InDepth InterView: Craig Zadan & Neil Meron Talk 2013 Academy Awards, Scoops, Broadway, Hollywood, Future Projects & More
Largely responsible for the movie musical revolution of the 21st century, setting the stage first with their groundbreaking work on TV in the 1990s with projects like GYPSY, CINDERELLA and ANNIE, then, with their feature film entries since - beginning with CHICAGO and continuing with HAIRSPRAY and more; to say nothing of SMASH - executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have bridged the gap between Broadway and Hollywood like no other producers before or since - and, all the while, totally on their own terms. Opening up about a vast array of productions, ranging from the aforementioned modern-day classic TV musicals all the way through to the films and stage shows - successful revivals of PROMISES, PROMISES and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING included - and their intimate affiliation with NBC's musical drama series SMASH, Zadan and Meron paint a vivid portrait displaying their fierce dedication to the performing arts and desire for excellence in all of their many, many endeavors, in whatever medium they may be. Plus, most importantly, Zadan and Meron clue us in on what we can anticipate from this Sunday's Academy Awards telecast, which they are producing - such as their experiences collaborating with controversial triple-threat host Seth MacFarlane, amassing the starriest assortment of musical performers in Oscar history (Barbra Streisand, Adele, Shirley Bassey, Norah Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jennifer Hudson among the performers announced so far), creating spectacular tributes to both James Bond in his fiftieth year on film and the modern movie musical revolution (showcasing no less than the reunions of cast members from CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS and this year's multi-nominated hit LES MISERABLES) as well as what will make this show truly unique and unforgettable.
Additionally, Zadan and Meron shed some light on their current and future plans and productions, among them: a BONNIE & CLYDE miniseries for the History Channel starring Emile Hirsch; a live TV production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC starring Carrie Underwood; two original movie musicals in development; and, original stage projects, too. All of that, memories of the remarkable LIFE WITH Judy Garland: ME & MY SHADOWS, Lifetime's record-breaking broadcast of the new 2012 STEEL MAGNOLIAS, comments on DROP DEAD DIVA's recent cancellation, news on a possible upcoming e-book edition of Zadan's peerless SONDHEIM & CO. biography and much, much more!
The 85th Annual Academy Awards air this Sunday, February 24, on ABC.
My Own Best Friend
PC: From CINDERELLA to ANNIE to CHICAGO to HAIRSPRAY until now, the impact that your projects have had on the new generation coming up is astonishing. You virtually re-introduced the movie musical. You both truly deserve a lot of credit for that.
CZ: Thank you for saying that, Pat.
NM: Thank you. I mean, just in speaking of CINDERELLA, we got an e-mail from Ted Chapin yesterday inviting us to the opening and saying, you know, "You are two of Cinderella's many godfathers." And, I have to say, I thought that was really sweet.
PC: How thoughtful of him. Have you seen the new Broadway production yet?
CZ: Not yet.
NM: No, we haven't been able to do anything - anything! [Laughs.]
PC: And you continue to have a musical presence on TV thanks to SMASH. I very much enjoyed the Season Two premiere and hope it sticks around.
CZ: Oh, good! I'm glad to hear that.
NM: I know - I'm glad to hear it, too. Honestly, I wish it did better in the ratings, though.
PC: It seems like the early premiere online of the first hour could have affected the numbers since it had already been available for a few weeks, don't you think?
NM: Well, not really. I mean, networks have done it in the past, and, usually, it does increase viewership - by putting it online, it drives word of mouth, and, in most cases, it increases the audience.
PC: Too bad the Super Bowl wasn't on NBC this year and SMASH couldn't have filled that 45-minute blackout! Bob Greenblatt would have used that situation to his advantage had it been in his hands, don't you think?
NM: Oh, yeah! Yeah. That was good for Bob's other show, though, REVOLUTION.
PC: Going back to the beginning: your first Broadway show together was UP IN ONE starring Peter Allen, correct?
CZ: Yeah, Neil and I worked together on that.
NM: That was our first show on Broadway but we had previously worked together on some things with Joe Papp's New York Theatre Festival.
PC: Speaking of that era, do you think the Michael Bennett story would make a compelling film someday?
CZ: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely.
NM: Are you kidding me?! It's a great story. A really great story. There are a lot of great stories on Broadway.
PC: You've told one of the other great show business stories brilliantly before: LIFE WITH Judy Garland: ME & MY SHADOWS.
CZ: Thanks for mentioning that. [Pause. Sighs.] God, we are so proud of that - that is certainly one of our crowning achievements on television. You know, I remember that we looked at it when it was done and we said, "It sure doesn't get any better than this in terms of acting, casting, writing, direction, cinematography - just everything." It was one of those things that worked out beautifully - sort of like CHICAGO did, as a feature, actually, in a lot of ways.
PC: How so?
CZ: Well, there's nothing about CHICAGO that we would change today and I don't think that there is anything about LIFE WITH Judy Garland that we would change today.
CZ: Yeah, we both think that they are kind of perfect.
PC: They are. Will a new edition of LIFE WITH Judy Garland be released with the entire VHS edition of the film intact someday?
NM: Well, you know what? Who knows. Unfortunately, we don't have the ownership of that, it sort of goes from company to company. So, maybe at some point somebody would see the worth in doing a great, new release of it.
CZ: You see, Miramax was sold and so it went to new owners. Miramax released the original DVD, so if the new owners see value to the movie and we could convince them to put out a really great Blu-ray then that would just be fantastic!
PC: It really would.
CZ: It's something that we sure would like to do. Actually, they are preparing now to do a brand new deluxe CHICAGO DVD and Blu-ray, since we are talking about that.
PC: What fantastic news.
CZ: It's the 10th anniversary this year.
PC: Will there be any new bonus features?
CZ: Well, the answer is yes but we don't know yet what they are. The truth is that we haven't really started working on it yet, but we know that there is going to be one and they have asked us to participate. We just haven't had time to do anything else for a while now because of this [the Oscars].
NM: But, the truth of it is that there really isn't anything much left on the cutting room floor for CHICAGO.
CZ: No, there really isn't.
PC: What we see in CHICAGO is everything that was filmed, more or less?
NM: Well, of course, there's "Class" [a deleted musical number], but that has been released on previous DVDs of it. But, in terms of new scenes or anything, there's not much else - what you see is what we shot pretty much.
CZ: What they are planning on being the big new feature is a documentary on CHICAGO ten years later.
PC: A great idea.
CZ: Yeah, they are going to go back to the entire cast and see where they are now and talk about it all with them.
NM: And, we'll have the whole cast on the Oscars on Sunday, too, so that will be a whole lot of fun.
PC: You can say that again! So, what can you tell me? Any "All That Jazz"? Will there be singing by the whole cast?
NM: [Long Pause. Clears Throat.] Well, there will be a [CHICAGO] performance, I can tell you that much. [Big Laugh.]
PC: How cryptic.
NM: Yes! "He says cryptically..." [Laughs.]
PC: Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones famously performed "I Move On" in 2002 on the telecast.
NM: Right! "I Move On" - we were all actually just talking about that, as a matter of fact.
PC: What have been some of your favorite telecasts over the years? Thoughts on the Allan Carr one?
CZ: Well, actually, I don't think we have anything to say about that one at all because we really don't want to criticize anyone else's show, you know? I will say, though, that to answer your question of which one is one of our favorites, it's definitely the one that Bill Condon and Larry Mark produced.
NM: Yeah, definitely.
CZ: We loved that show. We thought it was so good.
NM: If our show can be half as good as that then we will be really, really happy.
PC: Baz Luhrmann participated in that one, as well .
NM: Right! Right.
PC: What are your thoughts on his approach to material in general? You have not worked together yet, as far as I know, but in the future perhaps?
NM: No, we haven't worked together, but we think he is just a fantastic, fantastic, truly spectacular artist. He kind of goes with his own ideas and just is such a kind of self-motivated artist. He is brilliant.
PC: You all have had a hand in bringing the movie musical into the 21st century.
NM: Yes. I mean, you have to remember that MOULIN ROUGE actually pre-dated CHICAGO. MOULIN ROUGE came out prior to us even starting to film CHICAGO, so we were very aware of the buzz that he started with that and we really wanted to go forward with it [CHICAGO] and do a throwback to how they did movies of Broadway shows for years but didn't again really until CHICAGO.
PC: Were there paradigms in the past that you yearned to emulate - certain films that struck a chord with you?
CZ: Well, I think that the film for both Neil and I that we separately admired more than just about anything else was CABARET.
PC: A landmark.
NM: Totally. Totally.
CZ: You know, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Bob Fosse right before he died and I said to him, "Do you really have any understanding about how impactful your movie of CABARET has been?" And, he looked and me and he said, "No." And, I said, "Well, you know, it's considered by us and by many others as the greatest, most innovative movie musical ever made." And, then, he said, [Pause. Nonchalantly.] "Well, I think it's pretty good." [Laughs.]
PC: Selling himself short!
CZ: Yeah, he never really understood the accomplishment that that movie was, I don't think - and to the extent that it was. But, God, that movie was groundbreaking!
PC: It really was.
CZ: It was just so inspiring. It broke so many rules! It said: You can break so many rules with movie musicals; they don't just have to be little, simple musical comedies. They can be anything.
PC: CINDERELLA was unprecedented in its colorblind depiction of a fairy tale on television or on film, as well, as far as groundbreaking properties go.
NM: Right. Whoopi Goldberg was married to Victor Garber who had a Filipino son [Paolo Mantalban]. Bernadette Peters was the Wicked Stepmother who had one daughter who was white and one daughter that was African American. Jason Alexander was the Major Domo. And, of course, there was Whitney Houston and our wonderful Cinderella, Brandy.
PC: Next came A RAISIN IN THE SUN and now STEEL MAGNOLIAS continues the tradition even further - and what a great success that just was!
CZ: Thank you. Yes, we are really proud of that one.
NM: Thank you. We really loved that project.
PC: Do you anticipate another multi-ethnic project like those three in the future?
CZ: Well, not at the moment, although we really would like to find something. You know, A RAISIN IN THE SUN was a really remarkable experience for us in that we were looking to find something again, and, so, we thought, "What about taking a classic like STEEL MAGNOLIAS and doing it differently - doing it with an all-black cast; set it in a black town in the south instead of a white town in the south and show those differences."
PC: So, STEEL MAGNOLIAS was a rewarding experience for you both?
CZ: Oh, it was fabulous - we were thrilled to get the cast that we got. Kenny Leon directed - he did A RAISIN IN THE SUN for us, too, and he is always great. We loved what he did with it and we loved the finished film. And, it's the highest-rated Lifetime movie ever.
PC: How amazing.
CZ: Yeah! I mean, they had their biggest audience they ever had for a movie with STEEL MAGNOLIAS. We are very proud of that and of the film that we made.
PC: Also on Lifetime was your first TV series, DROP DEAD DIVA, which was recently cancelled. Do you think there could be a future for it on another network or online?
CZ: Well, I can tell you that it was cancelled, but we have heard in the last couple of days that there could be something going on with it that could resurrect it in a number of ways. It's completely unofficial and we don't know that it will actually happen, but we are hopeful that we will see it again and that it won't go away. We'll see what happens with it.
PC: There is still hope for Jane and company, then.
NM: There is. You know, it's just like the plot of the show; where somebody is killed, but then they come back to life in another form! [Laughs.]
NM: Art imitating life imitating art.
PC: Given the influence you have had in bringing movie musicals back to the forefront of pop culture and entertainment, how do you approach presenting your next project for that audience you have affected? You have some original movie musicals on horizon, yes?
NM: Oh, goodness! That's a lot to live up to when you put it like that. But, listen, we don't produce to target a certain audience. We don't say, "OK. We're going to do a movie for teenagers," or, "OK. We're going to do a movie for adults." We kind of produce what we get inspired about most and then hope there is an audience out there somewhere for it. So, to answer your question, I think that the audience responds when you are true to your own instincts, so to follow your own instincts will lead you to where you should go.
CZ: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it's the same way with the Oscars that we are producing right now. It's about, you know: "What Oscar show would we like to see?" And making it happen.
PC: And, what is that, exactly?
CZ: Well, Pat, you will see on Sunday night! [Laughs.]
PC: So: Shirley Bassey? Singing?
CZ: Yep. Yep.
NM: Yes. Dame Shirley Bassey, by the way! [Laughs.]
PC: Of course! One of the greatest movie theme voices of all time.
PC: And Adele will be singing "Skyfall" live for the first time, too?
NM: Yes. Adele will be singing "Skyfall".
PC: So there's no truth to the rumor that it will be a duet or that they maybe switched songs?
NM: No, no. Where are you hearing these rumors?! [Laughs.] I know, I know - we hear these things, too.
PC: Did you contact Carly Simon to sing "Nobody Does It Better", particularly given Marvin Hamlisch's passing?
CZ: No. We basically wanted to focus on just a few - I mean, we have Shirley Bassey and we have Adele and just that...
PC: ...is more than enough!
CZ: It is! I mean, this is a packed show! Totally packed. We have three movie musical casts, too - there is just so much stuff going on. There is actually more music in this show than there has been in an Oscar show, ever.
PC: What a landmark achievement.
NM: Ever! It's true.
PC: We have a lot to look forward to, then, for sure.
NM: And, of course, Barbra [Streisand] is performing, too!
PC: And that will be in the Marvin Hamlisch tribute?
NM: We never said that! [Laughs.] I think that goes with the Shirley Bassey singing "Skyfall" rumor, Pat!
PC: How did you become involved with Seth MacFarlane and deciding to ask him to host the show? Did he approach you?
NM: No, we approached him.
PC: What was the pitch?
NM: The pitch to Seth was that we had been longtime admirers of his from Family Guy - which we think is just awesome, as is all of his other work - and that we also knew of his devotion to musicals and film music and the fact that he sort of geeks out about orchestrators - and that is a great topic that he knows so much about and which we have since discussed. We told him that we knew about his great hosting abilities, even prior to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and we just felt that: if we are looking to do Bob Hope/Johnny Carson in a new way, it would be inevitable for us that all paths would lead to Seth. That is Seth - he is that guy.
PC: He's so au currant, as well.
NM: Yes. He's completely au currant, but, at the same time, he has great reverence for the past. I don't know if you've heard his album that he released last year [MUSIC IS BETTER THAN WORDS]...
PC: A real throwback gem.
NM: Yeah, it's just fantastic. A fantastic homage to that kind of performing and those kinds of orchestrations and that kind of music. So, he's going to bring that same kind of style, fun and dignity to the music that he will be doing on our show.
PC: Have you discussed the possibility of a musical film with him someday in the future? Maybe BARNUM?
NM: BARNUM! Ha! [Laughs.]
CZ: Well, I mean we've had an amazing time working with him and it's been a great, great collaboration and I think we all like each other a lot. And, yeah, to answer your question, I think we'd love to do projects with him in the future - on film, in theatre, on television; wherever. We'd love to figure out a way to continue our relationship.
PC: Seth as Ted from TED will be involved as well in Sunday's show, correct?
NM: Yes, yes - Ted will be presenting.
PC: How apt!
CZ: Yes, Ted will be presenting and we are very excited about that.
PC: Is it true that this will be the most hi-tech Oscar show, as well? The leaked pictures of the set make it seem quite spectacular and innovative.
NM: Oh, did you see the picture on my Twitter, too?
PC: Of course! We posted a story about it, actually.
NM: Oh, well, then I hope all the BroadwayWorld followers go see it - and follow me on Twitter, too. I'd love that.
PC: Seth would even be fantastic in a period piece, wouldn't he? Are you both Downton Abbey fans?
CZ: Oh, my God! Yes!
NM: Are you kidding me?! I love it.
PC: TV to film: What are your personal favorite films of the year? Can you even say?
CZ: We aren't actually allowed to answer that question. As producers of the show, we have to be neutral and the Academy does not like anyone involved with The Academy Awards talking about personal favorites or anything. We are supposed to give equal time to every movie on the show, so we are asked not to express our feelings towards any particular movies. But, I can tell you that we do feel that it is one of the great, great, great years of movie-making and we think that there is an amazing array of fantastic films this year.
PC: To say the very least - it's easily the best year for movies in the new millenium; especially since 2002, with CHICAGO.
NM: I think so, too. We have gotten really, really lucky! I've gotten e-mails from other Oscar producers that said, "F*ck you, you got lucky!"
PC: So, I take it that is going to be the title of your auto-bio-film then?
CZ & NM: [Big Laugh.]
PC: Before you go back to the big show, I wanted to touch upon a few projects in development or rumored. First; HAIRSPRAY 2? People seem to be very interested.
NM: Yes. HAIRSPRAY 2.
PC: What words, if any, can you share with me on that?
NM: "We wish." [Sighs.] We wish.
CZ: We wanted to do HAIRSPRAY 2 and we had a wonderful idea for it and everybody was on board for it and, then, suddenly, sort of at the last minute, New Line said, "We don't think we really want to do a sequel."
NM: And that's where it sits.
CZ: Yeah, after that it sort of just went away.
PC: A BONNIE & CLYDE miniseries on the History Channel has so much great potential. What can you tell me about the project?
NM: Yeah! It's really, really exciting.
PC: It has the potential to be a real water cooler-type event.
NM: Yes, it does. We are just thrilled with the script that we got for this thing. And, that script attracted the likes of Bruce Beresford to direct, Emile Hirsch to play Clyde and this brilliant new actress who is on The Borgias - she plays Lucrezia Borgia - named Holliday Grainger, who is going to be playing Bonnie. We also have William Hurt and Holly Hunter in it, as well.
PC: Wow! What a cast. When do you start shooting?
NM: We start shooting that at the end of March. We go right from the Oscars to Baton Rouge!
PC: Wow! What a whirlwind. So, what is immediately after that for you two, then?
NM: Well, the thing we are looking forward to most is at the end of the year, which is THE SOUND OF MUSIC, starring Carrie Underwood, on NBC. We are very excited about that.
PC: Any hints for the casting of the Captain?
NM: We honestly don't have any idea yet. None. Honestly, you'd be the first to know, Pat!
CZ: We really don't know yet.
PC: What about Rob Lowe? That's a pervasive rumor.
NM: Oh, really?! I don't know - maybe! I really love hearing everybody's casting ideas, though.
PC: Will you be doing a big box set with all your movie musicals someday or do clearances and such make that impossible?
NM: No. Unfortunatley, we don't have ownership of them
PC: Do you have any opinion on the new ANNIE film remake being produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z? Are you involved?
NM: No. We are not involved.
CZ: We aren't involved at all. It's hard to say because we don't know anything about it. We don't have any feelings towards it whatsoever, but we of course wish them the best of luck with it and we hope it is cool and exciting and wonderful and all of that. We don't really know anything about it or what they are going to do with it.
PC: Your ANNIE is a superb adaptation, in any event, so it will be very difficult to top.
CZ: Thank you for saying that. Yeah, Thomas Meehan loved our ANNIE and Charles Strouse really loved our ANNIE, too. It was a lot of fun to do that.
PC: Victor Garber was a superb Daddy Warbucks and he has participated in many projects of yours. He recently has come out, so I was curious if you had any comment on that, particularly as recipients of many LGBT awards yourselves?
NM: Oh, well, you know what? I introduced him to his partner!
PC: No way!
NM: Yeah! So, I guess I'm the matchmaker. [Laughs.] We love Victor. You know, we have been fortunate to work with a certain group of actors time and time again and at the top of that list is certainly Victor Garber.
PC: And Queen Latifah, who will be appearing onstage on Sunday, no doubt, as well.
NM: Right. We have had such remarkable success with the actors we have been lucky enough to work with time and time again.
CZ: Queen Latifah did CHICAGO, HAIRSPRAY and STEEL MAGNOLIAS with us - all big, big hits.
PC: That's a tremendous track record!
NM: We love, love, love Queen Latifah.
PC: Are there any plans for another musical comedy in the vein of HAIRSPRAY in the future for you?
NM: Oh, we'd love that - we'd love to.
PC: Dramatic musicals seem to be the more Oscar-bait projects of late, though you could change that again.
NM: You know, as long as it is entertaining and it has potential, it can take any shape or form, I think.
PC: Lastly: is there a SONDHEIM & CO. e-book on the way someday, Craig?
CZ: Well, it's funny you mention that, Pat, because I always wanted to re-publish it and do a new edition, but, because publishing is sort of going down the tubes, nobody wants to do a new edition now. But, I do have the opportunity, if I decide to, to do an e-book of it, but I have just had to put everything - everything - on hold until The Academy Awards show is over.
PC: This will be the first - and ultimate - Broadway Oscars!
NM: We certainly hope so! We hope that moments from this show go into Musical Mondays.
PC: It will be the FOLLIES of Academy Awards telecasts!
CZ & NM: [Laughs.]
PC: Seriously, though, have you two ever considered FOLLIES on film?
CZ: Oh, yeah.
NM: Sure. Sure. But, again, we've been fortunate enough to work so consistently that we have found that we only want to do projects that we feel like we can really conquer.
PC: Craig wrote the book on Sondheim, literally, so if anybody is ever going to do FOLLIES right...
CZ: Just let me finish this Oscar show first! [Laughs.]
PC: One thing at a time, right?
CZ: Yeah - right now, for us, we just hope everyone likes the show that we are doing this Sunday.
PC: Thank you both so much for this today. It will unquestionably be an Academy Awards to remember for years to come thanks to the participation of you two.
NM: Thank you, Pat. We read your columns all the time - we both just love BroadwayWorld. Bye bye.
CZ: Yeah, we love the site and we love what you guys are doing. Thank you so much, Pat. Bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, 2013 Academy Awards, Miramax, Disney, ABC, Lifetime, etc.
More On: SMASH, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Seth MacFarlane, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey, Norah Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Hudson, James Bond.