Genesis inspires newest show by composer of Godspell, Rags

Call it coincidence, but a large body of Stephen Schwartz's work for the musical theater has a biblical theme.

First, there was "Godspell," which catapulted the composer-lyricist onto Broadway when he was only 23 and just three years out of Juilliard. That same year, 1971, saw him collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on Bernstein's Mass, the work that opened the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

More recently, the movie "Prince of Egypt" told the story of Moses through the animation of DreamWorks SKG.

Now comes "Children of Eden," his newest stage work, opening this weekend at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose. The show, which debuted in London several years ago, is Schwartz's favorite of all his stage work. A prolific composer, he's done the music for "The Magic Show," "Pippin," "Rags," "Working" and "The Baker's Wife," plus the film scores for Disney's "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Though a biblical theme runs through much of his work, Schwartz denies a conscious motivation in that direction.

"That a religious thread runs through some of my work is something of a coincidence," he said last week by phone from his East Coast home. "Many of these projects were brought to me.

"That being said," he continued, "I think all these works deal with issues that are important to me: ethical responsibility, moral choices and what are we doing here? These are interesting issues to me and, if you remove the specific doctrines, they are common to all religions."

While acknowledging that he is a "Long Island Jewish boy," Schwartz politely refuses to discuss his own beliefs, other than to say that his upbringing was not particularly religious.

"I get asked maybe once a day, certainly several times a week, on my Web site what my own beliefs are but I have made a conscious decision never to discuss that," he said. "I prefer people to bring their own beliefs to the work so that it will resonate for them on their own terms, whether they are Christians, Muslims, Jews or atheists. If I speak about my own beliefs, it might shrink the meaning of the show."

Nevertheless, "Children of Eden," with music and lyrics by Schwartz and libretto by John Caird, has a decidedly Genesis-like plot. It is double-cast, with the actor who plays Adam in Act I taking the role of Noah in Act II. Same with the sons: Act I's Cain and Abel show up as Noah's progeny after intermission.

"The truth is, I don't really think of this as a Jewish piece so much as a piece about families," Schwartz continued. "How the dysfunction is passed down from generation to generation until someone finally breaks the cycle. This is the theme that drew me to it."

In addition to his songwriting gifts, the multitalented Schwartz recently cast his hat into the performance arena with the 1997 release of his CD "The Reluctant Pilgrim."

He hopes to catch a performance in San Jose later this month in conjunction with his rehearsals for three West Coast singing gigs that will bring him to Saratoga on Feb. 24, to the Marin Jewish Community Center on Feb. 26 and 27, and then to Oregon.

"I usually work with two other singers, a man and a woman," he said. (For these shows the female vocalist will be Val Diamond of "Beach Blanket Babylon" fame.) "I do my own songs, some familiar, some not."

Which mode does he prefer, writing for others or performing on his own?

"Well," he mused, "I like to switch hats but, if somebody held a gun to my head and said 'You can only do one,' I'd have to choose writing. I'm a songwriter at heart."