You know those stories that consider how different one’s life would have been if that train had chugachugged out of that station five minutes sooner? Or if you had walked west on Bleecker St. that rainy July day in 1978, instead of east where your umbrella got tangled up with hers. I think of this as the “serendipity story.” It is a subspecies of the “intention vs. chance” philosophical debate that I wrote about it in my “Winning the Lottery” post on June 12.
When I have chatted in-depth with established artists about their careers they have often told me that luck played a significant role. Stephen Schwartz is the renowned composer and lyricist of the megahit stage musical Wicked, as well as Pippin, Godspell and many other works. (He also tirelessly gives back, teaching often and currently serving as President of the Dramatists Guild.) At the recent Dramatists Guild annual conference outside Washington, D.C. Stephen told a charming personal version of the “serendipity story.”
The story starts out aboard a boat on a snorkeling trip with friends. One of the passengers, the folk singer Holly Leer, happens to mention a novel she is currently enjoying: Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Leer tells her boatmates it is the Wizard of Oz story told from the witches’ point of view. This storyline riveted Stephen’s attention and he immediately asked his lawyer to find out who had the stage and film rights. The answer that came back was Universal Studios. Huge corporation, not good news.
Universal was adapting the novel as a non-musical movie. A first draft they paid “quite a lot” for was already done. The studio had given notes and was awaiting the second draft. It took a few meetings before Stephen could meet with Mark Platt, then president of Universal. Stephen arrived at Platt’s office full of trepidation, skeptical that he could talk Platt out of proceeding with a film he’d already invested a lot in and transfer the rights to Stephen.
So Stephen walks into Platt’s office and what’s the first thing the big Hollywood exec does? He sings to Stephen “Corner of the Sky,” the famous song from Pippen that Stephen wrote. It turns out that Mark Platt had performed in Pippin in college and loved that song. Eventually Universal assigns the rights to Stephen.
Advantage: chance. As Stephen told us in our workshop: “What are the odds? A studio exec in Hollywood sang Pippin in college. Can you imagine if it had been Warner Brothers? There never would have been a Wicked.”
And let’s consider the consequences of that casual conversation on a snorkeling trip. As of last fall Wicked was the seventeenth longest-running Broadway show in history. More than five million people around the world have seen it and gross tickets sales now exceed $500 million. 500 is not a typo.
We shouldn’t be too quick to declare chance the cause of Wicked’s success. As is usually the case, intention and chance have a symbiotic relationship. We choose to act which creates an opportunity for serendipity which then gives us a choice to act which creates an opportunity for serendipity – you get the idea. The universe is only partly deterministic; our choices and actions do influence outcomes.
Let’s examine just a few of Stephen’s choices and actions:
• He immediately intuited that the Wicked story would translate well to a stage musical. No one else on the boat intuited that.
• He had enough awareness of his own aesthetic to recognize that the story of Wicked resonated for him. As he told us, “It was so ‘me.’”
• He seized the initiative to learn who had the rights and then reached out.
• He had the perseverance not to abandon the project at a huge early obstacle: a major studio owned the rights and was well along with producing a movie.
• He chose Winnie Holzman to write the book (the spoken words-part of a musical), recognizing her skill and their artistic compatibility.
I’m sure there were several hundred other “decision intersections” where Wicked could have gone off the rails and never have pulled in to that Broadway station. That didn’t happen because Stephen made lots and lots of choices which were informed by his judgment, intuition and skill. And, yes, some luck occurred along the way too.
Regardless of your position on the intention vs. chance debate, this is a great story Stephen shared with us. Oh, and that song “Corner Of the Sky” that the president of Universal sang, here are the lyrics to the chorus:
“Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky.”