InDepth InterView: Craig Zadan & Neil Meron Talk THE SOUND OF MUSIC: LIVE!, PIPPIN Movie, Oscars 2014, Upcoming Projects & More
Last night I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to two of the hottest producers in Hollywood and on Broadway all about their recent smash hit December with the ratings bonanza of NBC's live presentation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC as well as the three-network tent-pole two-night TV event, BONNIE & CLYDE - the peerless Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Discussing all aspects of the unprecedented live presentation of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Zadan and Meron outline the process of bringing the gigantic production to the small screen with such grace and grant us a vivid look behind the scenes of the big show. Additionally, Zadan and Meron comment on the social media frenzy that occurred during the 24+ million-viewed telecast as well as their reaction to criticism of country music superstar Carrie Underwood in the starring role. Plus, Zadan and Meron also clue us in on what elements they seek out in special events such as this as we look ahead to next year's confirmed major live NBC musical - but, whatever could the property be?! Besides all about THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Zadan and Meron also offer us the 411 on a number of other projects immediately upcoming in 2014 and beyond, with a special focus on their just-announced Harvey Weinstein collaboration on a feature film version of Stephen Schwartz's beloved PIPPIN, as well as an update on a forthcoming original Beach Boys jukebox musical currently in development and preliminary information on the pilot for a new musical series inspired by Grammy Award-winning songwriter Diane Warren titled SONGBYRD, set to shoot on location in New York City in January. All of that, reflections on last year's sensational Academy Awards broadcast hosted by the controversial Seth MacFarlane and a look ahead to this year's Zadan & Meron-produced Oscars show - set to be hosted by daytime queen Ellen Degeneres - as well as stories from their early years producing cabaret showcases and penning books on theatre as well as much, much more in this all-encompassing conversation with the most important men in movie musicals.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC: LIVE! is now available on DVD here and the soundtrack is available here.
An Extraordinary Couple
PC: THE SOUND OF MUSIC was simply extraordinary - incomparable. I cannot congratulate you two enough! It was a huge hit.
NM: That is so nice.
CZ: Thanks for saying that, Pat. We just figured that every 53 years we should do a live Broadway show on TV.
CZ & NM: [Big Laugh.]
PC: And did you ever! CINDERELLA was an original musical, though - would you two consider ever doing a musical's premiere live?
NM: I think that idea certainly crossed our minds, but I think that we felt like we had to get the audience familiar with the genre again before we started introducing something original.
PC: A valid concern.
NM: Yeah - you know, get them used to the idea that musicals can live on TV and then take it from there.
PC: Exactly how much of the show was staged and prepared before you even started rehearsals? Did Carrie Underwood start earlier than everyone else?
NM: Well, in regards to Carrie, she knew that she was the neophyte of the group, so she worked extra, extra hard. And, when she showed up for the first day of rehearsal, she knew the entire book for the show and she also knew the entire score. She had been studying with a vocal coach and she went to Salzburg herself to research the actual Maria and the Von Trapps.
PC: She was fully prepared in more ways than one, then.
NM: Yes. Then, Rob Ashford directed it like it was a Broadway show - with a full rehearsal period. And we proceeded from there.
PC: Dealing with child actors and a relative acting neophyte, were the numbers with Maria and the children afforded extra care?
NM: Well, again, it was all treated as if we were doing a Broadway show, so it followed all of that, all along - in terms of rehearsal days for the music, acting and dancing.
CZ: And then we got to go all the way to the first preview, which was closing night! [Laughs.]
NM: It was the out-of-town tryout, opening night and closing night! [Laughs.]
PC: We just premiered a photo of you posing with the cast taken minutes after the show ended, at the wrap party. Did you have any inkling that it was a smash, at least judging by the overwhelming response the event was receiving online?
CZ: Well, I mean, I've never seen anything on social media that exploded like this thing did - it was insane.
PC: It was like the queen had died or something!
CZ: Exactly! Exactly.
PC: What was your reaction to the negative criticism of Carrie's performance, both armchair observers and critics themselves?
NM: I think that when you have something with as big an audience as we luckily had for it, people are going to have a lot of opinions. It's just the world that we live in. As for Craig and myself? We couldn't have been happier with Carrie. We are very, very proud of her and we stand behind the choice of her casting - everyone on our team, including the Rodgers & Hammerstein people, are totally, totally thrilled with Carrie and her performance.
CZ: And, also, I think we are used to this by this point. When we did CHICAGO and we announced Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah, everybody went crazy and said, "What are they doing?! What are they thinking?!" And, now, you look at the movie and you see that we chose the people that we wanted for that movie and we were so proud of all of them. That's the movie we wanted. It's the same way when we did HAIRSPRAY - from day one, we had one choice and only one choice for Edna and it was John Travolta. Period. And, of course, we were very pleased with John in the role.
PC: The precedent has been set, clearly.
CZ: Yeah, I mean, when we did the Judy Garland miniseries [ME & MY SHADOWS: LIFE WITH Judy Garland], we knew we wanted Judy Davis to play Judy Garland from the very beginning and everyone was going, "But, how can you hire an Australian actress to play an American icon?" So, we've been through this before.
PC: More than once.
CZ: Last year at the Oscars, people thought it was a controversial choice to hire Seth MacFarlane to host, too. But, you know, we always try to go with the more interesting and perhaps more controversial casting - that's the way that we see things.
NM: And, in terms of cutting through a lot of clutter that's now out there in terms of the entertainment world and just in the world today in general, you have to make a provocative choice and you have to find a way to bring notice to your show, and we felt that Carrie is really, really smart casting for all of those reasons - and also because she is brave enough to go out there and sing it live!
PC: And you had faith that she could do it well, clearly.
NM: Absolutely! Absolutely. And, she gave a really, really good performance. We are very, very pleased with her performance.
CZ: You know, I think the biggest surprise happened when we recorded the cast album, weeks before we did the live broadcast - I remember being in the studio and thinking to myself, "It's really a shame - everybody sounds so gorgeous in the studio recording this album and now we are going to go out there and do it live and the live performance is never, ever going to equal this." And, the irony of it is that all the actors sounded exactly the same! [Laughs.]
PC: They did. Will you two ever record a commentary track for the broadcast and fill us in on all the details? Your tracks on GYPSY and CHICAGO are so illuminating.
CZ: Well, as you know, the DVD came out this week - which is probably the fastest release of a DVD from a live telecast on record...
PC: I wouldn't doubt it!
CZ: We finished the broadcast that night and we had to have the entire DVD assembled by 7 AM the next morning.
PC: There are a few slight edits, correct? The Admiral's line flub has been corrected.
NM: Yes. Yes.
CZ: Yes. We took that from the day before, when we did the dress rehearsal.
PC: Some other slight gaffes such as the stepping on the dress moment remain, though, do they not?
NM: Yes, that is still there.
CZ: We kept that in.
PC: Fans usually enjoy little idiosyncrasies like that.
NM: We wanted to indicate that it was live, so, of course, we left in some things like that - you know, some microphone wires are visible on the actors in certain scenes and a camera got in the way of one of the shots, so there are things like that that we kept in. It's not perfect - that's why we did it live!
PC: Yet it achieved cinematic smoothness while also remaining theatrical throughout - which was no small feat.
CZ: We had some comments from some people that said, "Oh, they should have done it in front of a live audience in A real BROADWAY theater," and we said, "That's PBS!" We didn't set out to do that - we set out to do something that was more cinematic and something that is more cinematic can only be done on soundstages with movie sets. You can't do that on a Broadway stage in front of a Broadway audience because that has limited appeal - of course, for PBS it's awesome and it's thrilling and it's wonderful, but that's that and that's something different. If you are going to be on NBC and reach the enormous audience that we reached, you've got to make it look cinematic like it is a beautiful show with beautiful sets and lighting and costumes - and you can only do that the way that we did it. So, again, everybody has their idea of how it should be done, but the truth of the matter is that: if they get the rights to a show and they get the money to put it on and they produce it, then they can do it their way.
PC: A healthy perspective to maintain.
NM: And, also, what we were really trying to do was to recreate the way that it was done in the 1950s - there was no studio audience for CINDERELLA; there was no studio audience for PETER PAN; that was the accepted way that you did the genre and that's the way that we did it.
PC: Was THE SOUND OF MUSIC always your first choice? I've heard OKLAHOMA! was an early consideration, as well - is that true?
NM: What the trajectory of it was that we got a call from Bob Greenblatt, who is the chairman of NBC, and he pitched us the idea of doing a TV movie of OKLAHOMA! Now, Craig and I have always wanted to do a live musical on TV because we thought that would be the next step in the evolution - it would be something that would be of interest to us in terms of doing it because it would be something totally new; we've done filmed musicals for TV and we've done movie musicals. So, we thought that this would be the next logical step - especially looking at the age of television we are in and where we are going; especially how popular live programming is.
PC: Between reality results shows and awards shows alone...
NM: Right! So, we pitched him the idea of doing a live SOUND OF MUSIC based on that. And, Bob is a wonderful forward-thinker and he understood what we were trying to do immediately and he thought that doing something like this, with Carrie Underwood, would be a very, very noisy TV event and no truer words were ever said!
PC: I was curious: NBC has a prior association with GREASE given their reality show, so do they have ownership of it?
NM: No, no - they don't. I don't know where that rumor comes from - they didn't get the rights to it because of that.
CZ: Yeah - Paramount did the movie of GREASE, so they own GREASE, I think.
NM: Actually, the only network I know of that owns any musical is CBS and they only partially own MY FAIR LADY, I believe.
PC: Can you give us any hints on what next year's choice is not since you can't tell us what it is yet? OKLAHOMA!?
NM: It's not OKLAHOMA! - and, I'll also tell you, it isn't OH, CALCUTTA! [Laughs.]
PC: [Joking.] What about DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES or CARRIE?
NM: Now, there are some possibilities! [Laughs.]
PC: Small screen to big screen, The Academy Awards are coming up and this has been a particularly theatrical year - FROZEN, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY and beyond.
NM: It has. It has.
PC: So, is it true Idina Menzel may be performing "Let It Go" live at the Oscars?
NM: Honestly, we haven't made any decisions yet - it's way too early still. I mean, we still don't know if the song is even going to be nominated!
PC: Coming after last year's slick and spicy show, will this be a similar type experience or will you be doing something quite different?
CZ: Oh, it's radically, radically different - not because we didn't feel like we were happy with last year, because we were thrilled with last year, but, it's simply a matter of: if you're going to do the same exact show, why even bother doing it?
NM: And, also, the host really reflects the type of show that you are going to do, and, certainly with Ellen she will bring along with her the Ellen-ization of the Oscars this year.
PC: Ellen has such a great rapport with so many film and music stars - it should surely be a warm room. Did you intentionally want to choose someone very well-loved in the industry?
CZ: Well, we really wanted to choose someone we loved! [Laughs.]
PC: That works, too!
CZ: Seriously, though - we've known Ellen for a very, very, very long time personally.
PC: Have you ever worked together prior to the Oscars 2014?
CZ: Well, we meant to work with her many times - she has come to us with projects and we have gone to her with projects and we always planned to work together but we never found anything quite right. So, when we decided to come back and do the Oscars again, the first thing that Neil and I said to each other, immediately, was, "It's gotta be Ellen!"
PC: She was your first choice?
CZ: Yes. So, we went to Ellen, not knowing whether she would accept or not - because, you know, it's the most difficult job in show business because you go out there and it's like the scariest job in the world! All that people do is rip you to shreds, whether you are brilliant or not brilliant, so, as a result, you've got to really be able to withstand that kind of attack - and she has had so much experience now, especially because of the talk show and hosting a show like that for all these years, in front of a live audience every single day, week after week. She really has such a confidence and a sense of calm - plus, she knows how to ad-lib and be really funny, too; and, I think that she's at the height of her craft right now.
PC: Plus, she has dealt with controversy before, just between coming out and her American Idol stint. Do you feel there is a pervasive negativity throughout social media in general these days to anticipate?
NM: I think that just because of the popularity of it and the sheer amount of people that use social media these days that everybody has a voice that they want to be heard and everybody has an opinion and it's certainly a changing world and it's the world that we live in. So, we have to be used to millions of voices yammering at us all the time.
PC: Your own next bid for an Oscar may very well be the just-announced PIPPIN movie musical - a post-CHICAGO collaboration with Harvey Weinstein, who has cited it as his favorite musical, yes?
CZ: We were really happy when we got that call. I mean, we had the greatest time of our lives doing CHICAGO for him and we always say, since we see Harvey all the time, "When are we going to reunite and do something else?" So, over the years, we have looked at a couple of things, but when he said, "I really, really wanna do PIPPIN as a movie," we said, "We really love PIPPIN and we have a longstanding relationship with Stephen Schwartz," who we just adore. So, Harvey said, "So, why don't you come on and produce it and we will produce PIPPIN together?" So, we said, "Oh, my God! We'd love to!" So, he offered it to us and we said yes. And, so, now we are starting the process of putting it together.
PC: PIPPIN is one of the most malleable and potentially cinematic musicals imaginable given the treatment of the material and the fantastical possibilities it presents, would you agree?
NM: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah. It's a wonderful, wonderful cornucopia of things that we can do with it. We are very excited.
PC: Have you started preliminary casting considerations? Justin Timberlake seems a perfect fit for the Leading Player.
NM: Oh, Pat, we can't even begin to think of that yet! [Laughs.]
PC: Had you two ever considered producing PIPPIN onstage?
NM: We never had considered producing it on Broadway. It was just something that we always sort of coveted from the side, so when Harvey got the screenwriter and when we got the phonecall, we were really, really thrilled. We're coming in from the sidelines.
PC: Selections from the score are so well-known - especially the Jackson 5 singles from the '70s like "Corner Of The Sky".
PC: Have you two worked with Stephen Schwartz previously?
NM: We have never really worked together, except if you count something we did in the '70s - Craig and I presented him at a nightclub in Soho called The Ballroom and we presented a night of him doing his own work. This was way back in the '70s.
PC: What a great memory!
NM: Yeah - we did a series of club acts for Broadway composers and lyricists that we called BROADWAY AT THE BALLROOM. So, it started with Sheldon Harnick and Charles Strouse and then we had Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice...
PC: No way!
NM: We did! It was actually the first time that anyone had performed the songs from EVITA in America.
PC: What a part of theatre history!
NM: Yeah, it was really wonderful. I remember we had Harold Rome, too. We had Carolyn Leigh, too - performing her lyrics. But, yeah, Stephen was a part of that series we did.
PC: Do you remember if he performed any PIPPIN material?
NM: Oh, I'm sure he did. The whole series was a great joy for us to do and we always had special guest stars at The Ballroom, too - I remember Barbara Cook came down to do a show there for us and Sheldon Harnick and some others. It went on and on and on.
PC: Craig was busy writing SONDHEIM & CO. during that era, yes?
CZ: This was post-SONDHEIM & CO., actually.
PC: Having produced more movie musicals than any other team...
NM: Don't forget Arthur Freed!
PC: Having produced more movie musicals in the last fifty years than any other team, why no Sondheim shows yet?
NM: Well, we did do GYPSY, but...
PC: Maybe WEST SIDE STORY then next year on NBC? What an awesome pick that could be!
CZ & NM: [Laughs.]
PC: Is there a Sondheim show in particular you want to do onscreen someday?
CZ: Well, for years, we had the rights to INTO THE WOODS and we were going to make the feature film version of it, what, 12 or 15 years ago?
NM: Yeah - we even had Steve write two new songs for it.
PC: "Rainbows" included.
NM: That's right - which was just in the revival of MARRY ME A LITTLE.
PC: And in A BED AND A CHAIR, as well. Plus, there is also a new "I Wish", as you know, of course. Are either in the new film, as far as you know?
CZ: Yep - "Rainbows" is, I think.
PC: So, these were the readings with Cher as the Witch and an incredibly starry assorted ensemble?
NM: Yes. That's right.
CZ: Yes. Exactly.
NM: It was a legendary reading - at Penny Marshall's house.
CZ: I remember doing the reading and we were producing it and it was at a time when nobody - nobody - wanted to go through with producing movie musicals. Nobody wanted to make it - we tried and tried and tried.
PC: What a shame. At least it is finally happening now!
CZ: There was also a time for about five minutes when we had the rights to SWEENEY TODD.
PC: I wasn't aware of that. What's the story there?
CZ: We did. And, the person we brought in to direct it was Tim Burton.
NM: This was a long time ago, too - back in the mid-'90s.
CZ: I'll tell you right when it was, actually - it was right after MARS ATTACKS. MARS ATTACKS came out at the moment that we were going to do SWEENEY TODD and it was going to be Tim Burton's next film.
PC: Who would you have cast as Sweeney?
CZ: Oh, well, who even remembers who was around at that time who would have been good casting? [Laughs.]
PC: Do you rack your memory for potential casting from the countless auditions you have seen?
NM: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We do.
PC: Is Audra McDonald in THE SOUND OF MUSIC an example of that?
NM: Well, this is our third time working with Audra now, actually - first she was Miss Grace in ANNIE that we did for TV and then she did RAISIN IN THE SUN with us. Because of that, and now with THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Audra likes to say that we all get to work together once a decade. [Laughs.]
PC: And in ten years you two can do another GYPSY, starring her!
CZ & NM: [Laughs.]
PC: What a bold move it was to cast her - and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" is now a classic TV moment, to say the least.
CZ: For us, the first big thing was getting Carrie, and, so once we had Carrie - we knew how important casting that part was and getting Carrie - one of the most important things to us at that moment then was to get Audra to play the Mother Abbess. We knew we wanted her from day one.
PC: It was always a forgone casting conclusion, then?
CZ: Day one. Day one. We never even considered anyone else - ever. We just thought she would bring something so unique and original to it - and, we love colorblind casting anyway. And, so, we said to each other, "There is no better casting - no one can sing 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' better than Audra."
PC: And you were right!
CZ: We always, always wanted her - from day one. And, honestly, it was a little tricky because at one point we thought that we wouldn't get her because she had such a long concert tour already booked and so she said, "I can't really do it because I am going to be out on the road." And, so, we really went through a lot of machinations to arrange the rehearsal schedule around her concert tour dates.
PC: You make it work.
NM: Yeah - we did.
CZ: We did. We determined that we would do anything - anything - to get her. And, we did. I remember when we stood there on that set and she sang "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" live for the first time, people were crying around her. I mean, after that, we just said, "Well, that's why we were so determined that we couldn't have anybody but Audra McDonald do that."
PC: She sang it brilliantly at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on NBC the night before, as well.
CZ: Yes, she was fantastic at the tree-lighting.
NM: A little-known fact I'll reveal about that is she actually recorded it the week before, though.
PC: I assumed you two wouldn't let her perform outside the night before a live broadcast, but I wasn't sure!
NM: Oh, no, no, no! But, you could actually tell it wasn't live because of the weather - it was snowy and rainy, and the night of the Christmas tree-lighting was crystal-clear! [Laughs.]
CZ: Yeah - actually, when the Christmas tree-lighting was happening, we were having our run-through.
NM: That's true! I remember we actually had it on in the truck while we were watching the run-through - without the sound on, of course.
PC: Was a follow-up to THE SOUND OF MUSIC always planned if the telecast was a hit?
NM: Yes, I believe so.
CZ: Yes. And, now, as you know, they want to run one every year as a perennial on NBC.
PC: As for your spate of upcoming projects - what can you tell us about the new musical TV series SONGBYRD?
NM: Yes! SONGBYRD starts shooting in mid-January in New York City.
PC: It's based on Diane Warren songs, correct?
NM: Yes. For the pilot, we have gone to her back catalogue if it goes to series then she will write new songs for it, too.
PC: What can you tell us about it?
NM: Well, it's inspired by her life, certainly, and we are taking elements of her life and mixing it with fictional elements. It's inspired by her, though.
PC: Another TV project you have is HAPPYLAND, featuring Josh Groban?
NM: Well, Josh Groban actually did a cameo in the pilot episode of that - he is a friend of the creator of the show and so he did him a favor by appearing in the pilot.
PC: Would you consider enmeshing him a musical project someday, too?
NM: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. We are gigantic fans of Josh Groban's.
PC: Also, Drop Dead Diva comes back next year, as well, yes?
NM: Yes. We are renewed for a full Season Six - 13 episodes.
CZ: Yep. We come back next year for a whole new season.
PC: BONNIE & CLYDE was also a huge unparalleled success last week, as well, needless to say - the first three-network airing ever, correct?
CZ: Yep. It was.
NM: It's never been done before with scripted programming.
PC: Has the same producing team ever produced two major TV events like THE SOUND OF MUSIC and BONNIE & CLYDE in one week like this as far as you know?
NM: Well, it was quite a week for us - let me tell you! [Laughs.]
PC: What's next for vacation, then?
NM: The Oscars are our vacation, of course!
PC: Lastly, given the huge success of the recent HIT LIST concert at 54 Below, I was curious what you thought of the SMASH reunion of sorts?
NM: Oh, we're thrilled that it has a life of its own! It's just fantastic.
PC: Have you seen any of the clips from the event yet?
NM: No, we've been so busy that we haven't seen them yet, unfortunately. We are thrilled that it has this other life, though - SMASH lives.
PC: You would be OK with people doing something similar again, I take it?
NM: Oh, yeah! We think it's just fantastic.
PC: Do you plan on producing anything for the stage yourselves in the near future?
CZ: Let me just say to that: we will be back and we will be doing a lot of theatre. There will be a whole bunch of theatre from us that we are actually planning right now - you will see us back on Broadway soon. And, I can tell you that we are working on a play and we are working on a musical, so we are going to be back with a play and a musical.
PC: You have two original movie musicals in development, too, do you not?
CZ: Yes. The one that is the most active is The Beach Boys one that we have at FOX. It is an original film musical using The Beach Boys back catalogue.
PC: This was an absolute pleasure, gentlemen - I cannot thank you enough for all you have done and do!
CZ: Just let me say, Pat: Neil and I are most thrilled that we were able to bring musical theatre to the enormous audience that THE SOUND OF MUSIC reached. We are really, really proud of that - you know, our dream was to do musicals and movie musicals and now to do something live and get America exposed to the kind of musical that THE SOUND OF MUSIC is; and show them the difference between the movie and the play... no matter how you look at it, it was a huge success and we are so, so proud. So, we will be back on NBC next Christmas with another live movie musical.
NM: And, until then - let the Tweeting begin! [Laughs.] Thank you so much, Pat. Happy New Year.
CZ: Yeah - thank you so much for your support, Pat. Happy New Year. Bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro