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...
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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.”
Winnie: Stephen’s understanding and devotion to musicals is really clear to anyone who encounters him. He has always been aware of everything going on in the field.
Irene: It comes down to that old fashioned phrase, “A Man of the Theater.” It was just an incredible gift to write with such a person.
Neely: How did he find you?
Winnie: It’s a bit of a long story. I worked with that comedy group for years in New York. I was still young, probably in my late 20s, but it wasn’t happening anymore. A really good friend of mine recommended that I apply to the first year of this new graduate musical theater program starting at NYU. I got in and in fact was given a scholarship to go. That really changed my life because I literally had not been thinking about writing musicals at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love musicals very much but I wasn’t really thinking about them seriously as a life path. But what really attracted me about that particular year in its inception there were these wonderful, these incredible luminaries who were teaching the program. Did you know this already?
Irene: No. But I’m curious to know who they were.
Winnie: Arthur Laurents, Betty Comdon and Adolph Greene, Leonard Bernstein and at one point Sondheim. Arthur became my mentor. He ended up becoming someone, until he died about two years ago, who was always in my life. He, in fact, had some strong influence and was able to give me some really good feedback on “Wicked.
Sometimes how a person is in your life is often quite complex, and this goes back a long time. Well, when I was a student in the program, Stephen Schwartz came one day, just one afternoon, to speak to us as a guest artist. He says he remembers me from that day, but I can’t imagine why he would because it was like a really quick Q&A type moment. It wasn’t very much of anything. We did have an interesting connection, though. His devoted agent for many many years was Leonard Bernstein’s sister Shirley. Because she also agented Arthur, she ended up taking me on as well.
The first musical I wrote, and very few people have heard of it, was for my thesis project in that program. Arthur directed it off Broadway, but it wasn’t considered a success. It was panned by most of the critics except for The New Yorker and it closed rather quickly. It was called “Birds of Paradise” and Stephen had known about it because we had the same agent at that time.
Stephen is not only deeply intelligent but also has great instincts and he conceived of this idea of a musical for “Wicked” after hearing the idea behind the novel. He immediately wanted to do it on Broadway. And I think he thought of me partly because he knew my TV work, but unlike most people, he also knew that I had musicals in my background. But I guess you’d have to ask him.
But I completely left out the best part of it. You might be thinking, “Well why would he remember me after all those many years.”
Winnie: What happened was, and I hope I don’t forget this guy’s name…Jim Pentecost… Do you know Jim Pentecost?
Winnie: Well Jim Pentecost was at Disney and he knew both of us separately. He knew me through Arthur and he knew Stephen because Stephen’s Stephen. And he had this idea… this is way before “Wicked” started… that he would bring us together for a lunch and maybe we could come up with an animated feature… which, by the way, I would still love to do (Irene and Winnie laugh).
But at this lunch, Stephen and I hadn’t seen each other for years. So practically the second we sit down, Jim Pentecost says, “Well, so you two, maybe you could come up with something together.”
And Stephen says, “It’s so hard in musicals to come up with a great idea. A great idea like Wicked. I looked at him and I went, “You know about Wicked?” Because I had not read the book but seen the cover of the book in a bookstore and read what the premise of the book was. It had blown my mind. I just hadn’t read the book yet.
I had thought at the time that maybe there’s a movie in it. So before I even read it, I asked my agents to track it down and they said, “Oh they’ve already started a movie. It’s at Universal.” I was so disappointed that I didn’t ever read the book. But I left it on my shelf, staring at it. Literally, it was sitting out there for years, looking at me. That face…the green face with the hat.
So Stephen says to me, “Well I’m obsessed with Wicked. I think it should be a Broadway musical.”
Now I’d never have been smart enough to think of that. I had just gone straight to the idea of a movie and when he said that, I thought that my mind was exploding. I went, (low throaty voice) “That’s such a good idea.” He goes, “But yeah, they’ve already said no.” Gasp. They’d already started their own movie…
Irene: At Universal, right? With Mark Platt.
Winnie: Right. With Mark Platt who was then running Universal. So Stephen and I just parted. We walked out together and I remember thinking it was just so nice to have lunch with him and that’s the end of that. And he said to me, “It’s such a shame.” Anyway, a few months later he called me out of the blue and he said, “Listen, I think I’ve persuaded them ‘cause they’re not happy with where the movie was going.”
Irene: Right. What year is this?
Winnie: I’m going to guess and say I think it’s ’97 maybe? Stephen continued, “They’ve shelved their movie.” It took a lot through numerous meetings but he finally persuaded Mark Platt. It turns out that Mark Platt is actually a big Stephen Schwartz fan. He had done “Pippin” in high school.
Irene: This is sooo high…
Winnie: I know!! It all goes back to what you did in high school for everything.
And that was when Stephen said to me, “Now I think you should read it and you and I should start talking.” He wanted to see what my thoughts were before he signed on with me. But as soon as we started talking to each other about it, about what we were envisioning, we found that it dovetailed. We felt connected about how we were both seeing it.
Irene: You were the perfect choice for that show because you could tap into the teen emotional palette with honesty, wit and truth. And I think that’s what he saw. He was a geeenius!
Winnie: You can laugh about the perfect choice and all but I was very… well of course I was thrilled but I was also intimidated because having studied musicals and written one, I knew enough to know how hard it was
Irene: But the importance is the collaboration. You brought something to the table that he needed too. And if you can find that then you’ve got a true partner.
Winnie: For sure.
Neely: We’ll end this part of the conversation here and pick up on the collaborations both Winnie and Irene had when they brought their projects to Broadway.