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A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“Welcome to Neverland,” says Neil Meron, showing no signs of nerves on this late November day as crewmembers scurry around him on a Bethpage, N.Y., soundstage. On Dec. 4, he and longtime collaborator Craig Zadan, co-founders of Storyline Entertainment, will stage a live rendition of Peter Pan, starring Allison Williams and Christopher Walken, for viewers to devour and dissect (likely mercilessly on social media). Hopes are high for the NBC telecast, considering The Sound of Music Live!, the first live musical broadcast since the 1950s, drew 21.3 million viewers at this time last year (and prompted NBC to charge in the $400,000 range for ads in Pan).
But Zadan, 65, and Meron, 60, both openly gay New York natives whose productions have earned 11 Emmys, six Oscars, two Tonys and a pair of Peabodys, say they are more focused on the production going smoothly (there is flying, after all) than they are on the ratings. And the pair already are planning live productions of The Music Man and A Few Good Men for NBC. That’s when they’re not consumed by the Oscars, which they’re producing for the third time, with Neil Patrick Harris set to host. The 2014 show with Ellen DeGeneres (and her selfie) lured 43.7 million viewers, the most watched Oscars since 2000.
The duo, who met in the 1970s when Meron, then a student at Brooklyn College, asked Zadan, author of a book on Stephen Sondheim, to guest lecture at his school, took a break in their production offices to discuss the challenges of casting, the upside of hate tweets and how to pull off live events.
How did you decide Peter Pan was the right follow-up to The Sound of Music?
MERON When you look at what you want to do in terms of a holiday event, something that families can gather around, you start examining the titles and it’s a narrow list. Peter Pan is a property that we’ve thought about for a while, and the rights were available.
ZADAN Subconsciously, we had Peter Pan on our minds. Neil and I produced our first television musical, Gypsy, with Bette Midler, back in 1993. Gypsy was written by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, and the morning after it aired, Jule Styne called us to say, “I had a whole household of guests over and we had a glorious evening watching Gypsy.” And then he said, “The next one has to be Peter Pan.” We loved the idea, and we said we’d do it. We didn’t know it would take more than 20 years.
Is it fair to say Hollywood is more receptive to musicals now?
MERON Hollywood’s receptive to what makes money. But we’re really proud of what’s happened. It’s not a genre like superhero movies or action films, but it’s now somewhat acceptable to say you’re making a musical. So I wouldn’t say, “mission accomplished,” but it’s “mission continues.”
Williams, Walken and Christian Borle as Smee, along with some pirates
How closely do you pay attention to what’s being snarked on social media?
MERON Oh, I read everything and pay no attention.
ZADAN And I’m aware of everything but I don’t read anything. I’m not remotely interested in what’s being said because I feel like it’s a blood sport. If you love something, you very rarely tweet something sweet; but if you hate something or you have something nasty to say, you’re going to tweet. When people say, “Oh my God, did you read those horrible things that were said?” the answer is, “No. I know they are horrible, but we’re grateful. It’s building our audience.”
The songs from Peter Pan aren’t as well known as the ones from Sound of Music. Is that a concern?
ZADAN No. The title of Peter Pan is so huge. This year alone, there’s a Broadway musical, Finding Neverland, there’s a TV series based on Peter Pan in development, and there’s a new Peter Pan movie coming out with Hugh Jackman. It’s a title like The Wizard of Oz, it just keeps going. And, we feel like the flying feeds so beautifully into live TV.
What’s the emergency plan if someone falls?
MERON If anything goes wrong, they’d just be suspended in air. They wouldn’t drop. So that’s the very worst. This is not Spider-Man.
How did you snag Christopher Walken?
ZADAN We knew Chris because we produced Hairspray and he played John Travolta‘s husband, and we knew that he was a song-and-dance man. And actually, his agent suggested him. The only stipulation that he had was, “I’ll do it if you let me dance.”
MERON He dances the tango, the tarantella, the waltz, and he tap dances.
Meron, Williams and Zadan
For the Peter Pan role, I remember hearing names from Idina Menzel to Pink before Allison Williams landed it. How challenging was it to cast?
ZADAN If we were doing Peter Pan as a movie for TV the way we did Cinderella [in 1997], you’d have people lining up because everybody wants to play the part. But once you say it’s live, the line disappears. We’re living in an age of AutoTuning, and people knowing that if you’re doing a movie you can fix it. So there are a lot of people who are scared to death about going out on live television because if you sing flat it’s flat, if the tempo is off the tempo is off.
You’re going to do a play, A Few Good Men, next. Correct?
MERON A lot of it is cast-dependent. When you have an actor that would want to do it, you have to work out schedules, so it’s kind of hard to say what the next one is. And it’s not a Christmas show. What we would do next Christmas is another live musical event. NBC has optioned Music Man, but it could be something else.
ZADAN If we do A Few Good Men, it would be done somewhere else in the year. To do a live drama would be another experiment for us, and it wouldn’t be as costly because you don’t have these rehearsals and the dancers, the orchestra and the choreography. The costs shrink, so you don’t have to do 22 million viewers. You can do a lot fewer viewers and still be profitable on a project like that.
How did you decide on that play?
MERON When the idea was brought to us, we thought it was a great title, that there were great roles to cast and that it was in the public consciousness to a certain degree but not enough where people got sick of it. Then we met with Aaron Sorkin, and he said to us that he’s always wanted to finish the play.
ZADAN The other aspect of it is that there are a lot of plays that could be, shall we say, dull on TV. I think that a staple of television that always excites an audience is a courtroom drama. There are the fireworks that happen in a courtroom that are just explosive.
You’re producing the Oscars. Do you watch other awards shows and worry about them stealing the excitement?
MERON No. Our show really is the premier show. It’s like in sports. During the season, you have all these baseball games or football games and then you have the World Series or the Super Bowl.
ZADAN Plus, those other shows don’t have entertainment. They give out awards; we give out awards and we have entertainment.
Many say hosting the Oscars is a thankless job. Fair?
MERON No, producing the show is a thankless job. (Laughs.)
ZADAN If you go back historically and research the producer and the host, whether you do a brilliant job, a mediocre job or a terrible job, you always get bad reviews. It’s a blood sport. The same way people sit at Oscar parties and go, “Oh, look at that dress. How could they wear that?” — they’re just ripping and tearing at every aspect of it.
Meron and Zadan on the Neverland stage in Bethpage, N.Y.
And yet you have to convince someone to say yes.
ZADAN The hardest job of the entire show is getting a host. The truth of the matter is that there’s a list of every star in Hollywood, and every one of those stars has been approached through the years and I’d say that every single one of those people has said no. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the pressure is so intense that people are terrified, and we completely understand why.
Harris has already done the Emmys and the Tonys. Does that take anything away from this?
ZADAN Neil Patrick Harris has always wanted to do the Oscars, and the timing was never right and we couldn’t even consider him in a year where he hosted other shows. So this year, he hosted nothing, and he also has a presence in film, being one of the leads in Gone Girl.
Networks historically have relied on their own talent. The Oscars are on ABC, so why not tap Jimmy Kimmel?
MERON The interesting part of this is that unlike other shows, the Oscars is controlled by the Academy, not the network. ABC and the Academy work beautifully together, but it’s ultimately the Academy’s decision.
So, it’s the Academy who doesn’t like Jimmy Kimmel?
MERON To be on the record, Jimmy Kimmel is magnificent. He’s a total joy, he’s funny and he loves film.
ZADAN It also has to do with the show that we want to do that year. We say to ourselves, “This is the show we want to do this year. Who is the best host for that show?” Last year the answer was Ellen DeGeneres. This year we needed something different. We wanted to do a different show, and the host that served our vision was Neil Patrick Harris. It’s not a matter of one’s better than the other, it has to do with who’s right for the show you want to do.
How do live events fit into TV’s future? The novelty of musicals will wear off, so what’s next? Variety? Stunts?
ZADAN Neil Patrick Harris is doing a variety show for NBC — and he’s the one who should be doing it — and we’ll all be observing to see how variety comes back. But I still remember our agent, Bryan Lourd at CAA, sat us down one day and said, “Mark my words: The future is live.” And he was right. Sports events, awards shows, these musicals, they’re the only things that defeat the DVR-ing of America.
You guys were behind NBC’s Smash. If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?
ZADAN Oh, Smash is a 20-hour interview. (Laughs.)
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