HUMANITAS Trustee Winnie Holzman Discusses “Writing Across Mediums”
by Matt Pacult The "Writing Across Mediums" panel focused on the writing process for the musical Wicked, written by HUMANITAS Trustee Winnie Holzman, and Big Fish, written by John August. Both are adapted from books. The panel was moderated by Eric Heisserer.
Both projects took years to come together logistically, to write, and to bring to the stage. August said, “If a movie is a sprint and writing a TV show is a marathon, a musical is like a migration. It’s sooo long!”
In the very early stages, Holzman had to convince author Gregory Maguire that she was the right writer. In essence, she auditioned. “There was a lot of begging,” she said, before advising audience members, “Adapt something that’s in the public domain!”
August remembered meeting Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish at an IHOP. Wallace shared the secrets of the book with August, and in return, “I promised I would include him on everything I could…and that I would take really good care of his 'kid.'” Eventually Wallace had a cameo in the film and came to readings of the musical.
Once they were cast, enormous writing revisions went into Wicked and Big Fish. “I don’t presume to know something works until I see it in performance,” Holzman said. She compared the process to putting a dress on someone and then tailoring it. As Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel dug into their roles, Holzman observed how the chemistry of their unique singing voices and acting styles interacted with the story. “It’s not like we were going ‘oh fuck the story.’ While in service of the story, it was like, ‘How can we show these people off?’” The characters were enriched by those revisions. The details fueled the next actresses with details about the role.
They discussed the skills they learned from writing musicals. On Big Fish, August was pushed not to reuse sets and has since become “ruthless” about always pushing the visual geography forward. Also, he often sees the equivalent of a dance sequence in other genres. “Charlie’s Angels is basically a musical with fighting. It truly is…you can imagine a song in place of those giant set pieces.” Holzman pointed out that that take on a musical is a good idea.
Holzman said, “In general, I learned about economizing. That doesn’t mean I sit down and write economically. I still write…much too much…but later when it comes to distilling something down, I’m using only what is necessary.” She recommended giving music compositions and scenes titles. “I think a title does everything…What we’re really saying is what is this really about?”
Heisserer described himself as being relatively new to musical theater, and grounded many of his questions in the nuts of bolts of what makes a musical. August explained what an act break needs to do: “You want a culmination and a question.” August also pointed out how the first or second song of any musical tends to be a “Welcome to the Universe” piece that establishes the rules.
Holzman described the role of a good song, saying, “What’s thrilling is when the song brings you to another place emotionally and dumps you there.” They spoke fondly of the songwriters they worked with.