9:45am PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ('The Wiz Live!')
"We're still passionately devoted to the theater," says Neil Meron as I sit down with him and his producing partner Craig Zadan in the offices of their Storyline Entertainment production company on the Universal lot to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The two Broadway buffs first met and began working together in 1974, and by the 1980s had decided to go west together to try to expose more people to the magic of the theater through the screen. "So in everything we've done," Meron continues, "or just about everything we've done, if you look closely, even if it's not blatant, there will be some footprint of some theatrical tie. We're very proud of that because it's a way of always staying in contact with those roots."
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Over more than four decades of collaboration, Zadan and Meron have set the bar for anything related to musical theater in Hollywood. They made acclaimed TV movies of Gypsy (1993), Cinderella (1997), Annie (1999) and The Music Man (2003). They revived the movie musical with Chicago (2002), which was awarded the best picture Oscar, and Hairspray! (2007). They oversaw the music-filled Academy Awards ceremonies in 2013, 2014 (the highest-rated in 14 years) and 2015. And, in partnership with NBC chief Bob Greenblatt, a fellow theater obsessive, they brought to the Peacock Network both the musical TV series Smash (2012-2013) and a game-changing revival of the live musical — with The Sound of Music Live! (2013), Peter Pan Live! (2014) and, most recently, The Wiz Live! (2015), for which they are now frontrunners for the best special class program Emmy.
Over the course of our conversation, Zadan, 67, and Meron, 60, talk about how they first crossed paths when Meron was a student at Brooklyn College and Zadan had just published an acclaimed biography of Stephen Sondheim; how they teamed up to produce a series of club acts in SoHo that became a phenomenon and drew many power players of the theater, including Joe Papp, who hired them to commission and develop new shows at The Public Theater; why a meeting with Peter Guber convinced them to relocate to Los Angeles; what 1984's Footloose, the first film that Zadan produced, taught them both about the business; and how Bette Midler's reluctant participation in their TV movie of Gypsy led to a host of work in that medium.
The duo also candidly discuss why color-blind casting was a goal of theirs long before Hamilton; why they turned down an offer from Harvey Weinstein to produce a movie version of Rent years before it got made, and turned down Chicago for years before ultimately making it with the choreographer who they had hired to direct Annie, Rob Marshall; how they first knew that they had a friend in Greenblatt (he saved their controversial 2003 TV movie The Reagans when he ran Showtime); and why Seth MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" song at the 85th Oscars was so misunderstood by a few "post-feminist voices that really took offense and started the ball rolling, in terms of the negative reaction," according to Meron.
As for the live musical genre, Meron says, "After having done these movie musicals on TV and as feature films, we decided that the next frontier would be to do a musical live," adding, "The difference is on TV they're events and they attract a big audience — usually." Case in point: The Sound of Music Live! "The whole time we were preparing it, people were laughing at us," recalls Zadan. "They thought the whole thing was preposterous," adds Meron. In the end, the show, which starred Carrie Underwood, attracted 21.3 million viewers, NBC's highest rating in seven years, and, Zadan notes, "It felt like there was a shift in the landscape."
What explains the live musical phenomenon, which Fox (Grease Live!) and other networks are now trying to capitalize on? In large part, the fact that we are now living in the age of social media, which tends to buzz loudest about live broadcasts of all sorts — sporting events, award shows and breaking news — because with them unexpected things can happen. Not all the buzz is kind — "hate-watching" is also sometimes associated with live musicals, and partly explains why Zadan now acknowledges, "If we had to do it over again, I clearly don't think we would have done Peter Pan," which didn't recapture the success of The Sound of Music Live!
The Wiz Live!, on the other hand, was almost universally embraced. Inspired by the 1974 Broadway musical that became a 1978 flop film, Meron says, "It's a classic story, it has one of the great scores of all time and our belief was in going back to what made the Broadway show a success." He notes that its popularity endures, which is why "everybody wanted to be in it" — Queen Latifah, Common, Mary J. Blige, Uzo Aduba and the list goes on. Zadan says they also undertook steps to make the material more contemporary — recruiting Harvey Fierstein to update the book; bringing in a hip music team "to make the music not sound dated" and a hip-hop choreographer so that the dancing looked less Broadway; hiring Kenny Leon, who usually does plays, to direct it; and employing LED screens as backdrops to create a less theatrical feel.
Their efforts paid off. "To be perfectly honest," Meron says sheepishly, "during commercial breaks I did [look at Twitter], and Bob Greenblatt said, 'Keep it to yourself!'" But there was no cause for concern, he notes with a smile. "The hate-watching had stopped."
What's next for Zadan and Meron? They are now trying to bring The Wiz back to Broadway (there's a "strong likelihood" that will happen, says Meron, "but there are no theaters" at the moment, adds Zadan). They are working to bring Bombshell — the fictional show at the center of Smash that went to Broadway for a one-night-only performance a year ago — back for a proper run ("We have it in development," updates Zadan). And they are preparing three more live productions for NBC: Hairspray!, which is coming this December; their first live drama, A Few Good Men, which they're doing in partnership with its original writer, Aaron Sorkin; and another musical for next December, the name of which they aren't yet prepared to reveal.