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This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Oscar producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are hoping viewers won’t reach for the remote as soon as the best picture winner is announced at the 85th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24. Instead of a quick signoff, the executive producers of Smash decided to give the show a proper close, with first-time host Seth MacFarlane returning to the stage for a final musical number with Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth. “We want to have an actual ending,” says Zadan.
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And if the ceremony strikes a particular note, “it will be an evening that celebrates the music of the movies,” says Meron, and that means its diva quotient is off the charts. British singer Shirley Bassey, whose rendition of “Goldfinger” is iconic, will be part of a tribute to 50 years of Bond movies. Adele will sing her Oscar-nominated “Skyfall” live for the first time. Dreamgirls Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, the newest addition to the show’s star-filled lineup, will take part in a salute to recent movie musicals. And Barbra Streisand will perform on the Oscar stage for the first time since 1977. Says Zadan, “We told her we couldn’t imagine celebrating music in the movies without her, and she said she’d love to.”
The producing team brings plenty of experience to their first time behind the Oscar show curtain. In addition to their television credits, they’ve produced films (they were executive producers on the Oscar-winning Chicago) and Broadway shows (including How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Promises, Promises.) They were invited to take on the Herculean job in August by Academy president Hawk Koch, and after binging on video of all the previous Oscar broadcasts, they began formulating their own take.
“What we didn’t realize is that we were also hired to produce the red carpet show,” admits Meron of the preshow that airs on ABC beginning 90 minutes before the Oscars themselves. “The red carpet has never been conceptualized,” he continues. But seeking out inspiration in the Academy’s archives, they arrived at the idea of taking costume sketches of iconic stars in classic movies, blowing them up and positioning them on kiosks along the carpet. “Since the carpet is all about fashion and how we want to link between movie costumes and fashion, we thought it would be a great idea to pull a lot of the classic costume sketches from the archives.”
Additionally, they recruited Chenoweth, who starred in their production of Promises, to serve as one of the hosts of the red carpet. “We have newspeople there, but we also wanted somebody who is not a newsperson, who is a star and who is friends with all these people so that the conversation can be different,” says Zadan. “It’s more like old friends seeing each other and getting together.”
Chenoweth will play another key role during the course of the night, since Zadan and Meron also decided the broadcast needs more than the usual rush-to-end-credits with which it usually concludes. So they invited Chenoweth to join MacFarlane for a closing musical number. “It will be one big, can’t-miss thing,” Meron promises.
As for the show itself, Zadan describes their approach as going back to earlier Oscar shows that celebrate the very idea of the movies themselves. “What’s happened in the last number of years is they’ve only celebrated the nominees and the winners of that year,” he says. “We’re certainly celebrating the winners and nominees of this year, but in addition to that, we’ve broadened the base, and we’re hopefully going to entertain an audience that loves movies.”
Case in point: their planned tribute to 50 years of James Bond movies. Since it was announced — this year’s producing team has been revealing lots of elements of the show without offering up much in the way of specific detail — there’s been plenty of media speculation about whether all six actors who have played Bond, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, will appear together onstage. And, if not, then who are the holdouts?
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“There’s one thing I really want to dispel right now,” says Zadan. “The press has gone on this wild spree of predictions and have announced things that they’ve just made up. It was announced in the press, completely made up, that we were gathering the six James Bonds. We never said that. And Neil and I in no meeting that we’ve ever had have said, ‘Let’s get all the James Bonds together.’ But the Bond celebration we are doing is one that we wanted to do.”
One element is guaranteed. Bassey, the Wales-born singer whose career was built on belting out such tunes as “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” will perform for the first time on the Oscar stage. So will the latest singer to be associated with 007: Adele, also a nominee in the best song category for the title tune to Skyfall. “We reached out to her before we’d even heard the song or knew it was nominated,” says Meron. “What’s really exciting for us,” Zadan adds, “is that Adele is singing ‘Skyfall’ for the first time, and maybe the only time, she will have performed it live. It’s a special one-off event.”
Once they realized that movie music would be the show’s unifying theme, the two producers say they knew they also had to go to Streisand, whom they’ve both known for years. “She hasn’t sung on the show in 36 years, and she has only sung once before,” says Zadan. “So we went to her right away and explained our concept for the show.” They won’t reveal exactly what Streisand will perform. “During the course of the show, at some point, Barbra Streisand is going to come on and do something really special and blow people away,” Zadan teases.
But the biggest unknown of the evening is certainly how well MacFarlane will acquit himself in his first gig as Oscar host. When the Family Guy creator was named in October, it came as a surprise to most. But the producers say that even before he successfully hosted Saturday Night Live on Sept. 15, they’d heard of his crooning in front of an orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall in August and had checked it out on YouTube.
“Just in terms of trying to make the Oscars more relevant, Seth seemed the obvious choice to us,” says Meron. “People were shocked, but we weren’t,” adds Zadan. “We thought it was a very cool idea. Also, he gave us what we needed for the concept of our show. We want a lot of comedy, and he’s giving us a lot of comedy — a lot. But also we needed a host who can sing, and he gives us that whenever we need to use him in the show for music.”
They both say that MacFarlane has been extremely collaborative, sitting through long production meetings, asking for their take on material he and his team of writers have been developing.
Still, they acknowledge, the media is probably lying in wait, ready to pounce if it’s perceived that he’s crossed the line. Says Zadan, “We actually collaborate on what the line really is, where he goes and where he doesn’t go, and he’s never said to us, ‘I’m doing that anyway.’ ”
But he also adds, “We are so aware of the fact that if you went back and took a joke that Bob Hope or Johnny Carson did back then and Seth does the same joke exactly verbatim, people could be like, ‘How dare he!’ So we’re very aware that he is possibly going to be scrutinized in a way that Carson or Hope weren’t.” Agrees Meron, “Even if he did some of the jokes that Amy Poehler and Tina Fey did on the Golden Globes — when they came out of Amy and Tina’s mouths, they were adorable, but Seth is looked upon differently.”
Final question, then: With so many live performers to accommodate — while also handing out Oscars in the requisite 24 categories — how long will this year’s show run? “Our goal has always been to be as close to three hours as humanly possible,” says Zadan. “What that means in reality is hard to say because we have so much entertainment. A lot depends on the audience reaction, how long the speeches go, stuff we have no control over. But we’re trying to make that time fly by with lots of entertainment.”
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