“Our Kind of Traitor,” Hossein Amini’s brilliant adaptation of John LeCarré’s novel directed by Susanna White, is breathtaking in every sense of the word from first moment to last. Opening on a dancer in mid-aerial pirouette, impossibly muscled, impossibly athletic, impossibly daring, White establishes her plot and characters immediately with this metaphoric solo.
The Belles of Broadway Part I: 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.
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.
A Continued conversation with Irene Mecchi (The Lion King) and Winnie Holzman (Wicked).
Neely: Tell us a little bit about the journey with “The Lion King” because you’ve got two different sets of collaborators.
Irene: When I was working on Recycle Rex, the animated short about recycling, there was this project in development at Disney called King of the Jungle and it had hit a wall. Disney was a smaller company at the time and none of the artists wanted to work on it because, from what I was told, it was “Bambi in Africa” - very photo-realism and noble.
Winnie: Where was the fun going to be?
Irene: There was none yet, as far as I knew. So while I was working on the animated short, I got to know Peter Schneider, who was then the president, and Thomas Schumacher, who was executive VP at animation, and they saw my collaborative nature.
Winnie: That’s kind of a key. That’s like the headline of all this.
Irene: So I’m hired to write a production polish on this movie, King of the Jungle, and I go to the producer and ask to see a draft. And he said, “Oh we don’t have anything. We have a beginning – a cub is born. We have a stampede in the middle. We have the apparition of the dad and we have Simba comes home. And we’ve kind of thrown everything else out. Oh, and we have some Elton [John] and Tim [Rice] songs. They’re still coming in and we don’t know…”
Winnie: Can I ask what songs they had then? Do you remember listening to them?
Irene: They had “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matada.” Those are the two I remember. “Be Prepared” came in later but it was still very much in the Elton John demo stage. So the collaborative aspect to that show was multi-fold because Elton had never written for the theater…Excuse me, for the musical theater. And Tim Rice, who had written for musical theater, wanted to work with Elton. They also had Hans Zimmer who had sampled a lot of African Tribes for “The Power of One” and was working with a guy named Lebo M. And he said to Elton, “We’re thinking of kind of Africanizing South African tribal elements to the music. Are you okay with that?” “Yes.” So that sound, the one that gave us both the film and really the score of the play, the soul and the truth of both, can be attributed to ‘saying yes” way back then.
They had shuffled the director team. Roger Allers and George Scribner were the original directors but Rob Minkoff came in when Scribner left the project. Rob had done some Roger Rabbit shorts. He and Allers had great chemistry and somehow I fit in pretty well with them. Then they added another writer, a guy named Jonathan Roberts. This is how you start building the team. And the head of the story crew was Brenda Chapman. (Nodding) Yes… Brave. She’s a phenomenal story teller, a great writer. Linda Woolverton, who had already left the project, was also a credited writer.
So somehow out of this little project that nobody at the studio believed in, but that Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were paying a lot of attention to, a little engine that could sort of formed. But they all had very low expectations. They thought that in the life of the movie if it earned $50 million they’d be happy.
And we almost got to that on opening weekend so they were like “Woo hoo!.” You can see it was really a situation that spoiled me for what true collaboration really is. Everyone was welcome at the table. All of a sudden people weren’t cut because they weren’t important or had the right… you know… title. So it was a lot of…
Winnie: It’s like the best idea wins.
Irene: …rolling up your sleeves. Jeffrey Katzenberg would sit in meetings. Anyway, in terms of the film, everyone seemed to be looking to me about story, but we couldn’t get Jeffrey’s stamp of approval on anything. I remember that finally the story board artists had to put story boards on the roofs of cars and drive them from Glendale to the Four Seasons, pull them out and pitch. And we got it, we finally got his approval. (laughing).
Winnie: And now when you’re doing the play…
Irene: That was another sort of happy accident. Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher knew Julie Taymor’s work because they had almost worked together on the Olympic Arts festival. She was a downtown artist from New York who was known for her puppetry.
When Lion King opened in movie theaters in 1994, that was also the opening of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway which had been produced by the theme park division. But since Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher had theater backgrounds, they were able to have a division created devoted to theater.
Michael Eisner was very excited about that and had two titles he wanted to put on Broadway – Aida and Lion King. And I think Tom’s on the record saying, “Lion King? You’re crazy Michael.”
Winnie: (Laughing) Really? He didn’t think that was going to work? He couldn’t picture it?
Irene: He couldn’t figure it out. That’s when Julie Taymor came to mind. Schneider and Schumacher had known her work and they were very… again, collaborative. There was a lunch set up with Don Hahn, the producer of the movie, Roger Allers, who was still at the studio, Thomas Schumacher, who had brought Julie in to talk about the project, and I joined.
We had lunch at the Rotunda. We talked about the movie and Julie shared with us some of her new ideas. We had a really productive lunch in terms of helping her because she didn’t know the animated feature that well. Michael was probably calling the shots with Peter and Tom setting up the steps. Roger and I said, “Julie, if you need us we’re happy to just sit in and help you through this.” Just because that’s the way the division was then. When you talk about the Brain Trust, everyone helped everyone else on their project.
Winnie: But do you feel like it’s not like that anymore?
Irene: I don’t know. I’m not there anymore.
Irene: Anyway, we would go to the meetings with big story boards. Disney had released a second soundtrack called “Rhythm of the Pride Lands” that had a lot more kind of Africanized music by Lebo M. and Mark Mancina and a couple of other people. So Julie was slotting out where the new songs would go. We would work with her and help her with ideas for the characters. That was when she wanted to beef up the role of Nala and also make Rafiki a woman rather than a man because she knew of a wonderful jazz singer in South Africa. We were there really just to support her.
Ultimately Julie said, “They’re letting us go to book. And I was going to have somebody else do it but you and Roger seem to know this.” (laughing) And so we went to book. As you know, with a movie you’re locked. You can’t go back. But when you go from one form to another, you’re able to go back to areas that you always wanted to explore a little more. And we had that opportunity in that theater collaboration. So… so… we were there really to keep the truth and the heart of the characters.
And for me, when you talk about collaboration, maybe 650 artists worked on the movie and when we moved to the next form, I always wanted to keep what they had created in my mind. Always asking the question, “Is it good story telling?”
Winnie: That stays true to the spirit.
Irene: Exactly. The heart and the wit and the truth, which is hard when a different artist comes in. Sometimes they want to interpret things their own way. You have a right to do that as a director, but then you have the challenge of many millions of people around the world who’ve seen it…
Winnie: …and loved it.
I mean, and we all know this and it doesn’t just apply to musicals, but every project develops in its own unique way. In a sense, there’s no system. There are things that typically happen but there are no hard and fast rules because… things just happen. And what you did on another project isn’t necessarily going to work at all.
Irene: Right. It was interesting to see. I remember that Julie decided that she maybe wanted the drummers in the first row or two of the theater. And Peter Schneider, mathematician that he was, said, “Just a second. We can’t lose that many thousands of dollars a week.” (All laugh)
Winnie: He was just like, you know, “I need butts in those chairs.” But that’s a very fascinating idea to have a drum section be part of “The Circle of Life.”
Irene: Well we do now have it in the lower boxes.
Winnie: So they did arrive at something for that idea.
Irene: They problem solved. And then there was her collaboration with Michael Curry. He was a fellow puppeteer. Julie would design the puppet and he would fabricate it. So in a way she had the character idea and he sort of infused the soul with the fabric and the look. She’s such a visual artist. I was very amazed with how she sculpted these characters.
We had fun adapting the book and we wrote a couple of new scenes. The most famous new scene was only written because we needed time to cover a scene change. This was the cover between the wildebeest stampede set… wait, I’m forgetting which number it is… “Be Prepared” and the stampede that took 8 minutes. You can’t keep an audience waiting 8 minutes. So we wrote the scene between Mufasa and Zazu apologizing for the cubs.
Winnie: Before or after?
Irene: After “Be Prepared;” after the cubs are almost killed. It turned out to be Michael Eisner’s favorite scene.
Winnie: But don’t you find that this happens so often, not just with musicals, but with life as a writer?
Winnie: There’s very often this thing that you have to do to solve a problem. You know, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Winnie: I mean it really does… there’s often often these magical things that occur during those times. That’s just part of what I really love about TV.
Irene: It’s totally under the gun stuff.
Winnie: Yeah. It’s like you’re creating something often to solve a problem. And sometimes that can be the most memorable thing.
Irene: When did you guys realize that Wicked was totally hitting a nerve and there was going to be this phenomenal surge of …
Winnie: Well I think we’re still realizing it…No I don’t mean that. But honestly…
Irene: Was there a moment when you were sitting in the theater and you went, “Oh my god!”
Winnie: Yes. There were a few moments like that. And one of them was before we got it on its feet. We were doing a reading, literally with just music stands and stools. No Idina [Menzel] yet but we had…
Irene: That’s not her name according to John Travolta. It’s Adele Dazeem.
Winnie: … Stephanie Bloch in that role. She went on to understudy Idina. She was reading Elphalba and Kristin (Chenoweth) was reading Glinda. And we had such a long play at that point. I can’t even describe how way too long it was. But this was a very early, primitive draft of “Wicked.” A lot of the songs were there although a lot of them got rewritten after that.
But we were telling the story. You know the story never really changed. What we noticed looking back was that we just got better and better telling it. Anyway, that day, which was in the middle of the day at Universal in a big, sort of barn-like rehearsal studio with a lot of people. My best friend, Robin Schiff, was in tears at the end as were some other people. And I just had this funny feeling about it. Stephen and I both did. We could feel that people had been grabbed emotionally. And you know there’s nothing to substitute for that. If I wanted to analyze it, which I really don’t in a way because I’m just so really grateful and humbled by it, but there’s an element where there’s this figure that a lot of lot of lot of us grew up with as kids, namely the Wicked Witch of the West. And there’s this great great abiding love for the movie. It really is our childhood.
But then again, Stephen and I have both seen that there are actually a lot of the countries where Wicked is very popular and doing really well and the people don’t know the movie.
Irene: So it stands on its own feet.
Winnie: But we don’t want to talk about why something works…
Irene: True. True. You just thank the stars.
Winnie: You’re just so grateful. Exactly. But anyway, I forget now what the original…
Irene: It was just when you knew when …”Uh oh. This is working.”
Winnie: Stephen has told this story many times, so I can tell it. But when we were out of town with Wicked, we were working very hard. It was that thing where we were really changing things a lot. We felt certain things really weren’t working and we were very focused on trying to fix them. We were having some disagreements along those lines with Joe Mantello (the director) and there had been some fireworks. That being said, I think it’s totally normal with most creative endeavors, let’s face it. But we were all a little bit tensed up and Stephen went back to his hotel. It was our second day of previews and he stopped in front of the theater because he saw a little crowd gathered and he thought somebody must be hurt.
Irene: This isn’t Spiderman.
Winnie: (Laughing). No. No. No he didn’t mean part of the cast, he just meant somebody must have gotten… he literally said… “hit on the head with a brick or something from the building.” It was very early in the morning and then he suddenly realized it was a crowd forming to buy tickets. And that was a Moment. Later that day when he told me that story, because we’d both been, well not angry, but overwhelmed with how much we wanted it to work and trying so hard. He said, “You know what. We may not be in such (starting to laugh) trouble as we think we are because there’s a little crowd forming and it’s only the second preview!”
Irene: That’s great.
Winnie: And I just thought … it is great isn’t it? That was when the show was way too long. The writing still had a long ways to go in terms of some clunky moments that had to be declunkified.
Irene: For me, in a way, our out of town try-outs for The Lion King was the development process of the movie because you only had 83 minutes to tell that story. And everything was so honed back because of the process…
Winnie: And the story finally became like this well-oiled machine.
Irene: Right. Right. And so then when we had the chance to kind of open it up a little…
Winnie: …You knew what really worked with the story.
Irene: Well in rehearsals, because of the guys on stilts and the big elephants, they’d never gotten through the show without having to stop it. And this was up until the first night of the out of town previews in Minneapolis, So we didn’t know. (in funny different voices) “How long is it?” “I don’t know. The giraffe fell.” (laughing)
Winnie: But you never really had gotten through the show altogether.
Irene: Right. Right. We had a bunch of notes after that final rehearsal. That’s a whole other story… that will be for the book. But the moment that the parade down the aisles hit the audience and you just felt… Oh my god, there’s such emotion in this room. And you felt it. And then the elephant made it back up on stage. This was four guys, each one in a leg, walking. And you’ve got the giraffes with stilts and if they fall down, it’s like game on the savannah. They would have had to be dragged off.
Winnie: It’s horribly funny.
Irene: But we made it through without incident…
Winnie: But you could feel the emotion building. And we could too in San Francisco where we were working so hard and very focused on what wasn’t working. But yet, we would sit there. And the first night at the very first preview, all these people came in green face. They came in wearing green make-up and/or with big witches’ hats on. And we just went, “Oh my god.” The level of investment, pre-investment to see that character fulfil her dreams, to see that character come into her own, so to speak.
Neely: And this is a natural break for us to end here and begin part 3 talking about the process of making these musicals.