> BY Owen Keehnen

Leo Schwartz became a fan of musical theater in the 1980s, when he toured with the company of Evita as a professional horn player. “A friend on the tour had cassettes of Company and Sweeney Todd, and I was mesmerized. I wanted to write with that level of sophistication and emotional drama,” he says.

The more he explored musical theater, the more he admired much of the work. “There was cleverness and character in the lyrics and score,” he says. “There was craft. With some musical theater writers, there is astounding craft. It appealed to my intellect as well as my heart.”

For Schwartz, becoming a produced lyricist/composer has been a dream come true, but one that took 30 years to materialize. Despite daytime gigs as a fundraiser and a realtor, he kept writing. “It’s hard to make a living as a non-degreed composer; plus, I can’t play the piano, so that was an obstacle. I kept juggling my time as best I could to cover my jobs and learn how to write. I was ready to throw it all in five years ago, but my husband [Dan] told me that regardless of where I thought I should be by the time I was 60, I should keep writing, because that’s who I am.” Dan’s sage advice was well timed. Last April, Schwartz turned 60. Two weeks later, his mentor, Ken Davenport, charged him with producing The Book of Merman off-Broadway.

The idea for the show came after rehearsals for another Schwartz production, Under a Rainbow Flag. “The director said he and a friend were drinking martinis and laughing about what would happen if two Mormon missionaries rang Ethel Merman’s doorbell, and they could call it The Book of Merman,” Schwartz says. “I probably rolled my eyes. The idea of writing a parody was not appealing to me. But three days later I had a story arch and realized I could craft an original story from that setup.”

In the show, Mormon missionaries Elder Shumway and Elder Braithwaite are having a tough day carrying the message when the two discover that the woman they are visiting is named Ethel Merman. As a closet theater queen, Shumway is beside himself, but Braithwaite is hesitant to believe it is really the Broadway legend.

For Schwartz, the diva proved a wonderful inspiration. “Ethel Merman is an element, primary and foundational. No one embraces musical theater without embracing her. She’s like the Mona Lisa, always there, always smiling.”

Originally produced by Pride Films and Plays, The Book of Merman enjoyed a critically acclaimed, sold-out, three-month run at Chicago’s Apollo Theater, followed by engagements nationwide. The off-Broadway production features an original score of 17 full songs. Performances begin October 5 at St. Luke’s Theatre (308 West 46th Street).

Schwartz still does a double take when he sees his name on the marquee. “It is totally surreal,” he says. “My heart palpitates every time I see it. In an odd way, it’s a little embarrassing, and I have a reaction like, ‘Did anyone notice?’”