By Michael Buckley
06 Jun 2004
|Photo by "My So-Called Life": ABC|
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.)
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."Continued...