“This is the first time we had love tweets,” Zadan said. “On some of the others, even though we didn’t think we deserved them, we got hate tweets, because people didn’t want it to be done the way they were done. Same thing happened to us at the Oscars!”
It had become a bit of a hallmark over the years: Viewers cracking wise while watching past productions like “The Sound of Music Live,” or of course, their NBC musical drama “Smash.” But with “Jesus Christ Superstar,” all of Zadan’s and Meron’s choices — from the casting of John Legend and Sara Bareilles, among others, down to the decision to stage it as a concert/musical play hybrid — resonated with audiences.
When NBC aired “The Sound of Music Live” back in 2013, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron thought they were doing a one-off musical event, and had no idea that they were reinventing a genre for a whole new generation. But “Music” was a huge hit, leading to “Peter Pan Live,” “The Wiz Live,” “Hairspray Live,” and most recently “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.”
Zadan and Meron also inspired others to get in the game too, including Marc Platt at Fox, where he’s found success with live takes on “Grease” and “A Christmas Story,”
Zadan and Meron productions have earned six Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, 14 Emmys, a Grammy and two Tonys among other honors. From TV movies to stage to film, including their breakout success with “Chicago,” the duo is also known for having produced several Academy Awards. But now they’re on a roll with these live events, which are helping broadcast TV find a way to differentiate itself vs. the streaming menace.
IndieWire’s TURN IT ON podcast recently sat down with Zadan and Meron to discuss the challenges of turning “Jesus Christ Superstar” into a live TV concert event, and how they wanted to honor Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original intent of making it more of a concert. We also talked about how they plan to stage their next big show — “Hair” — including how they’re going to incorporate the show’s infamous nudity on NBC. And we also learned the latest on their plans to stage “A Few Good Men Live” (still in the works) and “Bye Bye Birdie Live” (on hold), as well as, yes, where things stand with bringing “Smash” to Broadway. Listen below!
Meron said the idea to strip down “Jesus Christ Superstar” to a highly produced live concert event came after he and Zadan decided to honor the original intent of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
“Their original concept was never to do it as a staged piece in a theater,” he said. “They always saw it as somewhat of a concert. So they’ve been unhappy with performances over the years that were strictly theater pieces. We decided to go back to the original idea and do it somewhat quasi-concert like with some theatricality.”
Added Zadan: “A real hybrid. Something theatrical but not a stage show. And concert-y, but not a concert. It was really in effect something brand new that we hadn’t tried.”
Alice Cooper, as King Herod, was the first performer to sign on, and soon John Legend was on board as Jesus, and Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.
“We talked about the fact that Jesus and Judas were both black, and I don’t think we’d ever seen that before,” Meron noted. “And we broke the mold in working with people we had never worked with before. We had that leap of faith. They outdid themselves artistically.”
For Mary Magdalene, the producers lucked out by landing Sara Bareilles right as her star was on the rise.
“The person who had become very big in the theater, sort of overnight, was Sara Bareilles,” Zadan notes. “Because she had written ‘Waitress’ (for Broadway) but then she hadn’t performed in it at that point. And then she started doing her own role that she wrote and she was getting raves. It became clear she was the new exciting fresh person that we could cast to play that part.”
In putting the “Jesus Christ Superstar” together, Zadan said the biggest challenge became the audience, which was somewhat a part of the show.
“This audience did not behave like they were at a Broadway show, they behaved like they were at a rock concert,” he said. “We didn’t know what they were going to do. We were sitting in the truck doing the show with the director and in the next booth was Andrew Lloyd Webber doing the music mixing. At a certain point during an early commercial break he came bursting into our section of the truck and said, ‘What do you think of the audience response, it’s so overwhelming! Do you think it’s too much?’ We said we can’t go out there and tell them to cool it — we want them to be as enthusiastic as they are. But what he was reacting to was, it was a rock concert audience, not a theater audience.”
That’s right — as a sign of his approval of this production, Webber was very involved in the final product.
“He was there during rehearsal, he had input every step of the way from casting, we showed him designs, and he was just in favor of everything we showed him,” Meron said. “He also said that out of the 300 or so productions that he’s seen of it, this is the best he’s ever seen.”
Meanwhile, with the success of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live,” and the fact that Jennifer Lopez became unavailable to star in “Bye Bye Birdie” as originally planned, Zadan and Meron shifted focus to “Hair Live” as their big event next year.
“We thought ‘Hair’ would be the most exciting coolest thing, because also its time had come around again,” Zadan said. “In 1967 it was timely, and now, sadly, the country is in a state where it’s timely yet again, with the student protests and the riots and the race relationships.”
Nudity, of course, is perhaps what people remember the most about “Hair.” Zadan and Meron are mum on how they’ll be able to address that on a broadcast network, and won’t reveal their plans until a director and choreographer sign on.
“I don’t think we’re going to break the law in terms of what you can or can’t do on TV,” Zadan said. “We’re looking to do something edgy, different, and special. Revolutionary, the way [it was when as] kids we saw ‘Hair’ on Broadway in 1968. I remember sitting there in the Biltmore Theater and freaking out.”
Added Meron: “We will honestly not go beyond what we can get away with.”
As for the other projects still on their dockets, Zadan and Meron don’t think “Bye Bye Birdie” is in the immediate future, but they’re still hoping to bring “A Few Good Men Live” to NBC next year. That project was delayed because of Aaron Sorkin’s busy schedule, but he’s eager to still make it work.
“We know if we do it right and it does well, we’ll be doing another drama,” Zadan said. “But if we screw it up, there won’t be another drama. So we want to be very careful that we don’t lead to its own demise. We want to do it when we have the time and Aaron’s undivided attention. Because he’s doing a major rewrite of the script, and the rewrite is dazzling. It’s going to be the same story, the same characters, but it will be much more pointed. And much more aggressive and scarier in a way.”
And then, of course, there’s the question of “Smash,” their oft-maligned 2012-2013 TV series that still frequently pops up in conversation between them and NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. A plan to turn the show’s musical-within-a-musical, the Marilyn Monroe stage bio “Bombshell,” may finally be moving forward.
“We never hit upon a satisfying way of pursuing an original Marilyn Monroe musical that didn’t seem a bit cheesy,” Meron said. “It took several years until we came upon some sort of concept that satisfied all of us creatively. And that’s what we’re going to go forward with.”
Added Zadan: “The irony about ‘Smash’ is it’s more popular now than it was when it was on TV. That’s a factor of streaming and the sales of the DVDs. And as a result, people are seeing it… I think people were harder on us than they are now too. I think there was that game of hate-tweeting, people saying trashy things on their Twitter accounts. Now it’s, ‘we’re sorry, we didn’t mean all these terrible things!'”
Evans Vestal Ward/NBC
IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now on TV — no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.
Special thanks to KROQ’s DJ Omar Khan for the new theme song!