Roslyn Heights native Stephen Schwartz inducted into LI Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame

Roslyn Heights native Stephen Schwartz inducted into LI Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame
Stephen Schwartz was inducted into the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame in Stony Brook Saturday night. (Photo by Taylor Herzlich)

The Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame inducted Roslyn Heights native Stephen Schwartz Saturday night at a ceremony in Stony Brook. He is the man behind “Godspell,” “Pippin,” “Wicked” and many music legends’ careers, including late night icon Paul Shaffer.

Broadway vocalists, backed by a talent-packed band including Shaffer on keys and Malverne-native Rick Shutter on drums, performed some of Schwartz’s biggest hits, from crowd pleasers like “Magic to Do” from “Pippin” and “Bless the Lord” from “Godspell” to tearjerkers including “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas” and “For Good” from “Wicked.”

“My parents were finally excited [about this honor],” joked Schwartz, a four-time Grammy Award winner, three-time Academy Award winner and six-time Tony Award nominee. “I told them today this is the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, and they were like, finally!”

Music came naturally to the Long Island native, whose song-writing origin story begins when he was just around 6 years old.

Schwartz spent his early childhood in South Park with his parents, who often paid visits to their next-door neighbor, George Kleinsinger, a Broadway composer.

As Schwartz recalled, he would tag along on his parents’ visits and listen to Kleinsinger play new songs for the Broadway show on which he was working.

“I’m told that I would then go over to their piano and kind of pick out a tune, and so after a couple times, George said to my parents, ‘I think you should get a piano. I think maybe Stephen might like having piano lessons.’”

And so one Broadway composer lent a hand to a future one. Schwartz used his newborn musical prowess to perform puppet shows with his sister. One memorable show was called “High Dog” about a dog who runs away from home – a “tragic story,” said Schwartz. But it was for “High Dog” that Schwartz remembers writing his very first song, titled “Little Lullaby.”

Over time, Schwartz said he has learned to approach music as a craft instead of relying on blind instinct and luck. But with a successful career spanning decades, Schwartz said somewhat in jest that his approach to music and composition hasn’t changed too much since that sweet lullabye.

“In some ways, I was not entirely facetious when I said it hasn’t changed at all, because I still write at the keyboard,” said Schwartz. “It’s still, you know, based on what comes out and hearing whatever I’m doing and kind of following that trail. So that’s kind of the same a lot of years, a lot of decades later.”

The Mineola High School alum went on to graduate from Carnegie Mellon University before beginning his work on Broadway. Then in 1971 Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics for “Godspell.” The following year, he wrote the music and lyrics for “Pippin.” And two years after “Pippin,” he wrote the music and lyrics for “The Magic Show.”

So “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “The Magic Show” were all running on Broadway simultaneously while Schwartz was still in his 20s.

Schwartz’s discography is impressive enough, but as a young, successful composer, he also had an eye for talent. Time and time again, friends and colleagues of Schwartz applauded him for his mentorship during the Hall of Fame induction.

“If it wasn’t for Stephen Schwartz, I wouldn’t be here tonight. I wouldn’t have my family. I wouldn’t have any kind of career at all,” said Shaffer, perhaps best known for his time as a musical director on “Saturday Night Live” and the late night shows with David Letterman.

Paul Shaffer looks on while Stephen Schwartz accepts his award. (Photo by Taylor Herzlich)

Shaffer was only 23 when he said Schwartz “changed my whole life in a second.” Shaffer had just graduated from college in Toronto when Schwartz was starting to put together a Toronto production of “Godspell.”

Shaffer said he went to an audition for the production only to accompany a friend of his on the piano. Shaffer played one song on the piano when Schwartz stopped him, walked over and asked him to stay for the rest of the day and play for all of the auditions.

“You know a lot of the Broadway people they don’t hit [the piano] hard like he does and like I do. We play it like a percussion instrument, [Schwartz] used to say,” said Shaffer. “And I think that’s part of the reason why he kind of liked what I did with his stuff.”

So Shaffer stayed for the rest of the audition day and accompanied all of the vocalists who sang for Schwartz.

“And at the end of the day, he said, ‘Do you think you can get a band together and conduct a show?’” said Shaffer. “I’d never done anything like that in my life. So Stephen Schwartz heard me play a little bit and hired me.”

It was the start of a fruitful working relationship between Schwartz and Shaffer.

Schwartz was such a generous man that he brought Shaffer to New York – it was Shaffer’s first time in New York City – in 1974 for “The Magic Show” and to score the music for the “Godspell” film. They scored the music together on two pianos in New York and Schwartz, who did not know Shaffer prior to his fateful Toronto audition, invited the pianist to stay with him at his home in Connecticut, said Shaffer.

“Really, I don’t know what I’d be doing in Canada now” if it wasn’t for Schwartz,” said Shaffer. “Shoveling snow, and that’s about it.”

The same day Schwartz hired Shaffer, he also cast names like Gilda Radner, Martin Short and Eugene Levy for “Godspell.”

Schwartz also jump-started the career of fellow Long Island musician Rick Shutter.

Shutter had been playing school dances with his band while a student at Valley Stream North High School. When Shutter was just 19, Schwartz hired him as the drummer in the original New York production of “Godspell.”

Shutter went on to play the drums in the film adaptation of “Godspell.” He has worked as an independent musician for 40 years, recording for a number of companies and studios and performing with stage ensembles at the Grammy Awards ceremony, The Today Show, The Tonight Show and more.

“If you know anything about Stephen, you know that he has been completely dedicated… teaching people and encouraging people to enter the field, so one of the things we’re especially proud of in terms of Stephen is that he has pushed forward so many different careers,” said Tom Needham, the vice chairman of the Long Island Hall of Fame.

Vocalist Alysia Velez performs at the induction ceremony. (Photo by Taylor Herzlich)

Esteemed Broadway vocalists performed at the induction ceremony and spoke highly of Schwartz’s influence.

Teal Wicks, who made her Broadway debut as Elphaba in “Wicked,” said Schwartz has been “the soundtrack of her life,” recalling days when she would listen to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on repeat growing up.

“[Schwartz] has a brilliant ear for melodies…that can lodge into your brain. But then he has also such a huge breadth of other musical vocabulary, whether it’s jazz and blues or classical,” said Wicks. “And he really takes these different worlds and combines them into these incredibly catchy songs.”

Vocalist Sam Simahk sang “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin” Saturday night and said Schwartz will certainly be a lasting legend.

“You couldn’t have American musical theater without Stephen Schwartz’s music,” said Simahk.

Many of the performers Saturday night described Schwartz’s music as “magical,” including Shaffer, who played the keys and emceed the ceremony.

“He’s been sort of infatuated with magic ever since I did ‘The Magic Show’ with him, and even before that he had written ‘Magic to Do’ from ‘Pippin,’ and ‘Wicked’ is very magical too,” said Shaffer. “[There is] some magic about the whole guy.”

And while Schwartz’s music may be “magical,” it seems to be his personality, too.

Stephen Schwartz signs a fan’s Broadway playbook. (Photo by Taylor Herzlich)

An employee of the Hall of Fame approached Schwartz with a “Godspell” playbook that she said she had been holding onto for 50 years just in case she ever got the opportunity to meet him. Schwartz signed it with a smile on his face.

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