The Sky Is the Limit - Stephen Schwartz and Flight Imagery
Maybe it is because Pippin is getting ready to close on Broadway, or perhaps because it has been announced that a big-screen adaptation of the piece is in the works, or maybe it is because I generally enjoy the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz no matter the overall quality of the musical they derive from, but I have found myself exploring his compositions a lot lately and growing to appreciate all of the wonderful poetry and imagery therein. Schwartz blends achingly palpable emotion, heightened drama, humor, evocative elements of nature, and rich, atmospheric melodies in all of his scores that both transport the listener and illuminate their personal human experience.
One of Schwartz's favorite themes to explore is escaping the trappings of the mundane, cruel world by imagining his characters taking to the sky for a higher purpose and emotional liberation. Schwartz sees the sky as a place of freedom where the strict confines of social constructs are obliterated by altitude, sunshine, and the wind, facilitating metamorphosis to occur. If we think about his most mesmerizing lyrics, they often take us to the stratosphere where live-changing discovery happens.
In an earlier piece, I delved into the song "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin and how, as Pippin's "I am" song, it creates an illusion in the title character's mind of where he needs to go to find happiness and contentment. Pippin keeps launching himself toward the firmament with grand designs of changing the world. His visits there always fall short of their goal, but the experience does transform and evolve him in ways that, when he finally comes back to earth, he is ready for a real, grounded life of substantive meaning and purpose.
"Defying Gravity" is the goal of Elphaba from Wicked, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West who sees a greater purpose in her ability to use magic for change that can only be achieved by defying convention (a.k.a. the confines of a grounded existence). The song is a metaphor for casting aside the agreed upon rules of the natural world and finding a new place to implement change, make lofty dreams come true. Wicked's most arresting moment is when Elphaba climbs aboard her broomstick for the first time, elevating above the crowd in revolt to the Wizard's corruption.
In the musical The Baker's Wife, which features Schwartz's most deeply felt score, the song "Meadowlark" becomes a parallel to the central story of a young woman named Genevieve, married to an older baker she doesn't love, who yearns for her own escape with a handsome lothario. "Meadowlark" tells the story of a beautiful songbird, owned by an old, adoring king, who is given a chance to escape her cage and fly away with the God of the Sun. Unable to break the king's heart, the bird chooses to stay and then dies from being unable to stretch her wings and take to the sky. Genevieve, as she relates the story, pleads with the bird "fly away," something she wants to do herself, and eventually does, unwilling to resign herself to a similar fate. Once she takes flight, she realizes the difference between libidinous "fire" and the security of "warmth" ("Where is the Warmth?") and returns to the baker with a better understanding of who she is and what she needs."
"Lost in the Wilderness, " a "soaring" duet from Children of Eden between biblical brothers Cain and Abel, cashes in on sky imagery in a scene where God's plan for them is challenged by Cain. The angry and frustrated older brother doesn't understand why they must live in a land where the soil is difficult to till and crops are hard to come by. Worst of all, he bemoans that they must offer the best of their crop as a burnt offering to God. He makes reference to the sky as a place of escape, envying the eagle and how his journey makes him free. Cain wants to explore such a place where he isn't tied to the rules of his unforgiving God and trapped by the confines of the brutal land that are a part of his parent's punishment for original sin. He asserts that Adam and Eve had a choice and he believes that so should he. The sky equals freedom from the religious constructs of his world.
Schwartz as lyricist-only on the musical Rags, alludes to the sky through the guise of the wind in the anthem "Children of the Wind." American immigrants at the turn-of-twentieth-century are in search of a new life and are blown across an ocean to the United States. Once again, our characters take flight with deceptive promises of a world where "the streets are paved with gold," only to come crashing down into reality where life is hard and hopes are dashed.
Stephen Schwartz lifts us up with every one of these songs, takes us on a glorious ride, and then drops us back to earth with a new perspective and a heightened sense of reality. It is almost as if he understands that we as listeners have to be taken out of the world we know, become hypnotized then disillusioned by the things we can never attain, so that we can be returned to ground and survive life's smaller disappointments.