BWW Exclusive: THE WIZ LIVE! Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron Discuss Recent Wins at NAACP Image Awards; Plus GREASE, HAIRSPRAY, BOMBSHELL & More!
Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose work has traversed film, television and theatre, have earned a total of six Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, 14 Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, a Grammy Award, six GLAAD Awards and two Tony Awards. Their work includes THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE, HAIRSPRAY, FOOTLOOSE, CHICAGO, THE BUCKET LIST, PETER PAN LIVE, THE WIZ LIVE, GYPSY, CINDERELLA, THE MUSIC MAN, PROMISES, PROMISES, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS... and so much more.
Most recently, for their work on THE WIZ LIVE, they were honored earlier this week by the NAACP. At the Image Awards ceremony on Thursday evening, THE WIZ received two awards, including Outstanding Actor in a TV-Movie, Miniseries or Dramatic Special (David Alan Grier) and Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series, or Dramatic Special.
Zadan and Meron took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld about their big wins and the incredible experience of working on THE WIZ LIVE, as well as the early stages of some of their upcoming projects, including bringing HAIRSPRAY to live-television audiences and taking BOMBSHELL to Broadway. Check out the full interview below!
BWW: So, THE WIZ LIVE won two NAACP Image Awards this week!
Craig: The NAACP Awards have always been important, always, but they've taken on a new meaning this year because of the controversy about diversity and all the stuff that's been argued and written about and all the contentiousness. And it makes us really proud to have a show like THE WIZ go on the air with an all African-American cast and many of our creative team African-American.
BWW: Well, that's of course something you guys have been doing long before it's been in vogue, so what did last night's honor mean to you?
Neil: You know, we were very proud of THE WIZ because so many people care about it and it's such an important piece to so many people, that we felt a sense of real responsibility in terms of putting together the best people to execute the vision. And to have it turn out the way it did, and to have it move people and touch people, and then to be honored by the NAACP was very emotional because it signified that we did our job. Craig and I had a particular love of THE WIZ because we both saw it when it was originally done in 1975 and felt the joy from it at that moment, and we wanted - we hoped - that it would be conveyed again for a whole new generation...for them to kind of, put all the problems of the outside world and all the bullcrap that's been happening outside with the shootings, and the racial divide, and just celebrate a great message and great talent and - just experience the better side of life.
BWW: Very well said. And you got to celebrate with some of the cast last night as well?
Neil: Yes, yes, we were there with Shanice and Elijah Kelley and...you know, what a great thing for Shanice in particular, to have this be her first project, have this be THE WIZ, have her play Dorothy, and have it turn out the way it did and have it be embraced by so many people. For her basically just walking in off the streets that one rainy Saturday...where she waited in line with six or seven hundred other girls, and getting that part to that moment to having her go up onstage and really, really accept the award is kind of a great journey. And very inspirational.
BWW: How is she adjusting to her new life as an up-and-coming star?
Neil: She's still - you know, she's still a 19-year-old girl. She's loving everything and loving life and loving all the possibilities that THE WIZ opened up for her.
Craig: I think she also walked into a situation that's so rare because we discovered, when we put the cast together, that it was an unusual experience that we hadn't experienced before, which is...this cast fell in love with each other from day one. And, they were really like a family. Now, people say when you do a TV show, when you do a movie, it's like a family. But, to be honest with you, it's not really like a family...it's sort of like a manufactured family. But this wasn't, this was like a real family. These people were major in love with each other. When we approached the air date with each of the other shows, people were like, "Oh my God, I'm so nervous, I'm so scared - it's live, what if I screw it up?" and all that. There was such terror involved in the experience, as would be. And here, these people were like, "Oh, I'm so sad. We're gonna do it tomorrow live, and then...it's over. We're not gonna get to do it again, and we're not gonna get to see each other every day." So, there was like this sort of melancholy that they didn't want it to be over. It was a very unique situation for each cast member and a unique situation for me and Neil because I don't think anyone has experienced anything quite like this before.
BWW: And is the hope still to get some of the family with you when the show comes to Broadway?
Neil: Yeah, that would be really the icing, to have as many people as we can from the TV version to do it on Broadway. And you know, in one form or another, there have been discussions with all of them, and it's not that any of them don't want to do it. It's about scheduling and seeing if it can work with everybody's busy life.
Craig: It's so funny because before we did the show for television, some of the people didn't even want to talk about Broadway because they said, "You know, let's just do the TV show." And by the time we aired, they were coming to us and saying, "Can we talk about the Broadway show?" Because, you know, it goes back to the fact that they loved it so much and they had such a great time. Also, half of the cast was coming to THE WIZ with a love for the Broadway show with Stephanie Mills, and half of the cast was coming to it with a love for the Diana Ross movie. What we did was, we merged both, where the people who loved the movie and loved the show all could love one piece because it was theatre, but it was also television. There was something about it that was like, taking the essence of both and doing the best version of it possible.
BWW: Have you told them yet what you make on Broadway?
Neil: [laughs] You know, some of them already know.
Craig: Some of them know, the rest we're keeping it from. But what's been so great is, we feel artistically that we got our team to do probably the best work yet. We think the sets and costumes were...stunning. We thought the entire cast was remarkable, where it felt like the Olympics. It felt like every scene somebody came out, did their number, killed, and left. And then the next person came out and the next person. And, you know, sometimes when you see a show like that, with that many stars, you say, "Well, so-and-so was good and so-and-so was less good and so-and-so was better." But for us they each stepped out and...you know, Mary J. Blige came and killed, and Stephanie Mills came and killed, and Uzo Aduba came and killed and...Amber Riley came and killed. Every single one of these people came out and they were like, oh my God! Does it ever end? And it didn't, thank God, they were all astonishing.
Also, Neil and I had to keep a big secret during the whole show because we weren't allowed to tell anybody, but we knew that Amber was gonna go on to do Effie in Dreamgirls. And we were so excited for her, but we weren't allowed to say anything, of course, until they announced it yesterday. But we just think that she's gonna be astonishing. And we're very proud of her.
Neil: Especially under Casey Nicholaw's direction.
BWW: Yeah, it's very exciting, and hopefully it'll make its way here next.
Craig: I'm sure it will.
BWW: So as pioneers in the field, did you guys watch GREASE this week?
Neil: Oh, of course.
Craig: We did watch GREASE.
Neil: Very happily, we loved what they did, and felt like very, very proud parents - for setting the genre on its path and watching it grow and evolve and take on such energy and scope and such professionalism with such great performances. So, it was kind of wonderful to watch.
Craig: We're aware of the fact that what they did with it was so appropriate for GREASE, and unique for GREASE. Obviously we couldn't have done something like that with THE SOUND OF MUSIC. We couldn't have had audiences sitting on bleachers, cheering as the Nazis came in. It was so right for GREASE, and I think you try to create a style and tone and production that's appropriate for the particular musical that you're doing.
BWW: So, anything you could tell us about HAIRSPRAY, or is it too early?
Neil: No, we're just at the very beginning part of the process, and we're just talking and reaching out to various people to assemble a creative team that makes sense for HAIRSPRAY.
Craig: Also, we're starting to have preliminary conversations with actors, and getting tremendous response. So, we're kind of optimistic that we'll have as exciting a cast for HAIRSPRAY as we did for THE WIZ. We think we'll be able to assemble amazing people, so we're excited about it. We thought very hard as to what the next one was gonna be for us, after THE WIZ. And even though we had done the movie version of HAIRSPRAY a number of years ago, of course, we felt that the subject matter was so timely for now. We felt that we wanted to do a multi-racial cast. So, the idea of having a half-cast of white and half-cast of black and really having that diversity in our cast was really important to us this year. We couldn't think of a show with more energy and excitement - and talk about showstoppers - than to do HAIRSPRAY. And it also allowed us an opportunity, that while we're working on HAIRSPRAY and putting it together as a live show, we're gonna be with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman everyday and be able to work together simultaneously on the Broadway production of BOMBSHELL.
BWW: So you'll have a lot of folders with you.
BWW: And how are things going with BOMBSHELL?
Neil: Well, again, we're slowly trying to put together the creative team, and we're having conversations with Marc and Scott about who will be the best people for that team, and of course with Bob Greenblatt, who is our leader in BOMBSHELL and also in our adventure in the live TV musical world.
Craig: It's so interesting how the live television show is now taking off, and how people so doubted our judgment when we did THE SOUND OF MUSIC, that they said, "It'll never work, nobody will ever watch it. Nobody cares. It doesn't matter to people that it's live." And...you know, we always are completely taken aback - it sounds crazy, in a way - but brave, because it is bravery. When you're a network head, you will find that they become very safe. There's tremendous fear in taking chances. The first thing that Bob put into development...the moment he took over NBC was SMASH. That was his first show, and the fact that he took a chance on something like that...and then after two seasons, he could've said, "Okay, onto the next." But, when we came to him right after SMASH and said, "Let's do a live musical and let's do THE SOUND OF MUSIC," he didn't even say...let me think about it, let me discuss it with my staff, let me give it some thought. He basically just said, "Wow - that's amazing. Let's do it." On the spot, he committed to the show, and instantly, it started to happen, and there was THE SOUND OF MUSIC all of the sudden. If it wasn't for those ratings, and if it wasn't for Carrie Underwood saying yes, it might have been the first and last. But, it wasn't. It sort of opened the door to more television musicals. And now FOX is in the game, and, you know, let's see one day if ABC is in the game.
Neil: And also, what we love about it is that it's now become an international genre, what with THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE in the UK. So, there's only a sense of pride that you have from...re-energizing this genre, which has been dead since the 1950s, and having it take on a life of its own. So to see it spread its wings with GREASE and another network, and then crossing the pond, so to speak, and then who knows where it will take shape. It's great.
Craig: Doing musicals is a unique situation in the entertainment industry. People always asked us after we revitalized the feature film musical of CHICAGO, people said, "Are you hoping that the other people who are doing movie musicals fail?" And we said, "Quite the contrary." It's such a fragile art form that every time a musical fails, it takes away the opportunity for us to do another musical. So you're actually always rooting for the success of your competitor. And the same existed with GREASE.
Neil: And also what was so sweet about the experience with GREASE was to have their support before THE WIZ broadcast. They were tweeting, and instagramming, and showing their love and support for us, as we did for them.
BWW: Right, So we'll send you thank-you letters for the ones that turn out well, and hate mail for the ones that turn out poorly.
Neil: [laughs] Yeah.
Craig: What's also been very nice has been the reversal of the negative tweeting that's happened, because starting with THE WIZ, we didn't get that negative tweeting, and of course, I don't believe GREASE did either. So we have finally all arrived at a place where people are getting used to live musicals, and we've all progressed to the point where we're starting to refine them so that they're not quite as experimental as they were in the beginning, so everybody has their footing. And more and more people - the press and the bloggers - are actually embracing them.
Neil: Well, when you start something new, there's always a learning curve. There was a learning curve for us, there was a learning curve for the audience, for the press...so, hopefully it will continue.
BWW: Please do, thank you both very much.