receive the respect they are due. He talked about how it has a new urgency and poignancy which creates a fresh experience in what continues to be a difficult time. I mentioned the quote from Wicked when Glinda says we have been through a frightening time and how that really hits differently now.
Director Fabian Aloise talked about how this was the first time he has directed as he usually does more choreography. He has just worked on the new production of Wicked in Hamburg and was asked if it took much persuading to mount a different production to the one we all know and love. Fabian said you don't screw with something already doing well and the first question he asked was why. Stephen talked about how there has never been a production of Wicked before that is different to the original, but some locations don't have a theatre large enough to stage the show as originally intended which is why this new production in Hamburg was created.
The cast were asked about the challenges in shifting their performance to camera. Louise Dearman commented that it took a while to remove the obvious cameras in front of her. On stage she is in the moment and unaware so this was difficult to ignore. She is used to having the "right here, right now" element so to have something that takes a while to get right was unusual. Her and Jo Eaton-Kent both discussed the challenges of doing retakes in their performances.
Musical Supervisor Michael England talked about how this was the first time they have worked with a living composer and made the decision to only use songs in this episode that were both written and composed by him. Stephen picked the songs he wanted used from a shortlist of ideas. Stephen was asked of he would consider a full musical in this format. He talked about a recent show of his works "Stephen Schwartz's Snapshots" that will be available on BroadwayHD. Adam Blanshay mentioned that digital theatre is not being intended to replace the live experience but to enhance it, and it was agreed that digital theatre should stay around to co-exist with live theatre which will increase accessibility.
Stephen was asked about religious undertones in his songs. He talked about how music is an extraordinary medium which exists on a level below consciousness. He likes to write about human experience that can transecend culture and time, saying "If someone can express their truth, that's an amazing thing". The final question he was asked was which of his songs he's most proud of. He was asked something similar in the episode and both times refused to answer, saying he doesn't want to put himself in peoples way by distracting from the song knowing it's his favourite, comparing it to an interview he once read with Stephen Sondheim.
This was a very special experience. As well as being an incredible talent, Schwartz is a fascinating man - charismatic, witty and utterly charming. Extremely approachable too, I even managed to share a joke with him on the way out. What an incredible man!