THE PROCESS – Part III
A Continued conversation with Irene Mecchi (The Lion King) and Winnie Holzman (Wicked).
Irene: Now in terms of your process, did you beat out the story and place the songs? Or did you…
Winnie: Well, that was very organically done. We certainly beat out the story many many times, although like I say, the real lynch pins of the story for us never changed. But we re-outlined our story often. First we did it together and then we did it with Mark Platt. Then when Joe Mantello came in, we did it yet again with him. By then we were into a script. Joe was very integral to the process, but in terms of Stephen and I at the beginning, we would tell each other the story and try to walk through it beat by beat. And from the very beginning we were talking about “this could be a song.” And a lot of those big stroke ideas really remained in the show. Like the song may have changed four or five times, but not the gross outline. It was never about – “here’s the story and here come some songs and let’s put them in.” I think even before we actually started writing together, I think he had already written two songs because he had it in his heart so strongly what he was envisioning. I think he had already started…
Irene: … the process.
Winnie: Right. The process.
Irene: That’s right. The “Hakuna Matata” story is actually interesting because we were at a point in the movie where I think Jeffrey Katzenberg said, “We should have a song where we see the cub Simba getting co-opted by the funny friends who are showing us the irresponsible lifestyle and Simba was raised to be responsible.” And someone at the table said, “Maybe there’s a catch phrase like ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’” And one of the other people said, “Oh! When we were on a research trip [which pre-dated my involvement], our guide, every time something almost went wrong and he didn’t want us to worry, he’d say “hakuna matata.”’ And that was how that song was born.
Winnie: I never knew that.
Irene: That’s a song that drove parents around the world curazy! I mean craaaazy!
Winnie: No. I mean, not me. I always loved that song.
Irene: But I think that’s when, again, it’s like “how do you solve a problem?” And someone remembers this and someone remembers that and…
Winnie: …that’s the magic, as you were saying before, of collaboration. Part of the thrill and fun of collaboration is that you don’t really know how it happened later. You can’t really re-create it because it’s this incredible thing that couldn’t have happened if that group of people hadn’t come together.
Irene: And trust. Because I’ve seen it slide away too in the same process on other projects.
Winnie: Absolutely. It’s easy to say I really love collaborating, and I do. But what I really mean is, I really love collaborating with people that thrill me to be collaborating with. I don’t want to collaborate, I hate to say it, with just anybody.
Winnie: There are certain people that I find inspiring.
Irene: Well they help… but it’s also how you tell a story.
Winnie: And I would do anything with them. Wicked happened to be a brilliant idea that Gregory (Maguire) had. That’s what Stephen meant when he sat there that day and said, “Where did he get an idea like that?” That’s just a great premise. But truthfully, I would sort of do anything with Stephen [Schwartz], because who cares what the idea is, it’s the person.
Irene: I’ve been working on this Warner Brothers project taking one of their movie musicals and turning it into a stage musical.
Irene: And I’ve been working on it with Michael John LaCiusa who is an amazing composer/lyricist. And he brings something amazing to the process that can take the shape of: “here’s a scene and there should be a song.” And then, “Oh, here’s a song that we can actually do in two words.” And it’s just that fun explanation…
Winnie: We talked about that all the time. It’s like “does this need to be a song? Can this be dispatched? Does it deserve all that…” This is what I learned working with Stephen. Songs take a lot of real estate. They take up a lot of time. So it argues that there has to be something going on that’s of interest of some sort. Otherwise why are you taking up so much of the audience’s time with it?
Irene: It has to be earrrrned (sounds like purred).
Winnie: Exactly. Thank you so much.
Neely: I was wondering what the success of your respective musicals has allowed you to do?
Winnie: I felt like I was a success before Wicked because I was working as a writer and that was something that I … I mean I haven’t almost the words for how precious and lucky a thing I find that to be. But with the “Wicked” success I felt that it was incumbent upon me to do some things that I quote unquote always wanted to do. It seemed to me that I would be wasting my success if I didn’t do that.
So what that was for me, was writing these plays. I wrote one with my husband that we just performed and I wrote one by myself that hasn’t been produced yet. I’m not sure I would have done them but I felt this real sense you could almost call it a responsibility to myself because I had such freedom now and such luck, good fortune. I felt like I really owed it to myself to ask myself “what have I not written that I want to write?” And that became a really important question to me. So that’s my answer.
Irene: Success has allowed me to work on some other musical projects that I’ve always wanted to work on. So I have a little bit more credibility at the table. But keeping them moving forward is a challenge because, as you know… what is that expression? With Broadway you can’t make a living but you can make a killing.
Winnie: Don’t you find that theater moves very slow. Maybe that’s a redundant and silly thing to say, since probably everything does, in a way, right? It moves so slowly that one has to be really patient. But I feel really really lucky. Maybe you could just call it a giant kick in the ass. I don’t think I couldn’t have done these things before. See that’s the thing. It was very empowering for me because I just felt so blessed and so much like, you know… You’re allowed. You’re allowed to go there and fail. You’re allowed to do whatever you want. Just do what you want. Don’t be scared.
Irene: Part of the continuing fun of being associated with Lion King has been the international productions. Again, it sort of goes back to my devotion to the amazing hundreds of people who made the movie to keep their voices alive so that when we work with a translator, Roger and I are always involved. It’s a very interesting process.
Winnie: Oh yes. Same with me and Stephen. It’s a fascinating process, one that I’d certainly never done before.
Irene: Right. Because you know they hire someone to translate it into the foreign language and then they hire somebody else to back translate to see if it makes sense.
Winnie: So you can read the back translation and understand… get some inkling of what it is that they’re really saying.
Irene: Roger and I will usually try to find a fellow Disney alum who knew the movie well who speaks the language that we’ve translated it into. We want to know, “Is this how it’s said in the vernacular?”
Winnie: We’ve done the exact same thing…
Irene: But it’s always like linguistics and cultural anthropology. About how different cultures say…
Winnie: Like what would you really say if you wanted to make a joke about something. Does this make sense as a cultural reference?
Irene: Right. Cultural references. I remember one of the first ones was into Japanese and we were working with a wonderful native Japanese speaker. Ours goes from some silly silly word play puns into poetry. As an example, Timon says, “He looks blue.” Talking about the cub. And Pumba goes, “I say he looks brownish gold.” You know, being literal. And then Timon says (Irene doing a great Timon voice), “Oh, no, no, no! I mean he’s depressed.” Well, we said to the lovely Japanese translator, “Is this what it says?” “Well in our culture we would not say we were depressed.” So it’s like, oooooooooooh! Bingo!
Winnie: We had that in Germany with “Wicked.” Similar kinds of things all over but in Germany we were told that there was no word for “wicked” in German, which, apparently there is not. There’s a word for evil, don’t get me wrong. And there’s a word for badness but as we all know, wickedness and wicked have other kinds of connotations that are not quite evil. Stephen and my jaws just dropped in that moment and we wanted sorely to say, “Maybe you guys should get a word for wicked. Maybe you need one.”
Irene: (laughing) Get me the dictionary.
Winnie: But that’s exactly the kind of thing where you suddenly have a window into other people’s culture and language and thinking.
Irene: How did you ever come to that in Germany? With the word.
Winnie: We used different words but we basically used the word for witch, which they do have. The title in German was “Die Hexen von Oz” or I think I’m saying it right, which is “The Witches of Oz.” And we played a lot with the word for witch. Like it is with everything, you have to find another way to approach it. It’s really fun. It’s really like a puzzle sometimes.
Neely: Have you been to many of the international openings?
Winnie: Well I’ve certainly missed a bunch. I recently missed the South Korean opening. And I never got to Australia where it’s been for a while. I did get to go to Japan and also London. We did a lot of work in London. But there were so many openings that I did feel bad about missing. But I did go to Germany and I did go to Japan and London and oh, oh, Stephen and I went to Amsterdam and did it in Dutch and that was really interesting.
All of those international productions are licensed and replicas of Joe’s staging. But we did our first unlicensed “Wicked” in Finland a few years ago and Stephen said “Why not! Because if we hate it, no one’s going to see it.” People in Finland will so I don’t want to say no one.
Irene: … no one we know.
Winnie: Because we’d never seen it done in any other way, there were things about it that sort of blew our minds. And Finnish was very challenging.
Irene: Did they like do it in contemporary garb?
Winnie: Believe it or not, they did… they saw it so politically. Of course our musical has political overtones in it, absolutely, but they saw it through their own political view and they had the wizard literally look like Stalin.
And they made some very interesting political, for them, statements. And we were encouraging of that because we see it as a story that does have political overtones. Absolutely. And social overtones obviously. So we were kind of thrilled with them running with that and making it about their own point of view.
Irene: In the Disney world, if you go to work then you go to the premier and that’s usually been the rule of thumb. I think for me the most exciting opening was Johannesburg. We brought it there because that’s where it was born. And Mandela was supposed to have attended but he was under the weather. This was 2007. But Oprah brought her school. The theater had one of those kind of balcony/mezzanines where you kind of had an arch where you could look and watch these kids who were all in their little school uniforms watching the show… it was great… great.
Winnie: Just the full circle of life… it’s come full circle.
Irene: Exactly. It did pretty well there actually. Interesting city, Johannesburg. You’re sort of in this casino-mall thing. It was a brand new theater, because with a lot of our shows they’re either going to spiff up or build a new theater. So that was part of the drama for the crew that goes ahead and sees…
Winnie: …does this even work. Where are the chairs? (laughing)
Irene: So it’s taken me to many beautiful cities. It’s a great gift to be able to see these places.
Winnie: Yeah. Same here. I mean really thrilling. That doesn’t get old for me. None of it does.
Neely: They’re the two highest grossing Broadway shows presently on Broadway.
Irene: That’s nice to know. We’re always fighting with each other about it.
Winnie: Yes. Our relationship is just so contentious.
Irene: Really. Every Monday morning I call. “So we won this week. Ha. Ha. Ha.” (both laughing)
Neely: Do you have some new projects that you’re working on?
Irene: I do, but since they’re so encumbered by other things I can’t talk about them. That’s the problem, you know. It’s that and my animation projects I can’t talk about. “What are you working on?” “I can’t tell you.” (both laughing hard)
Winnie: Or I’d have to kill you.
Irene: I’m hopeful that something will move along. One’s pending right now that might happen sooner than later, but I don’t know if they’ll let me talk about it.
You and Stephen need to get back to work.
Winnie: Stephen and I are eventually going to do the movie. So we will get back to work. But that’s not happening right now. The play that I wrote by myself is not a musical and it’s something I really would love to see produced. I’m working on that. I know it might sound silly or odd but having a hit musical has not really helped make that play happen… maybe because it’s not a musical to be honest with you. It’s going to happen. I have every faith. But…
Irene: No. It’s sort of like when you do half hour television so you can’t do hour long.
Winnie: Exactly. It’s not like it’s made it a lot lot easier for me to get my play on. That said, I’m hoping my play will get on obviously and I’m willing to be patient. But I also can’t talk about it. (Irene laughing) And I haven’t left television because I love television. It’s not always possible to get something on the air. You can’t just snap your fingers.
Irene: You did have something recently.
Winnie: I did this show with my daughter which was such a thrill and we had such a good time. I wouldn’t want people to assume I’m only interested in the theater now because that’s not the case at all. I love TV. I’d love to work in TV again.
Irene: And I still love animation. I’m working on a project for DreamWorks. I’ve also been doing a project for Lucas Film that’s so under the radar and not “Star Wars.” So I’m a busy girl.
Winnie: We’re busy. We’re just not allowed to talk about it. (Both laughing).
Irene: I’ve got a lot. There are some books I’ve optioned that I’m trying to set up as either TV projects or small features. There’s just a lot in the development hopper. It’s like making wine. You go in and twist the bottle a little bit every day.
Winnie: That is a good analogy. I’ve never heard anyone say that but that’s really true.
Irene: I think it’s more like making a good sauce. You throw all the stuff in the pot, you boil it down and get all the essence and then go, “No. I need to adjust it.”
Winnie: But you know, we’re just out there trying to make a living.
Neely: A great way to end. We are all out there trying to make a living. Thanks for spending the time. I can’t wait to see what you do next.G