STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Wicked Nominee and TV Veteran Winnie Holzman

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Wicked Nominee and TV Veteran Winnie Holzman
 
This month we talk to the delightful Winnie Holzman, who's favored to win a Tony Award for Best Book for Wicked (her first Broadway musical) and whose television credits include three successful series: "thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life," and "Once and Again." In private life, she's married to actor Paul Dooley and mother to Savannah.

Top: Winnie Holzman; Bottom: Claire Danes and Jared Leto in
Top: Winnie Holzman; Bottom: Claire Danes and Jared Leto in "My So-Called Life," created by Holzman Photo by "My So-Called Life": ABC

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Question: Aside from both being in the running for Tonys, what do Donna Murphy and Winnie Holzman have in common? Answer: The 1987 Off Broadway musical, Birds of Paradise, in which Murphy played one of the leads and for which Holzman co-authored the book and wrote the lyrics (her only previous New York stage credit). Hopefully, both women will cross tonight's finish line and share something else in common: the 2004 Tony Awards' winners circle.

Speaking from her Manhattan hotel room, four days before the ceremony, Holzman sounds exuberant. "I'm excited about going to Radio City [Music Hall], because I have not been there for 20, maybe 25, years," explains the Los Angeles resident/native New Yorker. "I hear it looks beautiful. I cannot wait to see it." And, I tell her, wait till she sees the stage show. Holzman laughs (as she does frequently during our chat): "I hear they've got some pretty good people. No movie [as in the past], but some movie stars." (There's even audience participation.)

Says Holzman, "I can't describe how wonderful it feels to be in New York with a show on Broadway! The thing Stephen [Schwartz, Wicked's composer-lyricist] and I always talk about is how people seem to feel so passionately about it. That's what really gets me; that's the thrilling part."

Plus her nomination's not bad either. "People say, 'Aren't you excited?' In many ways, 'excited' is not the word at all. It's fun, for sure; it's lovely to be feted, but it's a very personal feeling of fulfillment." Might it be similar to the Fred Ebb lyric for "A Quiet Thing" — "When it all comes true,/Just the way you planned,/Funny, but bells don't ring..."? This strikes a chord with Holzman: "It's so funny you should say that. I was thinking about that lyric last night, and how much I identify with it right now." Although Gregory Maguire's best seller is "the inspiration" for the musical, its plot and tone, observes Holzman, "go far afield" from the novel. "It was [Maguire's] brilliant idea to take this hated figure and tell things from her point of view, and to have the two witches be roommates in college, but the way in which their friendship develops — and really the whole plot — is different [onstage]."

While Holzman has enjoyed success writing for television, nothing matches hearing the reaction of a theatre audience, especially in the cavernous Gershwin Theatre. "It's a barn. Stephen and I walked in there before they loaded the set, and we were just staring at it. We looked at each other with terror in our eyes. We were intimidated. But [set designer] Eugene Lee knew exactly what to do. Once the set was in, we never felt that same fear."

Prior to Wicked, Holzman did not know Schwartz, but their friendship has developed during the four years they've worked on the musical. "I love him so much! He's incredible! He says that we met once when I was a student, when I was in my twenties. But we really met through a mutual friend who was working at Disney and had the idea that we would write an animated feature together.

"Over lunch, Stephen mentioned the book 'Wicked.' He had tried for maybe a year to get the rights to do it on Broadway. I said, 'That would make an incredible musical.' A few months later, he called and said, 'I've convinced them to let me do "Wicked." Maybe we should talk about doing it together.' I live in L.A. and Stephen's in Connecticut. We started talking on the phone to see if we, or our ideas, were compatible.

"Beat by beat, we started outlining the show — how we were going to unfold the plot. That took a very long time. I was very fortunate to have Stephen as a collaborator. He understands musicals intrinsically. He understands structure, the nature of the beast — and I use that word specifically. [Laughs] To get an outline we felt really comfortable with took almost a year. When Joe [Mantello, who directed] came in, a lot of things changed, but basically that outline is the shape of the show."

The experienced Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, Working, Rags) "tried to warn me how intense it would be," Holzman recalls. "I thought I was listening, but you never really listen to someone trying to warn you. You have to live it yourself."

Before Kristin Chenoweth was cast as Glinda, notes Holzman, "the part was a much more peripheral figure. Based on wanting Kristin to do the show, and how much we felt she brought to it, we started to reshape the whole plot. It became the story of a friendship. That happened because of Kristin; Idina [Menzel] had not been cast at that point.

"We really got lucky. We had good producers, the right director, an incredible cast." They also had the benefit of an out-of-town tryout. "Stephen wisely had insisted on having three months to rewrite in-between the time we closed in San Francisco and when we were to go back into rehearsals in New York. That was crucial; that was the thing that made the biggest difference in the life of the show. That time is what made the show work.

"Friends of mine who saw both [the San Francisco and Broadway editions] couldn't tell what I'd rewritten. But I rewrote on every page. And Stephen wrote new songs. We rewrote very, very carefully, so as not to disturb the things that were working.

"Kristin landed perfectly in San Francisco, but Idina's character was not quite coming forward — and we knew it was in the writing, not in Idina's acting. We addressed that. A lot of it had to do with her very first scenes."

For Broadway, the part of the Wizard (played in San Francisco by Robert Morse, who withdrew following the engagement) was recast with Joel Grey. "He's a treasure, a lovely, sweet man. We all feel lucky to have him. That he's not nominated [for a Tony] is incomprehensible."

Of course, now Holzman knows how easy it is to write a Broadway musical. "Oh, yeah," she admits, laughing. "The only mystery is why people don't do them more often." In addition to writing, the amiable Holzman has acted and produced. "I consider myself a writer. I always wanted to act, and as a teen I studied acting devotedly. Eventually, I got writing work, but very little acting work.

"I realized later how much my acting experience influenced my writing, and how it helped me to write for other actors. I care about actors, and I understand them in a very personal way. I'm not saying every writer has to do that, but in my case it's been helpful. I can put myself into the scene and think, 'What would it be like to act this?' Any writer who's really good probably does that to some extent.

"I don't think of myself as a producer. In television, it's part of the business — if you progress, and become successful as a writer, you're called a writer-producer. What that means is that you have a lot of say in casting and behind-the-scenes stuff. But I'm just a writer." Does she have a desire to direct? She laughs. "Well, I tell 'ya, I think I'd like to try it at some point. It would be a very good learning experience. But that's so not my personality. Who knows?"

Holzman has worked with producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick in her three successful TV series to date. Her "first big thing" in writing for TV was "thirtysomething," the 1987-91 comedy-drama that followed the lives of seven friends (two couples, three singles) in Philadelphia.

Next, she created "My So-Called Life," the 1994-95 drama about high-school students. "That was a wonderful experience. It was a group of people who just loved each other." Her most recent TV success was "Once and Again," a 1999-2002 drama about two divorced parents who start a life together. Currently, Holzman is working "on a new pilot that [Herskovitz and Zwick] would hopefully produce with me." The aforementioned Birds of Paradise ("which was originally called Amateurs") was directed by Arthur Laurents. "He was not just my director, he was my teacher. I met him when he was teaching an NYU musical-theatre program. To this day, he's my teacher. He has a special place in my life. I love him very much!"

Aside from Murphy, the cast of Birds, which played at the Promenade, included Crista Moore, Mary Beth Peil, Barbara Walsh, John Cunningham and J.K. Simmons. Holzman wrote lyrics to music by David Evans, and co-authored the book with the composer. Evans, she tells me, "has written a score for a new musical, Children's Letters to God, which is going to open Off-Broadway at the Lamb's Theatre. A lot of people don't know I write lyrics." Who's her favorite lyricist? "Stephen Schwartz. [Laughs] I really mean it. Next to Stephen would be Oscar Hammerstein. I also really like Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg."

She's sure "there will be some tiny changes" for the upcoming tour of Wicked. "I'll do whatever it is that I need to do. Eugene is streamlining the set, in order to make the show 'tourable.' Of course, I'll be in on the casting. Casting is everything." I ask if Rosie O'Donnell and Harvey Fierstein might play Glinda and Elphaba on the road. Claims Holzman, "You're reading my mind."

When I question how a woman who grew up on Long Island happened to name her daughter Savannah, Holzman replies, "She married Paul Dooley [whose extensive film roles include the father in 'Breaking Away' and Wimpy in 'Popeye']. He had a friend who was in the movie 'Savannah Smiles,' which was about a little girl, and thought it would be a nice name for a daughter." How did she meet her husband? "In an improv class, with a little group of actors. Over the course of a year, we improvised our way into love. We'll be married 20 years this fall."

If, as expected, Winnie Holzman takes home a Tony tonight, she must write herself a very short speech. "They told me that I'd have only 45 seconds [to speak]. That's very little time." When you consider it took four years to write the show, that seems especially Wicked.

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As usual, the Tony Awards telecast (CBS, 8-11 PM/ET) will probably take (rather than score) a hit in the ratings — particularly due to a Tony Soprano other than Kristin Chenoweth. Cable subscribers who own a DVR or Tivo are able to tape the season finale of "The Sopranos" and Bette Midler on "Inside the Actors Studio," and not tune out Broadway's big night.

If I were a Tony voter, my choices would be: (Play) I Am My Own Wife; (Musical) Avenue Q, though Wicked will win; (Revivals) A Raisin in the Sun and Wonderful Town, though Assassins will win; (Actor, Play) Jefferson Mays; (Actor, Musical) Hugh Jackman; (Actress, Play) Phylicia Rashad; (Actress, Musical) Donna Murphy; (Featured Actor, Play) Omar Metwally, though Brian F. O'Byrne will win; (Featured Actor, Musical) Raul Esparza; (Featured Actress, Play) Audra McDonald; (Featured Actress, Musical) Isabel Keating, though Anika Noni Rose will win.

(Directors) Moises Kaufman and Kathleen Marshall, though Jack O'Brien and Joe Mantello will win; (Score) Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; (Book) Winnie Holzman; (Choreography) Kathleen Marshall; (Orchestrations) Michael Starobin; (Costumes) Susan Hilferty; (Lighting) Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer; (Scenic Design) Eugene Lee. Congratulations to the winners, and here's hoping for a great ceremony.

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The answer to the May 9 question — In the 1965-66 CBS-TV series, "The Trials of O'Brien," Elaine Stritch played Miss G, secretary to Manhattan attorney Daniel J. O'Brien. Who played the title character: a) Pat O'Brien; b) Peter Falk; c) George C. Scott? — is b.

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in spring 2005.

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