Winnie Holzman is no stranger to cultural phenomena: She created the beloved TV series My So-Called Life, which launched the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, and penned the book for the smash-hit musical Wicked.
In her new play, Choice, which is making its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company, a successful journalist investigates a new and divisive social phenomenon that alters her understanding of her past, present, and future. The play is both hilarious and poignant, and offers a fresh exploration of women’s right to choose and the effects that our choices have on our lives.
During a lunch break from rehearsals, Holzman talked about the origins of Choice, news of a Wicked film, and her mentor, Gypsy and West Side Story writer Arthur Laurents.
Where did the idea for Choice come from?
Well, I had the desire, first of all, to write a play that wasn’t a musical. I’d never done that, really. With Wicked, it happened and it was a big, life-changing thing for me, and I think when you have a big change in your life, of any kind, at least for me, there came a point where I thought, “What do I really want to do?” And one of the answers for me was, “I really want to write a play.” I didn’t just sort of get an idea and sit down and write a play; it didn’t work that way. I kind of got inklings of it, and let’s say, a year would pass and then I’d have more. I tried to write to understand what it was, honestly.
And it was through that writing that you could say, “Oh, that’s what this is going to be?”
Yeah, and that took years, honestly. It was quite a process, and I was always doing other things in between writing it, so I would go away from it and then I’d come back and I’d kind of see it with new eyes and have realizations. I guess you could say the subject of Choice—meaning, you know, the idea of women having the choice to end a pregnancy, as we use it in our culture—I was starting to have really strong feelings about how that subject is discussed in our culture and the brutality of the way it’s discussed, that you kind of have to pick a side. And there’s really no discussion; it’s almost like yelling, it’s not a conversation. And I started to think, “I wonder if it’s possible to have a play that asks that … is it possible to have another kind of conversation about that subject?” and I thought maybe the play itself could be a way for me to ask that question, you know?
I was so thrilled to see that Sheryl Kaller is directing this; her production of Next Fall is one of my favorite Broadway memories. And then you have Connie Ray and Johanna Day in the cast—that’s a lot of power right there.
I’m really, really thrilled about Sheryl and about the whole cast … they’re just wonderful and I feel really lucky.
In comparison to Wicked, I imagine that this is a much more personal experience for you. What is the biggest difference between adapting something and really mining your soul for a play like Choice that’s entirely yours?
Well, it is different. Adapting Wicked is something that I did as part of a team, and it was an incredible team that I was allowed to be a part of. And of course, Gregory [Maguire’s] book, so you’re not starting with a blank page, you’re starting with a very specific idea. Whenever I write anything, of any kind, that involves characters and writing a story that actors are going to portray, I’m always using myself. What else is there to use? There’s nothing else to use. I’m always using my mind, and what interests me, and my emotions, and what I believe, and what makes me upset. All of those things are always going to be ingredients, but you’re absolutely right in that this is different for me because I think it’s almost like the polar opposite experience. They’re both fulfilling, they have that in common, but they’re very different. Now I’m involved with a very thrilling collaboration where I’m loving the cast and I love Sheryl and we can all sit at the table and figure out things and make realizations. It’s still a collaboration, but for years I didn’t work in a collaboration with anyone but me. That was very different for me. That’s what I wanted, but it was also scary, you know?
Following Wicked, you must have gotten a lot of offers for big, splashy musicals. Yet you’ve chosen to dial it down and do this intimate play.
Not a huge amount, but I did get offers for musicals. There was just nothing on that level that spoke to me, and I did sort of want to ask myself what I wanted to write about. That question was really important for me. I like what you said about intimate; I think I did want a completely different experience. I feel really fortunate that they offered to do it at the Huntington, and the timing has been wonderful for me. Honestly, had it come earlier, I don’t think I was quite ready. I feel like I’m ready now, so it’s a good feeling.
How did you get involved with the Huntington?
I think it was when Sheryl and I first hooked up and started talking, she said, “Huntington Theatre Company would be a perfect place to do the first production,” and it really turned out to be true. I don’t remember Sheryl and I talking about any other theater.
The Huntington does incredible work with fostering and developing new plays, so I’m glad to hear that you feel that way.
Everyone’s been really, really helpful. It’s been super good.
What can you tell us about the film version of Wicked?
Oh, just that it will happen! The people that produce our show on Broadway are a movie company, so we will do a movie. It’s just a question of when, and that isn’t clear yet. It’s just in the very beginning stages.
Will you be adapting the screenplay?
Yes, I will. I’m happy to say I will be. I’m very happy.
Arthur Laurents was one of your mentors. What is the most valuable lesson that he taught you?
Well, I think there was an element of Arthur where, just the fact that he was such a great man of the theater, and the fact that he took time with me and took an interest in me and believed in me. What spoke the loudest and the deepest to me was just his belief in me. When I first encountered him, it just galvanized me and it gave me courage. It was an incredible gift. I was in a class with him at NYU’s musical theatre program; I was in the first class of the program when it had first been created. I’m still friends with a lot of the people that studied with him and we often talk about the way he could cut a scene down to size. He taught us very carefully about editing. And this is just one little aspect of what he imparted to us, but it’s something to this day I rely on with everything I write. We would bring in a scene that we had written and you would sit with him and he would show you, “Well, you don’t need this word, you’ve already said this here,” and he would go through it with such a clarity and elegance, it really had an impact on me.
What else do you want us to know about Choice?
It might sound a little dorky just to say it, and I sound very serious when I talk about it, but a lot of it’s funny. I wanted it be a comedy. It’s emotional and it’s funny, too, and that’s what I like when I’m seeing a play. That’s what I was striving for. Hopefully some people will find that entertaining.
CHOICE. RUNS 10.16-11.15 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY AT THE BCA. 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. WWW.HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG