Tears, Teens, Tony Winners and Slew of Standing Ovations at Craig Zadan Tribute

Late legendary producer Zadan was the subject of a profound tribute Sunday in L.A. that featured Oscar- winners Renee Zellweger and Jennifer Hudson, Emmy- winners Debra Messing and Sean Hayes and Tony- winners Bernadette Peters and Audra McDonald.
Chris Haston/NBC

Craig Zadan sent a lot of emails, sometimes in the middle of the night. He had an indomitable spirit and was known as an indefatigable producer with an endless passion for theater, movies and musicals — both on stage and screen. He bared his opinions, no matter how harsh (sometimes delivered via those anytime-goes emails), and was beloved for how he lifted up talent, fought for diversity and inclusion and cultivated relationships that often lasted for decades.

These are just a few of the strokes that helped paint a full 360-degree portrait of the legendary producer during Sunday night’s Thespians Go Hollywood fundraiser for the Educational Theatre Foundation, held at the Television Academy headquarters on Lankershim Boulevard in Los Angeles. This was not a memorial service but rather a tribute to honor the life and work of Zadan, who was originally slated to be honored alongside longtime Storyline Entertainment producer partner Neil Meron with an inaugural Theater for Life Award.

But because Zadan died suddenly Aug. 20 in Los Angeles following complications from shoulder surgery, the awards event was reimagined as a celebration of the 69-year-old's legacy by way of speeches and performances from some of his famous collaborators. “He brought us all here with a renewed sense of mission,” said Julie Cohen Theobald, president of the ETF, the philanthropic arm of the Educational Theatre Association, which provides support for theater education and to expand access to K-12 school theater programs. (The event raised $200,000 for the cause.)

Zadan agreed to accept the honor despite making a decision years ago to decline any honors out of a desire to shine the spotlight on others. But because he believed in the foundation's mission so much, he and Meron had changed their tune. It was perhaps fitting that the event was held at the TV Academy because, in September, following his death, he and Meron snagged their first Emmy after 17 nominations for their work on NBC’s live adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.

That was just one in a long list of career achievements which were highlighted during a powerhouse program featuring Oscar-winners (Renee Zellweger and Jennifer Hudson), Emmy-winners (Debra Messing and Sean Hayes) and Tony-winners (Bernadette Peters and Audra McDonald). Also on display: Tears, tribute reels and teens, the latter responsible for closing the show with an energetic performance that many said would’ve brought Zadan to his feet. He also would've been pleased to see so many Hollywood insiders on hand to help raise money forthe  foundation, including CAA's Bryan Lourd, Universal's Donna Langley, director Adam Shankman and his 42West rep Annalee Paulo. 

Nia Vardalos, a close friend of both Zadan and Meron, hosted the show and offered a promise straightaway that Sunday night’s program was not an occasion to bid adieu. “How do you say goodbye to a friend?” she asked. “Well, we’re not going to. We’re going to sing some songs and tell some stories and we are going to honor and celebrate the life of our friend.” And on that note, she called to the stage the “only Greek girl I know who is prettier than me,” and that, ahem, person was John Stamos.

“This is all of a sudden becoming real,” Stamos said upon taking the stage. He then became the first of several presenters to provide insight into Zadan’s email habits, cracking jokes that made the event feel like a gathering of close family members celebrating a lost but cherished loved one. “He would’ve loved that everybody was here; of course he would’ve sent 42 emails already bitching about this and that,” Stamos explained. “If you guys know Craig, he was a prolific emailer. He liked to send emails and he liked to send a lot of them. Most of the time they were in the middle of the night.”

Stamos then told an amusing story about how, when he was starring in Bye Bye Birdie alongside Gina Gershon at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York in 2009, Zadan came to check out a performance and visit him backstage. Already in his dressing room was Full House pal Bob Saget, who gushed to Stamos about how great the show was. Zadan did not share the same excitement. “To break the ice, I said something like, ‘So Craig, seen any good shows lately? He said, ‘Nope.’ He started off by saying that normally productions of this caliber come with a choice of beef or chicken.” The critiques continued but it wasn’t until 3:45 a.m. that Stamos received an email apology.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry I was so worked up that I forgot to tell you that you lit up the stage, and I was very proud of you,’" Stamos recalled. “That was Craig and we loved him for all of that.”

Harry Connick Jr. then joined Marc Shaiman on stage. Shaiman, who said Zadan was responsible for “giving me my first job and my last job,” served as the night’s musical director for the program, which also featured longtime collaborators Scott Wittman as director and Scott Riesett as musical supervisor. Connick Jr. performed Peter Allen’s “When I Get My Name in Lights.”

Bob Greenblatt’s name flashed up onscreen next, and the former NBC Entertainment honcho looked back to his teenage years growing up in Rockford, Ill. Obsessed with movies, musicals and theater, he focused his attention on the printed word, specifically on a book titled Sondheim & Co. Published in 1974 and authored by Zadan, Greenblatt said he “devoured it” and long wondered “who is this Craig Zadan who had written it.”

Years later, Greenblatt found himself far from northern Illinois at a network job at Fox. It was 1990 and he decided to track down that Sondheim scribe. “He and I and Neil quickly realized that we were all variations of the same person,” Greenblatt said. “Lovers of theater, lovers of movies and lovers of musicals.”

Greenblatt then dove into a loving IMDb-style look at their enviable résumé. He covered their “first major stroke of genius,” a TV version of Gypsy for CBS starring Bette Midler. He listed their movie musical collaborations with ABC on the brand’s Wonderful World of Disney, including Cinderella, Annie and The Music Man. Also noted: Serving in Silence, Raisin in the Sun, Hairspray, Me and My Shadows, and Chicago, the latter of which won an Oscar for best picture. “I loved everything they did,” said Greenblatt, who brought the two producers into the NBC fold for the first time on the short-lived musical series Smash.

Smash premiered in the spring of 2012 and became an instant classic,” Greenblatt said to a smattering of applause to which Shaiman quipped, “They are the ones who watched,” a not-so-subtle dig at the show’s ratings troubles. “I think it’s the show that invented hate watching. For us, it was a joyful experience from start to finish. Who wouldn’t want to make a musical with Steven Spielberg.”

Smash feels like an eternity from their subsequent successful collaborations in making live TV musicals “a thing,” as Greenblatt then recounted their work in creative TV events, first with The Sound of Music and later with Peter Pan, The Wiz, Hairspray and Jesus Christ Superstar. “We never anticipated, of course, that Craig wouldn’t be there with us that night when the Emmy was handed out,” he said of their recent win. “Not having him there was still a shock for all of us. Craig, my dear friend, we all miss you very much. I actually feel like I lost a brother.”

Greenblatt closed his remarks by speaking directly to that brother: “We’re going to keep making musicals, I promise you that, and you will always be with us in spirit. I hope you enjoy the show we put together today for you, after all you taught us everything we know.”

That show then went on to feature Vardalos reading a letter sent to her by that Gypsy star, Bette Midler. It read in part: “Craig loved his work and was utterly devoted to it not for money or fame but simply because he thought life wasn’t worth living without being able to experience the great American musical or play. These things are our national heritage and he brought the jewels out of the safe to remind us of the richness of our inheritance.”

Also absent but making their presence known were Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who sent a recorded message. Hanks said Zadan “sang boldly” at some of their parties, while Wilson revealed that they randomly bumped into him while on vacation in Japan. “Seeing him was just such a great joy and such a great treat and it showed the kind of curious person that Craig was. He loved travel, he loved family and friends. I will treasure our group dinners he will no longer be at,” she said.

John Travolta appeared via video tribute next, and suggested that Zadan may not be gone for long. “I’ve never known such an acutely caring, kind, articulate and discerning human being. He truly defines a sterling human being,” praised Travolta. “I’m one of these people who knows we’ve lived before and know that we will be back and he will be back. It’s just a matter of when.”

Speaking of timing, Darren Criss guided audience eyeballs from the screen above to the stage below where he said that Zadan never missed a beat when something happened in his life, “big or small.” Within seconds of landing an Emmy nomination (and eventual win) for his role on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, Criss said he received a text from Zadan that he read aloud. “Wow, so proud. I love you and I’ve always believed in you.”

Criss then performed the Frank Sinatra classic "I Believe in You," which he knew well from his earlier collaboration with the Storyline duo on their first Broadway show, the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Smash star Messing came next to the stage but before sharing her love for the NBC series, she told a story that Meron asked her to share.

It's a story that Zadan loved, too, recalling the time they met Messing at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills for a meeting that started with her gushing over their work and ended with the three of them squished together in her two-seater Porsche in the hotel driveway so she could prove her singing ability with "Adelaide’s Lament" from Guys and Dolls. "Craig said, 'Ok, you can sing, let’s try and find something to do together,'” she said. “Shortly after that, I got Smash."

She continued: "Smash was a very special personal project for me. I got to live in that magical world for two years, watching the likes of Bernadette Peters, Megan Hilty, Christian Borle and Leslie Odom Jr. — Broadway luminaries — singing right in front of me every day. Every day I was grateful to Craig and Neil for daring to believe that a TV show about Broadway could ever make it to air. It was a glorious cast and I wish it had lasted longer.” (Hilty helped keep the memory alive with her performance of the series standout "Don’t Forget Me" and "Let Me Be Your Star.")

Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth then walked to the stage accompanied by Messing’s Will & Grace pal Sean Hayes for a duet on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” The crowd loved Chenoweth’s solo that followed — a rendition of the Music Man track "Till There Was You," which ended with the night’s first standing ovation.

There would be many more to come through the course of the two-hour show, including one for Amber Riley for "Home" from The Wiz Live!, and another for Peters, who said she knew Zadan for 50 years. The Broadway legend turned in a performance of Sondheim’s “With So Little to be Sure Of,” and she said it was one of Zadan’s favorite songs. “I kind of feel that maybe it’s Craig’s philosophy in life.”

Up next: Audra McDonald. She said that she so wanted to honor Zadan that she would’ve been an usher. “I loved him so much,” she said. “The main thing I want to say about Craig is that everything huge that has happened in my career, on a huge national scale, has happened because of Craig and Neil and their belief in me.” That belief translated into performances as Grace Farrell in Annie followed by the film adaptation of Raisin in the Sun and the live version of Sound of Music. To honor her friend, McDonald delivered a powerful "Climb Ev’ry Mountain."

Zellweger came next, admittedly wiping away tears following McDonald’s standing ovation. Roxie Hart from 2002’s Chicago had the honor of presenting Zadan and Meron with the inaugural Theater for Life Award. Following a clip reel, Zellweger ordered the audience to get on their feet to help shower Meron with praise.

“You are an excellent dresser and you are a funny and thoughtful and selfless friend. You are the Zen master and keeper of the collective cool. You are a man of great character, an advocate for what is right and true and you are among the greatest storytellers and producers that this town and the one on the other cast have ever known,” she said. “Your work with Craig has made history and shaped history and has changed lives. And all of us will be cheering you on as you continue down the road and expand on that extraordinary legacy.”

Meron kept his comments brief yet overflowing with gratitude.

“He was really honored properly tonight. It was through the power of theater that I actually met Craig. I was a college student doing a lecture series at my school and I reached out to him to come and lecture at the school and that’s how we started our friendship and subsequent collaboration,” he explained. “The power of theater has linked all of the performers and presenters here tonight. I wouldn’t have met Craig if it weren’t for the theater. I wouldn’t have met anybody if it weren’t for Craig and the power of theater, and for that I’m more than eternally grateful.”

Zadan’s husband, Elwood M. Hopkins, also confirmed Meron’s assertion that the night’s program was a proper tribute. “It’s hard to know if the way that you choose to honor someone when they’re gone is the right way. But when Neil first came over on the day Craig died and suggested that we reinvent tonight’s awards ceremony and dedicate it to Craig, I knew with 100% confidence that it was the right thing to do.... Of all the services and rituals and ceremonies we could organize, nothing would’ve meant more to Craig than tonight’s show. That’s because he was not religious in a traditional way but for him, theater was a sacred place.”

Elwood continued that Zadan loved when emotions were so strong that scripted dialogue alone “would not support it and the actors had to break out” into song. “Those were spiritual moments for him and that was his church experience,” he added.

Talk about spiritual moments. Jennifer Hudson, backed by a strong choir, delivered a hair-raising performance of the Hairspray tune “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Kenny Leon, a Tony Award winning vet of the stage who has segued to TV and film and back again, kept it going with the night’s most powerful podium moment.

“None of us are going to get out of here alive. It's how we spend our time and our talent that is most important,” said Leon tracing his history from poverty in Tallahassee, Fla. (one of 13 children growing up with no plumbing) to New York and eventually Broadway. “You moved that Broadway show to television and hired me to do Steel Magnolias.” Then came the live production of The Wiz followed by Hairspray. Now that Zadan is gone, Leon said he misses the threads of emails, the phone calls and the tears.

“I miss seeing him cry watching a scene in front of a monitor on a set. I miss him being moved by a musical phrase by Kristin Chenoweth or hearing a note beyond perfection delivered by Jennifer Hudson. I miss his mischievous laugh. I miss him saying I have to check with Bob. I love the tenor in his voice when he said things like, ‘My friend Renee. Or my friend John. My friend Barbra. My friend Audra. My friend Sean. My friend Kenny.' Just the way he says the word friend.”

Leon continued: “Like August Wilson said, 'You die by how you lived' — if that is true, then Craig transitioned profoundly and lived an exceptional life. If you die by how you live, we keep Craig with us by what he has left us.”

The night left all of us who were there with a finale featuring high school kids performing “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray. Dressed in vibrant yellow and cobalt blue, their faces were beaming with nervous excitement at the chance to strut their stuff for A-listers and Broadway royalty in the audience. 

For the track's final chorus, the 17 students joined hands and raised their chain of arms toward the ceiling just as the crowd of veteran performers leaped to their feet. The kids belted out in unison: “You can’t stop the beat. You can't stop the beat. You can't stop the beat. You can't stop the beat!"

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