Stephen Schwartz Is On the Wrong Track


Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz (COURTSEY OF EDANDEDDIE VIA FLICKER)


Last month, the Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, best known for the hit musicals Wicked and Pippin, announced his refusal to license his works to any North Carolina theatre or organization in response to the passing of the North Carolina House Bill 2 (HB2). Also known as the “Bathroom Bill,” the discriminatory law prevents transgender individuals from using public facilities that correspond to the gender with which they identify and bans cities from implementing any further nondiscriminatory legislation.

In his open email, Schwartz encouraged fellow theatre artists to follow his lead. Since then, many have taken similar action. Cirque du Soleil cancelled scheduled performances for two separate tours, issuing a statement that the company “[behaves] as change agents to reach our ultimate goal of making a better world with our actions and our productions.” Most recently, Musical Theatre International declared that they would not issue any new licensing rights for “West Side Story.”

Nearly a month after Schwartz’s decision, I still have a hard time getting behind its practicality. Having spent my whole life as an actor from North Carolina, I can tell you that the theatre community is one of the few groups of people that not just tolerates, but celebrates individual diversity. A certain camaraderie exists in theatre circles that remains unparalleled. In the past, the theatre has been monumental in fighting previous discriminatory legislation, such as Amendment One, which made gay marriage in North Carolina unconstitutional. Why, then, is someone like Stephen Schwartz targeting those who are advocating for the same thing he is? Is it not true that the artists who produce his work are more likely to already oppose Governor Pat McCrory and HB2? Schwartz’s comment of his decision being “rightly deserved” raises the question of who is truly being punished.

Looking at the tour schedules for “Pippin” and “Wicked,” there were never any plans for either to return to North Carolina any time in the near future, so Schwartz’s big blockbuster tours aren’t losing any money. The only “economic consequences” Schwartz speaks of are on North Carolina artists at high schools and community and regional theaters, and I don’t think these are the people Stephen Schwartz means to target.

As far as the “cultural” argument, North Carolina legislators have shown time and time again that the arts mean nothing to them. In 2013, the State Senate called for a $1.28 million statewide reduction in grants to arts organizations. At local Durham, NC elementary and middle schools, arts classes are limited to once a week. I doubt missing a high school production of “Godspell” will sway a government that has consistently denied the arts and arts education the funding they deserve.

It is true that similar actions were “very effective” in South Africa during apartheid, but what Schwartz is forgetting is that theatre also has the unique capacity to act as a catalyst for social change and education. Athol Fugard, one of the world’s most famous playwrights, had his passport taken away after he wrote “Blood Knot.” His other play, “Master Harold…and the Boys,” was initially banned from being produced. His work was crucial in starting a worldwide conversation about apartheid and its very real and personal implications.

As a phenomenal writer with clearly a lot of clout, Schwartz is in the unique position to encourage great strides for the people of my home state and across the world. I think it would be better for Schwartz to give the okay for producing his work and take advantage of shows like Wicked—which inherently celebrates difference—as a platform to educate the audience and community. To reinforce these principles, Schwartz could also offer programming before or after the show on HB2 and its deeper issues. Even better, Schwartz could issue a grant to local companies and commission new work that directly combats a state and a people that condone discrimination. I am sure there are many people, like myself, who are hungry for such an opportunity.

Theatre artists have an amazing opportunity to start a conversation and speak truth to power. In revoking production rights, Schwartz discredits the power of his own voice. We are indeed “change agents.” I wish Schwartz would take advantage of this and not write off the people who are on his side.