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Emmy-nominated Winnie Holzman reflects on 'My So-Called Life' and 'Wicked'

Laurel Harris in a scene from "Wicked." THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Joan Marcus

TORONTO – The short-lived but critically lauded TV series “My So-Called Life” starring Claire Danes recently hit its 20th anniversary, and while Emmy-nominated creator Winnie Holzman says she’s proud of the show and the way it ended up being embraced, she isn’t reflecting on the milestone much.

“It’s very meaningful to me, and I love Claire, she’s still a really close friend and she means a lot to me,” she said in a recent phone interview.

“There’s a lot of caring and love when I think of ‘My So-Called Life,’ but I don’t think of it that often because I’m busy doing my current projects.”

Among those projects is a pilot Holzman is working on with Cameron Crowe for Showtime.

Then there’s the ongoing publicity for the enduring musical “Wicked,” which Mirvish Productions is bringing back to Toronto this week. It runs from Wednesday until Nov. 2 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

Holzman penned the book for the smash stage show, based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” while Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics.

Now into its 11th year, “Wicked” has broken box-office records and won dozens of awards including a Grammy and three Tonys.

Broadway superstars Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth originated the lead characters who become unlikely friends — Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

Holzman said she and Schwartz “certainly couldn’t have imagined anything like” the level of success “Wicked” has achieved.

“We were just doing our very best to write from our hearts and be authentic about what we believed the musical could be, and just to write, just to do our best together.”

As the well-documented history of the show goes, it was Schwartz who told Holzman he thought Maguire’s novel would make for a great musical, but Universal Studios had the rights to make it into a non-musical movie.

“So we kind of bemoaned that and we just forgot about it,” said Holzman. “Then many months later he called me … and he said, ‘You’ll not believe this, I’ve convinced them not to make their non-musical movie. I’ve convinced them to give me the opportunity to try to turn it into a Broadway musical, and maybe you should read the book now because I’d like to talk about maybe doing it with you.'”

Holzman felt the idea of taking the Wicked Witch of the West and making her the heroine while revealing the behind-the-scenes story of what happened in the Land of Oz was “genius,” and she was “thrilled” to be able to work with Schwartz.

As she did with “My So-Called Life,” she also relished exploring the theme of friendships.

“Finding a friend is such a key thing in life and I do find that really interesting, friendships and how they are born,” said Holzman, a Manhattan native who is also known for writing for the series “thirtysomething” and “Once and Again.”

“It’s funny, in ‘Wicked,’ it’s almost bigger than just a friendship. It’s really about meeting that person who is going to change your life. It’s about destiny. It’s meeting that person who is going to change your life and letting your life change, letting your real destiny, coming to live it. Not living a lie, basically, and that’s what both of the women do and that’s part of their incredible bond.

“Because why are they so precious to each other? They’re precious to each other because they show each other who they were meant to be.”

Also like “My So-Called Life,” “Wicked” shows Holzman’s strength in writing authentic female characters — something she said she isn’t focused on.

“I just write from my heart and I write what interests me, and I really just think of all my characters, not just my women, as characters that I want to get inside of and have compassion for and understand and help the audience to kind of see in a three-dimensional way.

“I’m just interested in stories and characters that speak to me about the questions and the obsession and the fears and anxieties and everything that I have in living. I don’t see it in terms of men and women.”

With “Wicked,” one of the main goals was to be respectful and have fun with the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” which she said was a “cultural phenomenon” while she and Schwartz were growing up.

“One day a year it was broadcast on TV, one night a year, and it meant a lot to us emotionally. In terms of Stephen and my attitude toward the 1939 movie, we stand in awe of it. It’s a beautiful piece of American art.”