On a recent visit to PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria, award-winning Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz sat down at the piano and plinked out a tune.
“It was pretty heady stuff. Pretty thrilling to hear Stephen playing something that he was composing for this production,” said Mark Booher, Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts artistic director.
Schwartz returns to the Central Coast this weekend for the American premiere of “My Fairytale,” a new musical about the life and work of famed Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The PCPA production, which coincides with Solvang’s centennial celebration, runs through Sept. 25 at the Solvang Festival Theatre.
“Ultimately, this is a story about a guy who learns to value his own imagination,” the composer’s son, director Scott Schwartz, said. “That story is universal.”
The winner of a Golden Globe Award, three Oscars and four Grammy Awards, Stephen Schwartz is best known for the hit musicals “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked.”
The latter, a Broadway mainstay since 2003, draws its inspiration from Gregory Maguire’s best-selling book, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Other songwriting credits include the films “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Prince of Egypt” and “Enchanted.” He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2010.
“There’s a reason he’s Stephen Schwartz: He’s incredible,” said Kevin Cahoon, who plays Andersen in “My Fairytale.”
Most recently, Stephen Schwartz collaborated with his son on his first opera, “Séance on a Wet Afternoon.” The Opera Santa Barbara production, inspired by the 1964 film of the same name, debuted in September 2009.
The two New Yorkers have teamed up again for PCPA’s production of “My Fairytale,” originally created by Danish producer Flemming Enevold for the bicentennial celebration of Andersen’s birth in Denmark in 2005.
The musical features music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who’s written a new song for the American version. “Pocahontas” collaborator Philip LaZebnik wrote the book.
According to Stephen Schwartz, “My Fairytale” finds Hans Christian Andersen “at a crucial point in his life.”
“He’s struggling between his desire to be accepted (as) part of Danish society and following his natural talent and aspiration to write fairytales,” the composer said.
Andersen embarks on a personal pilgrimage through his own imagination, encountering familiar figures such as the Little Mermaid and the Ugly Duckling at every turn.
“It’s not really like thumbing through the pages of a book and passively each famous fairytale,” explained Stephen Schwartz, comparing aspects of “My Fairytale” to “The Wizard of Oz.” “We meet a lot of familiar characters, but we’re looking at them from a different perspective. ... In that way, it has a bit of a relationship to ‘Wicked.’ ”
Also like “Wicked,” “My Fairytale” is told from an outsider’s perspective, he added.
“That’s a theme that’s always attracted me,” Schwartz said.
To better understand Andersen’s legacy, the composer said he read Jackie Wullschlager’s biography, “Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller,” and pored over Andersen’s fairytales.
“I always say, ‘In lieu of inspiration, do research,’ ” he joked.
“While they’re ostensibly stories for children, they’re very, very psychologically complex and profound,” the composer said, adding that Andersen’s continuing popularity “gives you an indication of his talent and skill.”
Scott Schwartz described Andersen as Denmark’s answer to Mark Twain.
“He wrote stories that everyone in the world knows,” Scott Schwartz said.
According to the creative team, “My Fairytale” was a “perfect fit” for Solvang, a small Santa Ynez Valley community founded by Danish immigrants in 1911. The town, which prides itself on its Danish heritage, has both a park and a museum dedicated to Hans Christian Andersen.
His son has a personal connection to the area, too. He bought his fiancee’s promise ring at a Solvang antique store.
“Solvang is unique in America,” Stephen Schwartz said. “I don’t see it as some small town in fly-over country. I’m very excited to be working there.”