Scott Schwartz happily remembers the Passover seders of his childhood at which Grandpa Stan would embellish the story of Exodus by inserting Scott and his sister into the community of Hebrews escaping with Moses from Egypt.
A few decades later, Schwartz is about to tell his own version of the biblical tale — on a much bigger stage.
Schwartz, 43, is directing the world premiere of “The Prince of Egypt” at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, and he’s being joined on the artistic team by one of the titans of musical theater — his dad, Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for hits such as “Wicked,” “Godspell” and “Pippin.”
TheatreWorks has produced seven Stephen Schwartz musicals over the years, and that relationship is one of the reasons the venue was chosen for “The Prince of Egypt.”
The show comes almost 20 years after the release of the DreamWorks film, which grossed more than $218 million worldwide, and it includes 12 new songs by Stephen Schwartz — who won an Academy Award for best original song with “When You Believe” from the 1998 animated film.
The musical — with previews from Oct. 6-13, an opening night on Oct. 14 and a Jewish Community Night presented by the Oshman Family JCC on Oct. 22 — features a multiethnic international cast intended to reflect the diversity of the characters being portrayed. Moses is played by Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, a Danish native of Sri Lankan heritage who is making his U.S. debut.
The movie’s visual highlights — the Red Sea parting, the plagues, baby Moses floating in a basket down the Nile — will be depicted on stage in large part through dance and movement. For Scott Schwartz, transforming those miracles into a live performance presented “very exciting but very large challenges.”
“They’re part of this story, you really can’t get away with just doing them offstage, it’s part of the reason people are coming to this show. They want to see the Red Sea part, they want to see the burning bush,” he said in an interview with his dad during a rehearsal at the TheatreWorks studio in Redwood City.
“Very early on I came to feel we needed to embrace that this was a theater production, it’s not trying to be a movie. It’s not trying to be literal, that’s not really what the stage is for. The stage is for doing gestures, doing staging, doing designs that suggest something but then ask the audience to be imaginative participants in the storytelling.”
Though it’s tricky predicting whether a show will become a hit like “Wicked,” which has surpassed $1 billion in revenue while running continuously on Broadway since October 2003, TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley said he’s confident “The Prince of Egypt” will be a huge success.
“This show, I think, is going to be performed for the rest of our lives all over the country and all over the world,” Kelley said, adding that the biblical story of liberation resonates with people worldwide.
“The Prince of Egypt” is the latest collaboration between Stephen and Scott Schwartz, who teamed up in 2014 on the U.S. premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The first time the East Coast residents worked together as professionals was in 2002, also at TheatreWorks, when Scott wrote and directed a stage version of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.”
Ian Leonard, a Bay Area actor, teacher and director, played the part of Jim Burden in “My Antonia” and sneaked peeks at Stephen Schwartz when Scott was giving notes to the cast. Dad was smiling to himself, Leonard remembers, with a look of “that’s my boy” on his face.
“You could always tell how proud Stephen was of his son, and how much respect they had for each other,” Leonard said in an interview. “They adore one another, but respect each other completely as artists.”
Stephen Schwartz, 69, pleads guilty to such paternal smiles, but says their relationship at rehearsals is more professional than personal — similar to other longtime collaborators who aren’t related. He thinks back fondly to the moment when he first grasped his son’s talent.
It was in 1995 during Scott’s senior year at Harvard University, where he majored in psychology but spent much of his time directing plays. He was directing a production of Eric Overmyer’s “On the Verge,” with his dad in the audience.
“There is this amazing moment, if you have a talented child, where you see that talent and realize that it goes beyond parental pride,” Stephen told J. “It was so brilliantly designed and staged, and I had that epiphany of saying: Oh, this is not just, isn’t this nice that my child has done good work? But this is a real talent, really a genuine talent.
“From that moment on, I took for granted that Scott was just a very talented director. And then it became more of a professional relationship.”
Philip LaZebnik, who did the screenplay for the 1998 film and wrote the book for the stage version of “The Prince of Egypt,” said the Schwartzes have “a special bond.”
“I think that they don’t have to explain as much to each other perhaps as other directors and composers and they’re both equally smart, but I also think they’re the ultimate professionals,” LaZebnik said. “Perhaps one of the advantages of Scott being his son is that there are many people who are intimidated when talking to Stephen. And Scott isn’t.”
Stephen and Scott make it clear they don’t always agree on artistic choices. Though they have similar aesthetic values, their theatrical backgrounds differ — Scott is much more influenced by avant-garde directors than his dad.
Stephen Schwartz has worked on shows on which he’s only written the lyrics or only composed songs, and said he enjoys the collaborative process on such productions. He is doing both music and lyrics for “The Prince of Egypt,” so he relies on his son and LaZebnik for feedback.
During a rehearsal, Scott and LaZebnik felt a short piece of sung music was needed to fill a gap in the story. Stephen at first disagreed, but then was convinced by his partners — so he scribbled notes on a piece of staff paper during his interview with J.
“There could be disadvantages if it were a collaborator who thinks so much the way you do that you don’t get a different point of view,” he said. “But that’s not the nature of this collaboration, we don’t always agree on everything. We come at things from a different standpoint.”
The Schwartzes bring a similar secular perspective to the Exodus story. Though both identify as culturally Jewish, neither had a bar mitzvah and Stephen — whose wife of 48 years is Catholic — said they “verged on being holiday Jews.”
Stephen said “The Prince of Egypt” story is universal because it “has great ramifications in terms of morality and how one deals with other people and relationships.”
“That’s what’s interesting about doing biblical stories, for me as a dramatist,” he said, “not necessarily because there’s some element where I want to proselytize, but they are very big stories with huge events that deal with big themes and which put the characters in very extreme situations, which is always interesting dramatically.”
Scott grew up celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, and “Passover was always the most fun” because his paternal grandfather would put him and his sister, Jessica, into the Exodus story.
“He would basically insert me and my sister into the story, though under the names Charlie and Susie, I don’t know why, and there were these two children named Charlie and Susie who helped Moses along the way on the journey,” Scott said. “I did know the story, but on a much more secular level.”
Stephen Schwartz reworked the movie music for a small pit orchestra that will include Middle Eastern instruments such as the oud. There will be more Hebrew in the stage version, he said, including the Hebrew stanzas in “When You Believe” — which was an international hit for Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
One of those having to learn a few words of Hebrew for the show was the 26-year-old Jeyaratnam, who grew up speaking Tamil before he learned Danish and English. He learned English in part by watching animated films such as “The Prince of Egypt” and the Cartoon Network, and gleaned his Hebrew pronunciations from Ayelet Firstenberg, who plays Moses’ mother, Yocheved, in the show and is Israeli American.
“I have this line that means you will always be free. We have a few actors in the cast who are good at pronouncing Hebrew, so I tried to imitate them,” he said. “When you grow up speaking Tamil, I wouldn’t say it sounds similar, but it’s familiar. I feel like I can say it quite naturally.”
Jeyaratnam, introduced to the Schwartzes when he performed in a production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in his homeland, isn’t the only connection between the TheatreWorks show and Denmark.
LaZebnik is married to a Dane and has lived an hour south of Copenhagen for the past 15 years. And the show is being developed in collaboration with Denmark’s Fredericia Teater, which will host an expanded version of “The Prince of Egypt” in its international premiere in April 2018.
Jeyaratnam, who also will play Moses in the Danish production, headlines an international cast that also includes the Polish-American actress Julia Motyka — who is married to Scott Schwartz — as Moses’ sister, Miriam.
Because of the African setting of the show and the universal nature of its message, Kelley, the TheatreWorks artistic director, said the company published a statement before casting saying the goal was to use “performers of the world’s many races and ethnicities to play characters from all the cultures portrayed in the show.”
“We wanted to tell a universal story, we wanted to tell a timeless story, we wanted to have everyone in the audience represented by everyone on the stage,” LaZebnik said.
Scott Schwartz pointed to the importance of the liberation story to cultures across the globe.
“In all Western culture, this is a central story, and it’s a story that means so much to so many people around the world,” he said. “We felt it needed to be a story for, and told by, all of those people. It doesn’t belong to any one culture, it belongs to all of us.”