Leo Schwartz is making musicals great again by creating We the People: The Anti-Trump Musical.
Set during the 2016 election and the aftermath, there's a group of six actors playing 55 characters in 65 minutes.
Flying Elephant Productions executive director Leo Schwartz is an out and proud man taking names in a world where the political climate is tricky. He brings a rich background including winning a gold medal for his film score of Happily After at the Park City Film Festival. He was the winner of Sony's World Search for new musicals for Me and Al. Other credits include Under a Rainbow Flag, Pen, Till and The Book of Merman.
Windy City Times: Where are you from originally?
Leo Schwartz: I grew up in Texas and moved to Chicago in 1986. I was working with fundraising for some museums at the CSO.
WCT: Have you always performed music? I read you have won several awards over the years.
LS: Yes. I am a graduate of Eastman School of Music. I studied French horn. I was a professional horn player for a number of years. I started composing and one of the tunes I wrote was part of a Sony showcase during a worldwide search. I went to Wales for that performance.
The musical I wrote called Naughty! was Director's Choice at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. I won a Jeff Award in 2015 for Best New Work with Pride Films and Plays.
WCT: How did We the People come about?
LS: The morning after the election I felt, as an artist, I needed to have a response to it. I couldn't call myself an artist if I didn't make art out of it. I thought of all the works that I grew up with were direct responses to politics such as Shostakovich's work.
I called up Sean Chandler and asked if he wanted to write a song cycle. I wanted to do something like Songs for a New World, which is all music. I didn't want a lot of book, but we needed to have a narrative arc of some sort. We realized we would have six actors playing 55 characters and this is what theater is all about!
WCT: Talk about Flying Elephant Productions.
LS: I founded it in April 2017. Our mission is to present emerging artists in marginalized communities. Because of my business background I am very good at marketing and promotion. We are trying to help artists get a second production made. For instance, hopefully we will get a second production of Defacing Michael Jackson. It is coming in July and we are going to market it as soon as we can.
I am not asking for an agency fee from these people. I just offer to produce the show and try to get a second production for them.
WCT: What song are you most proud of from We the People?
LS: "I Wake Up Every Morning." That was a challenging moment because we had to bring it into today. I was sitting in the morning with my coffee looking on Facebook and thinking, "Every day is a new thing."
I called Sean and said I wanted to write a song about the insanity that I have to deal with each day. That is how we brought the show to the present.
WCT: I didn't notice a lot of gay content in We the People.
LS: No, there isn't. There is a little. I had a hard time with Mike Pence backtracking on his promises because there are so many examples of him lying to people to get their vote. I didn't think I could do one more.
During the inauguration report the young man gets up and talks about conversion therapy. I felt that is a strong statement that we made.
WCT: I caught a Bob Fosse moment and some Rent moments.
LS: [Laughs] Rent was the director's choice. When things start falling apart I had to throw in a Kander and Ebb style of a song, just to flex that muscle.
That is in the book, "They do Fosse-esque moves." We left it up to director Derek Van Barham, who is also a choreographer to play with that.
WCT: Do you have an all-time favorite musical?
LS: Sunday in the Park with George is my favorite. I haven't had to time to research this but my ear tells me that entire show is based on those opening chords. That is just Sondheim.
WCT: What do you want to tell readers about We the People?
LS: It is anti-Trump, not anti-Republican. We treat Republicans very sympathetically in the show. I feel badly for my brothers who voted Republican and were sold a bill of goods.
The important message is we all need to change this. We need to get off our collective butts and change things in 2018. There are seven Democrats running to one Republican, and the number of women who have gotten involved politically are huge.
I think everything is making a difference. We want to keep telling people to keep going and doing that.
WCT: Where do you see We the People going in the future?
LS: As far as it can. A week after it closes we will record the cast album. Then we will start the marketing machine and hopefully get it out to other places that would be interested in doing it.
Theater is about money. I always said I would write Sharknado the Musical if anybody paid me to do it!
It is getting on the right radars that is so important. I can just do the best job I can and hopefully someone will notice.
WCT: What did you learn from Book of Merman?
LS: Book of Merman was really interesting. I just went to the DC production of it.
I didn't want it to be a parody of Book of Mormon. I wanted it to be its own show. I wanted the characters to have their own conflicts and things to work out.
I used some of the music from her own shows and messed it up enough to not get sued by attorneys. I wrote original stuff.
We are going to be remounting it. We are going to be adding 20 minutes. You are the first one to hear this, we are going to be doing a reading of it in New York in the fall.
WCT: What are you working on the rest of this year?
LS: I am doing rewrites on a show called Pen. It is about a pen pal relationship between a gay man and a gentleman in jail. It was in the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival couple of seasons ago.
I am also working on premiering a musical called Till, which is about Emmett Till. We are keeping an eye on HBO if the movie will be hitting soon or otherwise we will debut it in 2020. That will begin our third season.
We the People raises the flag from now until Feb. 10 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave with tickets at Stage773.com or by calling 773-327-5252. Listen to Schwartz's works at LeoSchwartz.com and try FlyingElephantProductions.com for more information on future productions.