Winnie Holzman ’76 with Cameron Crowe and J.J. Abrams at the premiere for Showtime’s Roadies, where she was a writer and executive producer.
Photo: Alamy

Anyone within a hundred miles of New York City has probably seen a poster for Winnie Holzman ’76’s hit musical, Wicked. Also known for a number of television credits, including the ’90s series My So-Called Life, Holzman is thrilled that her new play, Choice, is coming to McCarter Theatre in Princeton this May. 

Choice, which, yes, deals with reproductive rights, follows journalist Zipporah Zunder as she works on an investigative story that ends up affecting some of her closest relationships. It may seem timely in this election year, but Holzman has actually been working on it for a number of years.

“It’s not like anything I’ve ever written before, and yet it’s in my style,” Holzman said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. What she means is that, despite handling a serious topic, it’s still a comedy with a lot of heart. McCarter’s website describes Choice as a “comic, surreal, and thought-provoking play.” At a time when the conversation about reproductive rights has become simplistic and rigid, Holzman is trying to explore it in a different way.  

“It’s about a woman trying to understand something, and the more she tries to understand it, the more mysterious it becomes,” she says.

Both comedy and mystery are essential to her approach in this play. She’s not interested in propaganda. “If something is too spelled out, if something is hitting you over the head, you’re being bludgeoned into submission, you’re not moving forward in your seat and trying to understand,” Holzman adds.   

This production represents something of a homecoming for Holzman. 

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Holzman’s academic career centered on writing poetry in her creative writing classes, but her extracurricular focus was Theatre Intime, an on-campus theater group administered entirely by students. Over the course of her time there, she acted in many productions including The Glass Menagerie and an early production of Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo that took place before that play’s New York premiere. Sometimes she would even stay in Princeton over the summer to continue acting with the company in productions for local residents.

The combination of writing poetry and acting in plays laid the groundwork for her future career.  “It was a beautiful training ground,” she says of that time. “I was practicing my craft of writing, but I was also getting a lot of acting experience. That really fed me as a writer who writes for actors.”

While she stopped writing poetry when she left Princeton for New York City, her writing continued to be informed by that poetic background. “Emphasis on word choice, on rhythm, on a certain kind of musicality. Finding something punchy and intense. I think that that’s really helped me as a screenwriter, as a TV writer, and in writing for theater,” she says. 

That training served her well from her early days of sketch comedy in New York City to the very first year of NYU’s Musical Theater Graduate Program. It continued to serve her throughout a TV writing career that began with the series Thirtysomething and is still ongoing today, and a screenwriting career that has, most recently, involved writing the film adaptation of Wicked (which is split into two parts, the first of which comes to theaters later this year and stars Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande). 

But success has not always come easily. Critics were underwhelmed by her first musical, Birds of Paradise, which she created with the composer David Evans in graduate school at NYU. Holzman views that experience as a gift. “It gave me more than a success would have. It taught me so much about what I really want. Why am I really doing this? Am I doing this just for a great review? For approval? Or am I doing this because something within me really needs to do this?  I needed to learn that lesson,” she says. 

Choice definitely falls into the category of something she “needed” to write. It also challenged her in new ways — after collaborating with other writers or composers for most of her career, this is the first play that she’s written by herself.  But, as she’s quick to point out, whether you’re an undergrad working on a play, or a professional on Broadway, TV, or film, you’re never alone.

“You are by yourself when you are writing in your room, but pretty soon, a whole circus troupe of people arrive, and they all want to do it with you, and you do it together,” she says.