3 Writing Strategies Used by Wicked’s Creators

by Carol de Giere on December 11, 2013

wicked-adaptation-graphicThe people who created the musical Wicked  did many things right. They ended up with a mega-hit show that has run over 10 years on Broadway and played in almost every part of the world. A few of their approaches are offered on the Official Wicked YouTube channel video on “Book Writing.” (Link below.)

Note that “book,” in this case, means the narrative story of the drama. Winnie Holzman initially developed Wicked‘s book in meetings with composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, and the show’s lead producer, Marc Platt. Holzman fleshed out the scenes and refined the book over several years as part of the collaborative effort.

I had a chance to interview Schwartz, Holzman, and Platt while working on Defying GravityBelow the link to the video, I’ve listed three writing tips based on my experiences and interviews. (The phrasing is my own. I also include quotes from Holzman and Schwartz.)

1) Be inspired by models but don’t stick strictly to the source material.

In the video Schwartz, Holzman, and Platt talk about how they related to their source material, the novel Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West that itself was a spin on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. They each explored the novel Wicked (for which the producer already held the stage adaptation rights) and then, essentially, set it aside.

This may sound like an easy enough thing to do, but how many movie adaptations have you seen for which you questioned why the writers stuck so closely to a novel or why they departed so boldly? How many variations on Shakespeare’s plays have you seen and wondered if there might be other choices? There’s a line to walk, especially if the author of the original material is still alive. Being open to navigating either side of the line for a while is helpful.

Wicked‘s writers also borrowed ideas from models besides the novel Wicked. For example, Holzman found that the movie Clueless was an inspiration for the makeover scene between the two lead characters. (More on this in a future blog post.)

2) Write what fascinates you and follow the path of least resistance

Wicked writers Winnie Holzman and Stephen SchwartzPHOTO: Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz from a trip to see Wicked in Finland

For Schwartz and Holzman, working with the Wicked material wasn’t a job to be slogged through. They allowed themselves to focus on what was naturally drawing their attention. It wasn’t about jumping into chapter 1 of the novel and writing scene 1 of the musical from there.

As Holzman said when I interviewed her: “I tried to just respond to what in the novel was leaping out at me. For me it was the two girls and just the fact that amongst all the brilliant things Gregory Maguire did in the novel, he had made them roommates in college, which I think is really a stroke of genius.” Holzman and Schwartz talked for hours about how much this meant to them and what the implications were. “So we felt that we really had to start from there, because that was what gripped us both emotionally, humorously, in every way, that was so right,” Holzman remembers.

As for getting started on a score, Schwartz says: “I tend to follow the ‘path of least resistance,’ rather than try to write sequentially, like the advice to Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: ‘Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.’ When starting the score for a show, I tend to start with the song that seems easiest to me, the one that comes most naturally….It’s most important just to open the door and step into the show somewhere.” [Reference for the above quotes: de Giere, Carol. Defying Gravity, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2008, page 299.]

3) Explore questions, linger in mystery, and allow bad drafts

As Holzman says in the video, a lot of writing is about “being able to have questions and not have answers yet.” One of the people who inspired her was E. L. Doctorow who wrote Ragtime and other historical novels. Holzman borrows a simile from him. “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Wicked‘s writers peered into the fog. They found their way, even though it took almost four years of revisions and testing to get it right.

Stephen Schwartz has developed various strategies and attitudes that help him survive the long journey of writing a musical. He says, “I have some sort of specific goal in mind for whatever it is I’m doing. And everything on the road to that goal is process. And I don’t really worry about how long it takes to get there or how many stages or crappy stuff it has to go through. That’s just process, and you’re just on the way to the goal. And sometimes I’ve felt that I was there and then discovered by getting feedback that I wasn’t, and initially sometimes that’s very disheartening and exhausting; wearying.” But in the end, the whole process proved useful and Wicked emerged as a triumph. [Reference for the above quotes: de Giere, Carol. Defying Gravity, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2008, page 359.]

Read More about Adaptation

See our writing tips page on the subject: Stephen Schwartz answers questions about adaptation

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Carol de Giere is the website publisher for MusicalWriters.com and author of Defying Gravity

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carla Marie Rupp December 12, 2013 at 10:17 am

Carol, this is well-written, easy-to-understand and really informative. I like how he says to just step in and write what could be the easier song first when working on a musical. Stephen Schwartz is such a genius and it’s so wonderful that you wrote a book Defying Gravity about him and his work. Congratulations! I’m so fortunate to have met you and read from your book and played Mr. Schwartz’s lovely songs on your piano!


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