A show of Stephen Schwartz songs, defying expectations

There are four or five Stephen Sondheim revues — including the likes of "Side by Side by Sondheim" and "Putting It Together," currently performed by Porchlight Music Theatre at Theater Wit. Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire have their own revue: "Starting Here, Starting Now," which opens Saturday at the Theo Ubique Theatre inRogers Park.

But there has never been a Stephen Schwartz revue.

That's strange, really. There's no lack of material.

Schwartz, who has been writing songs for the theater for more than 40 years, composed the music and lyrics for (among others) "Godspell" (about to be revived this fall on Broadway), "The Baker's Wife," most of "Working" (recently revived in Chicago), "Pippin" (a revisionist London revival was just announced) and a little show called "Wicked" that ran for a while in Chicago. If you have spent any time on cruise ships or in hotel lounges, you have heard some chanteuse or other belting out such Schwartz ditties as "Meadowlark," "In Whatever Time We Have" or, in extreme circumstances, "Defying Gravity."

So why no "Side by Side by Schwartz"?

"Well," Schwartz said the other day, over coffee, "honestly, no one has really ever asked."

That might be true if you're talking a traditional revue — five or six attractive singers dressed up in evening attire, sharing the chores of twee narration ("And then Mr. Sondheim wrote…"). But a writer named David Stern, whose history with Schwartz goes back a couple of decades, certainly asked to do something with the Schwartz songbook and got an affirmative response. Which explains why Schwartz was holed up last week at the Comfort Inn in Skokie.

The project is "Snapshots," which opens Friday at the Northlight Theatre.

"I have no idea if this is actually going to work," Schwartz said.

In show business, people will frequently say they are taking a risk on something different. But in this case, it's hard to refute that claim. Certainly, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like "Snapshots."

"It's not really a revue," Stern said. "And it's not really a book show."

So what the heck is it? Well, the idea here was to take songs from the Schwartz songbook (there is at least one from every Broadway show, along with some of his film music) and use them to tell a new and independent story about a mature couple staring out from an empty nest and looking back over their relationship. "They have reached a crisis point in their lives," Schwartz said. "The woman is about to leave."

Fair enough. "Snapshots" isn't the first show to use pre-existing songs and put them in a different context. ("Mamma Mia!" and "All Shook Up" did that, of course.) But it has usually been done with pop or rock catalogs, rather than songs by a single composer already written for other musicals. You can only imagine Sondheim's reaction if someone suggested scrambling his life's work and sticking his songs in a different show.

Before I talked with Stern and Schwartz, I thought they were using the Schwartz songs, as they were originally written, in a new story, which is unusual enough. I did not realize that, in some cases, they are also going to use different lyrics. In other words, you'll hear the melody to, say, "Popular" from "Wicked," but you won't necessarily hear all the expected lyrics. "The more familiar the song," Schwartz said, "the more we are playing with it."

How will audiences react to that?

Both Schwartz and Stern say they have no clue. A very early — and very different — version of this project did show up in 2005 in Issaquah, Wash., but it wasn't reviewed by any major critics. An even earlier version was seen in 1996 at the Westport County Playhouse in Connecticut. But both men say that this weekend's Northlight production will be the official coming out of a completely new show. As of earlier this week, they were still writing it.

Schwartz, who no longer has to worry about money or reputation, clearly likes to roll the dice. "The craft of doing this," he said, "has been like trying to solve an interesting puzzle."

And the future? "We'll just see what we have got," Schwartz said. "I don't even think that this is a New York show. We just want to see if this peculiar but interesting hybrid will function."

Seated next to Schwartz in the breakfast booth, Stern was sporting a nervous grin.

Through Nov. 23 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; $25-$65; 847-673-6300 and northlight.org

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