Under new president Hawk Koch, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has gone with fresh blood to produce the 85th Academy Awards. Musical producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (“Chicago”) will produce the Oscar show set to air live on February 24 on ABC.
Last year’s show was produced by Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, who filled in after then-president Tom Sherak had to fire his controversial first choice, Brett Ratner. Host Eddie Murphy also left the show, replaced by stalwart Billy Crystal.
The next question will be who will host the Oscars? Music man Hugh Jackman (with “Les Miserables” to promote) is our fondest hope. But Zadan and Meron are tight with Bette Midler, who starred in TV’s “Gypsy,” as well as Oscar host Whoopi Goldberg (“Cinderella”). Possible presenters they could tap include “Hairspray” stars John Travolta, Michele Pfeiffer, James Marsden and Chris Walken, “Chicago” stars Rene Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere, and “Footloose” lead Julianne Hough.
Much like their “Chicago” collaborator Bill Condon, who produced my favorite recent Oscar show in 2009 with Laurence Mark, we can count on Zadan and Meron to deliver a great musical show, which will mark a refreshing change indeed. “When we filmed ‘The Bucket List,’ we made our own personal bucket list,” the producers said, “and producing the Oscars was #1. It’s truly a great honor.”
When New Line Cinema released Adam Shankman’s $70-million musical “Hairspray” in 2007, I interviewed Zadan and Meron for Variety. As kids, Zadan and Meron grew up in the New York area adoring Broadway musicals. Zadan’s journalism career, including a stint at New York magazine, led him to write the 1974 Stephen Sondheim biography “Sondheim & Company,” which led to his first producing gig, 1973’s “Sondheim: A Musical Tribute.”
At Brooklyn College, Meron studied acting and booked a lecture series; Zadan was one of his guests. Meron started out as Zadan’s assistant; during the ’70s, they worked for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and eventually became producing partners at Storyline Entertainment.
Zadan’s first Hollywood film was Paramount’s 1984 soundtrack musical “Footloose,” written by Dean Pitchford, who wrote it like a real musical, with each song fitting each character. “Footloose” coincided with the breakout of MTV musicvideos. Suddenly a new way of marketing movies was born. The bestselling “Footloose” soundtrack spawned six Top 40 singles.
When no studio would touch a remake of “Gypsy,” Zadan and Meron pitched their concept to Jeff Sagansky, then president of CBS. “Get me a movie superstar who doesn’t do TV,” he told them. They asked the biggest star they knew, Bette Midler, who was at the height of her movie fame. But she didn’t want to do TV. Zadan and Meron convinced her that doing ‘Gypsy’ was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The 1993 three-hour musical delivered both boffo reviews and robust ratings.
The duo also reached a wide demo with the highly rated 1997 ABC movie “Cinderella,” starring a multiethnic cast led by Victor Garber, Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston and Brandy.
Impressed by “Cinderella” choreographer Rob Marshall, who had also just co-directed “Cabaret” on Broadway, Zadan and Meron asked him to direct their TV remake of “Annie” as his first feature. When the network resisted, Zadan and Meron refused to hire anyone else. Marshall had to turn down choreographing an early iteration of the “Chicago” movie to direct “Annie” for television.
He won the Emmy, and launched a movie career.
By then, Miramax Films’ Harvey Weinstein had spent 10 years interviewing directors and going through rewrites on a planned movie version of “Chicago,” with little to show for it. But after watching “Annie” with his kids, he asked Marshall to meet with him about another musical adaptation, “Rent.” At the meeting, the director hit him with his take on “Chicago” and Weinstein was sold. Marshall brought in Zadan and Meron as his producers. They all spoke the same language.
Finally, after a lifetime of everybody saying no, Zadan and Meron got to make the first movie musical in 34 years to win the Oscar. Unlike “Chicago” — which created an alternative fantasy vaudeville universe inside Roxy’s head — the characters in “Hairspray” sing to each other in real time.
“Hairspray” relies on book songs, in which actors talk and then break into song, as opposed to just performance songs, set within a showbiz milieu. In recent decades, very few movie musicals that are not backstage performance musicals have worked with the public. Book musicals that have performed well tend to inhabit an entirely artificial universe, like “Moulin Rouge” or “Grease.”
As much as Zadan and Meron wanted to realistically evoke the ’60s-era racial issues that grounded the musical, they knew movies are a tricky medium. They would have to walk a fine line between style and reality. Written by Leslie Dixon, “Hairspray” jumps right in, with newcomer Nikki Blonsky running down a crowded street singing at the top of her lungs.
While director Adam Shankman (who went on to produce the Oscars with Bill Mechanic) had directed commercial comedies like “The Wedding Planner” and “Bringing Down the House,” he had never directed a musical. But he had the background of being a dancer and choreographer. Shankman knew the rules of the genre, and so did John Travolta, who Zadan had known since he was a New York chorus boy. So Travolta gamely donned a fat suit and danced as Edna Turnblad.
The team also produced the 2011 remake of “Footloose.” On TV they produced series “SMASH” and movies “A Raisin in the Sun” and the upcoming “Steel Magnolias.” On Broadway, they produced the Tony Award® winning revivals of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Promises, Promises.”
Their productions have earned 73 Emmy nominations, 12 Tony nominations and seven Grammy nominations.