Schwartz was born in New York City, the son of Sheila Lorna (née Siegel), a teacher, and Stanley Leonard Schwartz, who worked in business. He grew up in the Williston Park area of Nassau County, New York, where he graduated from Mineola High School in 1964. He studied piano and composition at the Juilliard School while attending high school. While attending Carnegie Mellon University, Schwartz composed and directed an early version of Pippin (entitled Pippin, Pippin) with the student-run theatre group, Scotch'n'Soda. Schwartz graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1968 with a BFA in drama.
Upon returning to New York City, Schwartz went to work as a producer for RCA Records, but shortly thereafter began to work in the Broadway theatre. He was asked to be the musical director of the first American rock opera, The Survival of St. Joan. He was credited as the producer of the double album of the soundtrack with the progressive rock group Smoke Rise on Paramount Records. His first major credit was the title song for the play Butterflies Are Free; the song was eventually used in the movie version as well.
In 1971, he wrote music and lyrics for Godspell, for which he won several awards, including two Grammys. For this musical's Toronto production in 1972, he asked Paul Shaffer to be the musical director, thus starting Shaffer's career. Godspell was followed by the English-language texts, in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, for Bernstein's Mass, which opened the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. In 1972, the long-running Pippin premiered on Broadway. Schwartz had begun writing songs for Pippin while in college, although none of the songs from the college version ended up in the Broadway production. Both Pippin and Godspell continue to be frequently produced.
Two years after Pippin debuted, Schwartz wrote music and lyrics of The Magic Show, which ran for just under 2,000 performances. By mid-1974, at age 26, Schwartz had three smash hit musicals playing in New York simultaneously. Next were the music and lyrics of The Baker's Wife, which closed before reaching Broadway after an out-of-town tryout tour in 1976. However, the cast album went on to attain cult status, which led to several subsequent productions, including a London production directed by Trevor Nunn in 1990 and, in 2005, a highly–acclaimed production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
In 1978, Schwartz's next Broadway project was a musical version of Studs Terkel's Working, which he adapted and directed, winning the Drama Desk Award as best director, and for which he contributed four songs. He also co-directed the television production, which was presented as part of the PBS American Playhouse series. In 1977, Schwartz wrote a children's book called The Perfect Peach. In the 1980s, Schwartz wrote songs for a one-act musical for children, The Trip, which 20 years later was revised, expanded and produced as Captain Louie. He then wrote music for three of the songs of the Off-Broadway revue Personals, and lyrics of Charles Strouse's music for the musical Rags.
In 1991, Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics for the musical Children of Eden. He then began working in film, collaborating with composer Alan Menken on the scores for the Disney animated features Pocahontas (1995), for which he received two Academy Awards, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). He provided songs for DreamWorks' first animated feature, The Prince of Egypt (1998), winning another Academy Award for the song "When You Believe". He wrote music and lyrics for the original television musical, Geppetto (2000), seen on The Wonderful World of Disney. A stage adaptation of this piece premiered in June 2006 at The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, and was entitled Geppetto and Son, and is now known as Disney's My Son Pinocchio: Geppetto's Musical Tale. A version created for young performers, entitled Geppetto & Son, Jr. had its world premiere on July 17, 2009, at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, Florida. It was presented by the StarStruck Performing Arts Center.
In 2003, Schwartz returned to Broadway, as composer and lyricist for Wicked, a musical based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which tells the story of the Oz characters from the point of view of the witches. Schwartz won a Grammy Award for his work as composer and lyricist and producer of Wicked's cast recording. On March 23, 2006, the Broadway production of Wicked passed the 1,000 performance mark, making Schwartz one of four composers (the other three being Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jerry Herman, and Richard Rodgers) to have three shows last that long on Broadway (the other two were Pippin and The Magic Show). In 2007, Schwartz joined Jerry Herman as being one of only two composer/lyricists to have three shows run longer than 1,500 performances on Broadway.
After Wicked, Schwartz was tapped to contribute music and lyrics for a new musical that was commissioned to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. The production, entitled Mit Eventyr or "My Fairytale", opened at the Gladsaxe Theatre in Copenhagen in the fall of 2005. The American premiere of My Fairytale took place in the summer of 2011 at the PCPA Theatrefest of California and was directed by the composer's son Scott Schwartz.
Schwartz returned to Hollywood in 2007 and wrote lyrics for the hit Disney film Enchanted, again collaborating with Menken. Three songs from the film, "Happy Working Song", "That's How You Know", and "So Close", were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. He has written the theme song for the Playhouse Disney show Johnny and the Sprites, starring John Tartaglia. A recent project is incidental music for his son Scott Schwartz's adaptation of Willa Cather's My Ántonia.
In 2008, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books published the first ever Schwartz biography entitled Defying Gravity, by Carol de Giere. The book is a comprehensive look at his career and life, and includes sections on how to write for the musical theatre.
Turning to the pop world in 2009, Schwartz collaborated with John Ondrasik in writing two songs on the Five for Fighting album Slice, the title track as well as "Above the Timberline". Ondrasik became familiar with Schwartz based on his daughter's affection for, and repeated attendance at performances of, the musical Wicked.
In September 2011, the Northlight Theatre in Chicago premiered Schwartz's new musical, Snapshots, which featured music and lyrics by Schwartz, book by David Stern, and was directed by Ken Sawyer. It blended together "some of the best-loved music with some of the genuinely wonderful lesser known gems of (the) renowned Broadway composer."
On March 22, 2012, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus released "Testimony", composed by Schwartz with lyrics taken from submissions to Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project.
In March 2015, Princess Cruises announced a partnership with Schwartz for the development of four shows over three years. The first will be a magic themed review of Schwartz's music, entitled Magic To Do, including one new song written for the show. Gabriel Barre will direct, with choreography by Jennifer Paulson-Lee, magic design by James Steinmeyer, scenic design by Jeremy Railton, costume design by Dominique Lemieux, lighting design by Ken Billington, media design by George Johnsen, art direction by Alex Calle, and arrangements by Mark Hartman. The show opens on Crown Princess on October 10, 2015 and on Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess later in 2015.
Schwartz married Carole Piasecki on June 6, 1969. They have two children, Jessica and Scott.
In 2009 Schwartz was elected president of the Dramatists Guild of America, succeeding John Weidman; he stepped down in 2014, to be succeeded by Doug Wright.Butterflies Are Free (1969) title song (play and movie)
Godspell (1971) composer, lyricist
Mass (1971) English texts (in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein)
Pippin (1972) composer, lyricist
The Magic Show (1974) composer, lyricist
The Baker's Wife (1976) composer, lyricist
Working (1978) adaptation, direction, composer, lyricist of 4 songs
Personals (1985) composer of 3 songs
The Trip (1986) children's show – composer, lyricist
Rags (1986) lyricist
Children of Eden (1991) composer, lyricist
Der Glöckner von Notre Dame (1999 Berlin) lyricist to Alan Menken (stage version of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame); Michael Kunze translated the lyrics to German; English version in 2013
Wicked (2003) composer, lyricist
Tiruvasakam – 2005 English translation of selected verses of the Tamil hymn on Lord Siva by Manickavasagar; Indian composer Ilaiyaraaja wrote the music.
Captain Louie (2005)
Mit Eventyr – My Fairy Tale (2005) (contributed 6 songs)
Séance on a Wet Afternoon (2009), opera
The Prince of Egypt (2017) composer, lyricist, based on the film.
de|Schikaneder 2016, Vienna
Reluctant Pilgrim (1997)
Uncharted Territory (2001)
The Perfect Peach (1977) children's book
Defying Gravity (2008) biography
Godspell (1973) composer, lyricist
Pocahontas (1995) lyricist
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) lyricist, original songs
The Prince of Egypt (1998) lyricist, original songs
Enchanted (2007) lyricist
Wicked (2019) co-screenwriter, composer, lyricist
Mumbai Musical (TBA) lyricist
Geppetto (2000) composer, lyricist
Johnny and the Sprites (2005) theme song
The Chanukah Song (We are Lights)
Thiruvasakam in Symphony (2005)
Schwartz has won many major awards in his field, including three Oscars, three Grammys, four Drama Desk Awards, one Golden Globe Award, the Richard Rodgers Award for Excellence in Musical Theater and a self-described "tiny handful of tennis trophies".
He has received six Tony Award nominations, for Wicked, Pippin, and Godspell, music/lyrics; Rags, lyrics; and Working, music/lyrics and book. In 2015, he received an honorary Tony Award, the Isabelle Stevenson Award, for his commitment to serving artists and fostering new talent.
In April 2008, Schwartz was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2009, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Also in 2009, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony took place on the night of January 25, 2010.
Schwartz received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University in May 2015.