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With apologies to General Douglas MacArthur:
"I shall return" – Neely Swanson 3/13/13
"I have returned" – Neely Swanson 3/13/15
Welcome to the newly redesigned No Meaner Place. There you will find past interviews, writer credits, the complete collection of quotes and past film reviews, essays and magazine articles. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy meeting the writers and other entertainers who will be featured in the months to come.
Last February I had the privilege to sit down with two of my favorite writers who also turn out to be two of my favorite people – Winnie Holzman and Irene Mecchi. Both are the leading ladies of The Great White Way [a term that originated in the 19th Century referring to the early electric lights that illuminated Broadway] as Irene co-wrote the book for The Lion King and Winnie wrote the book for Wicked.
Irene and Winnie have both been busy since that initial interview. Irene wrote the teleplay for Peter Pan Live! Shown on NBC in December and Winnie is in Vancouver executive producing on Cameron Crowe’s fabulous new project Roadies.
An abridged version of our interview, more a conversation, appeared in the January issue of the WGA magazine Written By (The Collaborationists) but they had lots more to say and No Meaner Place gives me the opportunity to post a more complete version of that conversation.
Eagerly anticipating lunch with the reigning queens of the Broadway musical, Irene Mecchi (“Lion King”) and Winnie Holzman (“Wicked”), I make the drive into Laurel Canyon to Irene’s bungalow, a journey with as many twists and turns as the careers of both women. Irene, most of whose work is in feature animation, has been commuting between the Bay area and Los Angeles for the last several years, involved in projects up north as well as in Los Angeles. Winnie, who created the iconic teen “coming-of-age” drama “My So Called Life,” had just returned from 7 weeks at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey where she and her husband, the incomparable Paul Dooley, had been performing in a play they wrote together called “One of Your Biggest Fans.” Sitting down to eat at the Tuscan inspired table in Irene’s sun drenched dining room, I was able to eavesdrop on the conversation between Irene and Winnie. It was a conversation filled with all forms of laughter from giggling to snorting guffaws.
Neely Swanson: You both seem to be on a similar career path right now, but how did it start?
Winnie Holzman: That’s a hard question. (to Irene) I bet you were writing since you were little.
Irene Mecchi: No. Not at all.
Winnie: Really! I was writing since I was little. But the big moment, or at least one of them, was after college when I was in acting school in New York. I’d always loved acting and. I got into a comedy group although some would call it an improve group, it wasn’t because we were writing our own material.
Irene: More like sketches?
Winnie: Yeah. Sketches and funny songs, but mostly sketches and monologues. And that was my big turning point because up until then I had always written poetry and the occasional short story. This was a big change for me because suddenly I was actually writing material that we were all performing. I stopped writing things to be read and I started writing things to be performed.
Irene: Well I was studying theater at the ACT in San Francisco and I thought I maybe wanted to direct or teach. Trainer, director, actress… I started out way back in the day with a teacher who was in an early version of Second City, Joy Carlin. She said, “You know you have an interesting way of expressing yourself. Have you ever thought of being a writer?”
I’m from one of those Irish/Italian families where people were funny at the dinner table. We survived getting beaten up in elementary school by being funny and imitating people. So I always had kind of a voice for characters and that was what sort of got me going in the writing direction.
So then, like you, I went to New York where I fumbled around and started getting some little writing gigs. You just sort of follow these threads.
Winnie: Yes. You follow these threads. But we’ve obviously got comedy in common, more than one thing probably, because I got my start writing in a comedy group. We did some very charactery pieces. It was sort of like social commentary, more like us making fun of ourselves and the people around us. You know… two couples in a bar…
Irene: Right… Observation.
Winnie: Observation. Exactly.
Irene: Growing up in San Francisco, I was introduced to musical theater by an old friend of my mother’s who would visit from New York and regale us with stories of the Great White Way. And it sounded so cool. So finally my mom started taking us to shows.
Winnie: What was the first show you remember seeing?
Irene: “The Sound of Music” at the San Francisco Opera House. We sat in the second balcony and I thought “Hey, we’re dressed up in our little coats and Mary-Janes. Why aren’t we down in the orchestra?”
In essence I was supported by my parents in my passion for all this musical theater stuff but I never knew you could try to make a living at it. So when I ended up at Disney in 1992 and they were working on a musical, it was like “Hey! I’ve done my homework!”
Winnie: And you had this whole theater background. But how did you end up at Disney?
Irene: There was a development executive named Kevin Bannerman. He was at Disney and then he went over to Fox to work for Chris Meledandri. He’s so smart. Now he’s actually producing animated features for Amazon.com!
Winnie: Wow! That’s good to know.
Irene: Another avenue. And Amazon’s way of making movies is so different from what we do. Not so much the process but they post them…
Winnie: I’ve never been involved in an animated feature. I’d love to be but I’ve never.
Irene: You should. They’re like musicals.
Winnie: I know. I mean I feel like I know that world a little bit through Stephen’s (Schwartz) eyes. I mean just from what he’s told me.
Irene: Well, this was Disney after “Beauty and the Beast” had been released and they were in their heyday. Kevin had read a script of mine that he liked and he said, “You know I’m working on something where you might be able to help. For the first time in history, Disney animation has gotten a grant from the department of conservation from the State of California to make an animated short on recycling that is going to go to every K-3rd grade in the state. Why don’t you take this gig. We need a writer. We have a director and you’ll learn the process and maybe it will lead to something.”
It was a time when Disney had those Quonset huts…those old former factory buildings in Glendale. I was sitting at my little borrowed desk and looking across the hallway and there’s a guy who has antlers over his doorway. He was one of the directors of “Beauty and the Beast” and just sat there coming up with ideas. Roy Disney would walk by with Jeffrey Katzenberg and I’m going, “Well this is interesting!” And that’s how it all began for me.
Neely: Let’s talk a little bit about collaborators. Stephen Schwartz for you, Winnie; and Irene, you had several on the journey through “Lion King.”