Ellen was one of a kind. She combined zaniness and toughness, freespirited-ness and discipline, inspiration and dedication - all wrapped up in one beautiful package. And on the top, not a ribbon, but one of her wonderful hats. And she created a body of work that any writer would be proud of.
She got things done the old-fashioned way: she worked at it. For all her sense of fun and humor – which found its way into many of her lyrics – she had a steel-hard commitment to hard work, to encouraging others to live up to her high standards, and to working effectively with a wonderful crowd of collaborators. Their stories are told on the Collaborators page.
Ellen’s earliest recorded work was music for children, which grew out of a successful children’s music school she ran called Fun with Music. She worked with her first collaborator, Bonnie Lee Sanders, on songs for the popular Care Bears characters, including Meet the Care Bears and Care Bears Bedtime Story, and for the Meet the Mr. Men and Little Misses recording, which is featured on the Children's Songs page.
She branched out into writing individual pop songs – sometimes doing both words and music, sometimes collaborating with a composer and writing just the lyrics. Increasingly, her focus was on writing lyrics, and as her career developed, it’s fair to say that she regarded her lyrics – both for pop songs, and later for show tunes – as her most important work. The composers she collaborated with on individual songs include the gifted pianist/singer Sue Maskaleris (whose first collaboration won quarter-finalist in the American Song Festival), jazz legend Barbara Carroll, the extraordinary Gospel-inflected jazz singer Gail Wynters, composer and arranger Joel Diamond – and, in a couple of instances, her corporate lawyer/amateur jazz pianist husband Michael. The range and variety of her work in this field are awesome – straight pop, rock and roll, rockabilly, jazz and blues. Representative work is included on the Single Tunes page.
Even after she began to devote herself intensively to Musical Theatre, Ellen continued to write lyrics for non-theatrical ventures. Of particular importance was her collaboration with Luiz Simas, a Brazilian-born composer and performer, on the album Recipe for Rhythm. Ellen wrote the English-language lyrics for the songs on the album. Clever, witty and poignant as always. Representative titles from Recipe for Rhythm are also included on the Single Tunes page.
The first show she worked on, in collaboration with Bonnie Lee Sanders, was a musical version of the life of Mae West, Come Up ‘N See Me, which won the Quest Fest Competition in Great Britain (a program sponsored by Andrew Lloyd Webber). The show has gone through a huge number of versions and revisions. It was presented in several formats in several venues, notably in a production in 1999 at the Penguin Repertory Company, under the title Way-Out West, in which the part of Mae was played by a man – Jim Bailey. Songs from Come Up ‘N See Me have been widely performed by cabaret performers, notably Sharon McNight, who was a close friend of Ellen’s and in her own way a disciple of Ms. West.
Ellen was accepted into the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where she honed her craft and made connections with a number of composers with whom she was to collaborate on future projects. These collaborators include David Strickland, with whom she wrote The Trapped Family Singers, Laura Kramer, with whom she wrote the songs for A Letter to Harvey Milk, and Skip Kennon, with whom she was working on a musical mystery called Tangled Webs (book by Bill Connington), that was left uncompleted when she passed away.
The Trapped Family Singers, a composite of one-scene musicals in which the characters don’t just spontaneously burst into song but are trapped into doing so, was presented as part of the New York City Fringe Festival in 2003. Reviewers praised the music and lyrics; Gyda Arber wrote, “Ellen Schwartz’s lyrics-filled with clever and unexpected rhymes-reminded me of a modern Cole Porter.”
A Letter to Harvey Milk, based on a short story by Leslea Newman, was presented as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2012. It was awarded the Most Promising Musical Award, and Ellen’s lyrics were honored with an award for Excellence in Writing – Lyrics. (The book by Jerry James also received an Excellence in Writing award.) Harvey Milk was a finalist for the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre in 2012.
Ellen also worked on a number of theatrical projects with other collaborators. Among them was a one-woman show – called A Cast of Thousands - which she created in partnership with the prolific arranger and pianist Sy Johnson and actress/singer Judy Stadt, who was to be the “one woman.” While the show unfortunately never reached performance, a number of the songs were recorded by the well-known cabaret singer, Anne Hampton Calloway. Another project, which did reach the boards, was Second Avenue Rag, for which she composed the score with Joel Diamond (book by Allan Knee); it was produced at the Penguin Repertory Company. Songs from all of the shows mentioned above are included in the Show section of this site.
Ellen's working methods were distinctive. Contentedly agoraphobic, she always wrote at home, scribbling away on yellow legal pads and always kept company by at least one dog. Sugar, her adored Yorkie, is pictured above.
When Ellen turned (ahem) 70, her husband threw a huge “birthday bash” at Remi in midtown Manhattan where the guests of honor included her many collaborators, who are described in the Collaborators section of this website. Many of them expressed their love and respect for Ellen by performing some of the tunes they had written with her, and some of these performances are contained on this site here and here.
Ellen’s achievements in her chosen profession were prodigious and memorable. She left us too young, when she passed away in May, 2013. She left her husband Michael, her children Liza (to hear Liza's beautiful singing, click here and here) and Joseph, her daughter-in-law Alyson, her grandchildren Lily and Isaiah Walsh (joined, after her passing, by Zev Yedidia Schwartz), her brother Richard Rubenstein, and a rich musical and lyrical legacy which this site aims to preserve.