STAGE TO SCREENS: Storyline's Zadan and Meron Discuss TV 'Music Man'

STAGE TO SCREENS: Storyline's Zadan and Meron Discuss TV 'Music Man' While few might consider the 1960's to be a Golden Age of Movie Musicals, four adaptations of Broadway shows won a Best Picture Academy Award during that decade: "West Side Story" (1961), "My Fair Lady" (1964), "The Sound of Music" (1965), and "Oliver!" (1968) — and four others were Oscar nominees: "Fanny" (1961), which eliminated songs but used the show's music in the background; "The Music Man" (1962); "Funny Girl" (1968); and "Hello, Dolly!" (1969). Over the years, movie musicals have struck an unresponsive chord with audiences (albeit not the genre's avid fans), and the path between Broadway and Hollywood became a yellowed brick road.

Matthew Broderick in the Storyline production of The Music Man airing Feb. 2003

Photo by ABC/Rafy

While few might consider the 1960's to be a Golden Age of Movie Musicals, four adaptations of Broadway shows won a Best Picture Academy Award during that decade: "West Side Story" (1961), "My Fair Lady" (1964), "The Sound of Music" (1965), and "Oliver!" (1968) — and four others were Oscar nominees: "Fanny" (1961), which eliminated songs but used the show's music in the background; "The Music Man" (1962); "Funny Girl" (1968); and "Hello, Dolly!" (1969). Over the years, movie musicals have struck an unresponsive chord with audiences (albeit not the genre's avid fans), and the path between Broadway and Hollywood became a yellowed brick road.

Waiting in the wings, however, was television, where everything came up roses for Bette Midler's turn as Mama Rose (in 1993's "Gypsy") and, bet your bottom dollar, there was a bright tomorrow for "Annie" (1999). Both former Broadway babies were fathered by Storyline Entertainment, which next sires "The Music Man" (ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney," Feb. 23, 2003), starring Matthew Broderick as Harold Hill. This month's column features Storyline's founders — Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — and choreographer-director Kathleen Marshall, who designed "The Music Man" dances, as well as those for "Kiss Me, Kate" (to be shown early next year on PBS-TV's "Great Performances" with Brent Barrett, Rachel York, Michael Berresse and Nancy Anderson).

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"We've been incredibly, incredibly lucky," says Craig Zadan, "and we don't take it for granted. It's expensive to produce musicals on television. We've only been able to make them because of the home-video component. The show loses money, and the home video [market] makes back the money that you lose. Up until 'Cinderella' [their 1997 remake of the Rodgers & Hammerstein made-for-TV musical], home videos of musicals never sold. 'Cinderella' sold one million units the first week it was out. Thank God, 'Annie' did the same."

In addition to their new versions of Broadway musicals and "Cinderella" (which, claims Zadan, "We treated as a Broadway musical"), Storyline's productions include the acclaimed "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," "The Three Stooges," "What Makes a Family" and "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story."

Coming up, they have "Martin and Lewis" (Nov. 24 on CBS), starring Jeremy Northam as Dean Martin and Sean Hayes as Jerry Lewis; the Christmas release of the feature film of Kander & Ebb's "Chicago," for which Zadan and Meron are executive producers; an ABC action-adventure series, "Veritas" ("like an Indiana Jones," explains Zadan), starting in January; and February's "The Music Man." (Somehow, March seems the perfect month for that.)

"Gypsy" came about, Meron recalls, "as a kind of fluke. I knew Shirley Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's sister, who represented Arthur Laurents. She said, 'Have you guys ever thought of doing "Gypsy" for television? The authors would all approve you.' I spoke to Craig and we discussed Bette Midler [as the star]." Zadan continues, "We called the head of CBS and said, 'We know how network television feels about musicals. Would you even consider doing "Gypsy"?' He said, 'If I did say yes, you'd have to have a big movie star who does not do TV.' I told him that, in our fantasy world, we'd like Bette Midler. He said, 'Get Bette Midler, and you have an on-the-air commitment.' It took a long time to get Bette to commit, but we wore her down."

A prejudice existed, says Zadan, "that once you did a [theatrical] movie of a Broadway show, you never did another. We argued that there were many reasons to do a remake." I mention that "Annie," when directed by John Huston, didn't work. "That's an example of every reason in the world to do another version," insists Zadan. "A lot of people feel that 'Music Man' is a good movie musical. We found there are values in the movie that had not been fully explored. We decided to do 'Music Man' again — with a whole new concept.

"As we did with 'Annie,' we scooped out all of the cartoon elements and made it much more realistic. In a lot of productions of 'Music Man,' the townspeople are depicted as buffoons — but not in ours. And with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth [as Marian], the love story comes front and center. Matthew and Kristin make you cry."

"If people come to 'Music Man' expecting Matthew to be a Robert Preston clone, that's not going to happen," states Meron (in a voice suggesting that would be dirty pool). "It's a whole new Harold Hill. He's sly, charming, a real pied-piper." Notes Zadan, "People thought we were cracked when we wanted Judy Davis to play Judy Garland. Judy Davis thought we were crazy."

Meron explains, "We had worked with her previously [in 'Serving in Silence']. We knew the depth and passion that she brings to her acting, and she loves music. That's what we needed for Judy Garland." Zadan interjects, "And [Davis] has a vulnerability and a wicked sense of humor — like Judy Garland. We cut a five-minute trailer that was sent out to the press. It had a big chunk of Carnegie Hall [Garland's triumphant 1961 concert] in it. Lorna takes the trailer to New York and shows it to Liza. Liza says, 'Oh, this is great! They used footage of Mama from Carnegie Hall.' Lorna says, 'There is no footage of Mama at Carnegie Hall. That is Judy Davis!'"

Davis won an Emmy, as did Tammy Blanchard for portraying the young Judy. An enthusiastic Zadan says, "Next year on Broadway, Tammy is playing Gypsy [starring Bernadette Peters as Rose]. They might as well give her the Tony Award right now."

"We use a lot of Broadway talent," says Meron. "When you make musicals, you turn to the best, and that means Broadway. Victor Garber is kind of our touchstone. He's done 'Cinderella' [as King Maximillian], 'Annie' [Daddy Warbucks], the Judy Garland movie [Sid Luft] and 'Music Man' [Mayor Shinn]."

Born in Brooklyn, Meron claims that he knew "in the womb" that he wanted to be in show business. "I was reading 'Variety,' as I was coming out." Zadan was born in Miami, but moved to Brooklyn (with his family) when he was two, "as soon as I was cognizant of the world."

Young Craig often traveled to Manhattan to see Saturday matinees: "Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Sammy Davis in Golden Boy, Steve Lawrence in What Makes Sammy Run...." A slightly older Zadan wrote the book, "Sondheim & Co." He later revised it. "I'm very proud of that book, and I'll revise it again — at some point."

In 1973, Zadan co-produced Broadway's first Stephen Sondheim tribute, a one-night event that featured Sondheim-show stars, including Angela Lansbury, Alexis Smith and Glynis Johns. "At the last moment," Zadan recalls, "Ethel Merman pulled out. She was going to do 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' and 'I'm Still Here.' She got into a big fight with us — I don't remember about what — and walked. Steve said, 'I'm sure my friend, Nancy Walker, would come in to do ["I'm Still Here"].' She flew in [from California], and stole the evening. She was absolutely brilliant!"

The execs chose their company name from William Goldman's book, "Adventures in the Screen Trade." Quotes Meron: "'The most important element to the success of a film is its storyline.'" Among future musicals planned by Storyline are "Mame" (probably with Cher), "Fiddler on the Roof" (probably sans Cher) and a live-action version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Naturally, Meron and Zadan are very pleased with their upcoming projects. In "Martin and Lewis," Dean Martin's singing voice will be heard. "Like Judy Garland, there's only one Dean Martin," says Meron. "We have Broadway talent in that, too. Kate Levering plays Jeanne Martin [the entertainer's wife]."

They consider "Chicago" to be "the best movie musical since 'Cabaret.' After Christmas [when the picture's released], Rob Marshall's life is going to be totally changed. Nobody has directed and choreographed a movie musical since Bob Fosse did 'Cabaret.'" For Storyline, Rob Marshall choreographed "Cinderella," and was director-choreographer for "Annie." Now, Kathleen Marshall is following in her brother's footsteps. "She's done an extraordinary job on 'Music Man,'" says Meron. "She's so good. We will nurture her, as we did with Rob." I suggest that we'll probably see Kathleen's name as director-choreographer of a feature in a couple of years. Says Meron, "Maybe sooner."

Neil Meron concludes, "To be able to make the movie musical a valid form again is sort of our unspoken mission — and the reaction to our movies tells us that there's a humongous audience that wants musicals."

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Whether choreography is for stage or television, says Kathleen Marshall, the process "is the same in the beginning: putting together the creative team, working with the designers, the musical director, the dance arranger. But for TV, you're working in 360 degrees. There's no front, no proscenium; you're creating for the camera."

The camera allows unlimited movement. In "The Music Man," notes Marshall, "You've got a story about a man who's a pied-piper, who gets this town to follow him — and [with a camera] we can literally travel through the town. You're constantly moving. 'Seventy-Six Trombones' starts in the high-school gym, then goes into the hallways, classrooms, locker room, balconies. "A seemingly simple number, like 'Piano Lesson,' can happen naturally with Marian and Mrs. Paroo [Debra Monk] having a conversation while walking through the house. You're creating with a fresh palette. I like to think of it as remodeling a house. It's the same structure, but we're adding new details.

"They put as much as possible of the Broadway show in the original film. The show has three huge dance numbers: 'Seventy-Six Trombones,' 'Marian, the Librarian,' and 'Shipoopi'; a lot of musicals don't give you that many opportunities. We're doing 'Shipoopi' later in the show — as it was in the original and in the movie. It's on the Fourth of July, the brightest, happiest moment for the town — right before they find that Harold Hill is a fraud. My assistant, Vince Pesce, and I had to learn a whole new language — talking in film jargon — but working as a choreographer gives you a front-row seat in seeing how a movie is put together."

Marshall flew to London for the "Great Performances" taping of Kiss Me, Kate. "They used multiple cameras to film five performances in front of audiences. And they filmed two days without an audience, so that the cameras could get in closer for certain sequences. The only adjustment was with lighting. Stage lighting is brighter than television lighting.

"On Kate, I'd started from scratch — but three years earlier. I hadn't seen the show in about six months. We had a brush-up rehearsal." Does a choreographer have the equivalent of a leading character's 11 o'clock number? Says Marshall, "In Kiss Me, Kate, it's 'Too Darn Hot.' I love all the numbers, but 'Too Darn Hot' is like a one-act play — with its own beginning, middle and end."

The taping of "Kiss Me, Kate" preserves the great acrobatics that Michael Berresse (as Bill Calhoun) performs in the "Bianca" number — scaling the backstage catwalks in order to reach the dressing room of his beloved Lois/Bianca (Nancy Anderson). How did the concept occur? Marshall explains, "Nobody knew what to do with that number. There was talk about it being cut. I said, 'I think we need it. "Bianca" is the only chance to reconcile Bill and Lois.' Robin Wagner's set — with its multiple levels of catwalks — was perfect for Michael Berresse, who's a wonderful athlete, gymnast and dancer. My vision for his character throughout was very Gene Kelly. I wanted to do a Gene Kelly moment — Gene Kelly in 'The Pirate' [as he ascends to Judy Garland's balcony].

"In rehearsals, there was nothing we could do [without the set]. When we got into the theatre, it was Michael who started playing around — going upside down, swinging around. He was like a kid in a jungle gym."

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Kathleen spent many a Sunday afternoon watching old movie musicals on Channel 53, where Gene Kelly, a Pittsburgh native, reigned supreme. The Marshalls consider Pittsburgh their hometown, although they were born (Rob and twin sister Maura are two years older) in Madison, Wisconsin, while their father was in graduate school.

All three Marshall kids made their stage debuts in the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera company's 1973 production of The Sound of Music, starring Constance Towers. Other shows followed, and both Kathleen and Rob got their Equity cards at Civic Light Opera, where they returned years later to direct. (Maura is married and has an architectural-design business.)

Since both sets of grandparents lived in Boston, the Marshalls often traveled there, and would stop in Manhattan long enough to take in a Broadway show. "For a long time," recalls Kathleen, "New York meant coming through the Lincoln Tunnel, getting fried clams and hot dogs at Howard Johnson's, seeing a show and going on our way." The first Broadway musical they saw (ironically for Rob) was the original production of Chicago.

After graduating from Smith College, Kathleen followed Rob to New York, where she enjoyed a brief career as a dancer before becoming assistant to her choreographer-brother. Their first Broadway show together was Kiss of the Spider Woman, starring Chita Rivera ("our idol"). After working in tandem on the She Loves Me and Damn Yankees revivals and The Petrified Prince, Kathleen started her solo career with Swinging on a Star.

She spent four seasons as Artistic Director for the Encores! series, and is now director-in-residence. For Encores!, she choreographed Call Me Madam, DuBarry Was a Lady, The Boys From Syracuse, and Li'l Abner; as director-choreographer: Babes in Arms, Wonderful Town and Hair. Kathleen's other choreography credits include the Broadway revivals of 1776 and Follies; Seussical, Ring Round the Moon, Violet, As Thousands Cheer and Saturday Night (which she also directed).

Upcoming on her busy directorial schedule: the Sept. 30 benefit-concert reunion of the original cast of Merrily We Roll Along, two Kristin Chenoweth performances (Oct. 11, 12) for the American Songbook Series, the Encores! Broadway Bash benefit concert (two performances Nov. 24; another, Nov. 25) and the Encores! House of Flowers, which she's also choreographing, Feb. 13-16, 2003.

Working with "Music Man" director, Jeff Bleckner, was an enjoyable experience. "It was my first movie musical, and his first musical movie." She considers Matthew Broderick perfect casting: "Matthew is charming, sly, winning, persuasive — an instigator who makes the whole town fall in love with him." Her brother offered "some very good hints," and Kathleen Marshall says, "Just remembering Robbie talk about his experiences with 'Mrs. Santa Claus' [the Jerry Herman TV-movie musical, starring Angela Lansbury], 'Cinderella,' and 'Annie,' I realized that I absorbed a lot more than I thought I had."

STAR GAZING: Fans of old movie musicals (especially "Royal Wedding" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers") should watch Jane Powell as an Alzheimer's patient on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (Oct. 11, 10 PM, NBC).

END QUIZ: Which TV character was created by Pert Kelton, the original Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man on Broadway and in the film: a) George Burns and Gracie Allen's neighbor, Blanche; b) Alice, wife of Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason); c) Peg, wife of Chester A. Riley (Jackie Gleason)? (Answer: Next column, Oct. 27)

Answer to the Sept. 1 question (Which of the following actors won an Emmy for playing a defense attorney on "Law & Order": a) Jane Alexander; b) Len Cariou; c) Elaine Stritch?): c. Stritch won a 1993 Emmy for her guest star performance.

—Michael Buckley also writes interviews for Show Music magazine, The Sondheim Review, and TheaterMania.com.