Wiz Live! Producers On Grease: Live, Bombshell, Hairspray and Remembering Whitney Houston

News   Wiz Live! Producers On Grease: Live, Bombshell, Hairspray and Remembering Whitney Houston
 
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were honored with a NAACP Image Award on Feb. 5 for their critically-acclaimed presentation of The Wiz Live! They spoke with Playbill.com about diversity in the entertainment industry, their thoughts on Grease: Live and what other projects they have in development.

The company of <i>The Wiz Live! </i>
The company of The Wiz Live! Photo by Paul Gilmore/NBC

The multi-cultural Image Awards, which celebrate the work of people of color across television, music, literature and film, named The Wiz Live! the winner in the Outstanding Television Movie, Miniseries or Dramatic Special category.

For many, The Wiz Live! felt like the culmination of three years of achievement and experimentation that was built upon Meron and Zadan's previous live efforts with The Sound of Music and Peter Pan.

Meron and Zadan said that they wanted an "authentic feel" for The Wiz, but one that had to bring 1975 into 2015. To that end, the producing duo set out to assemble a dream team for The Wiz that showcased black culture's leading edge and classic talents both on and off-screen.

Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Queen Latifah and Bob Greenblatt
Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Queen Latifah and Bob Greenblatt Photo by NBC

While the first players that come to mind are the all-star cast of black performers including Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier (who also nabbed an Image Award for his performance as the Lion), Stephanie Mills, Ne-Yo, Common, Elijah Kelley and newly-minted star Shanice Williams, there was a slate of unseen talents who left an indelible mark on the world of The Wiz. From Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, to choreographer Fatima Robinson, Hamilton costume designer Paul Tazewell and Grammy-winning music producer Harvey Mason Jr., The Wiz Live! stands as a beacon of authentic cultural representation at a moment in time where issues of diversity and opportunity within the entertainment industry, especially in Hollywood, are front and center.

For the past two years, the Oscar nominations have been distinctly lacking when it comes to gender and cultural representation, a trend that did not go unnoticed by Meron and Zadan, who produced the awards ceremony for the past three years.

These unresolved issues are among the reasons Meron and Zadan said that the timing felt right to produce the Tony-winning musical Hairspray as their next live musical event for NBC. Racial integration is a major plot thrust of the Broadway hit based on the John Waters film that is set in 1960s Baltimore.

Hairspray debuted on Broadway in 2002, and the two of you produced the film version in 2007. Did it feel too soon to revisit this show again, or was there still something about this story that you felt you wanted to explore?
Craig Zadan: The subject matter of the race relations is so relevant right now. The multicultural cast is so appealing.
Neil Meron: Also, it's seeing it in a new form that people seem to be enjoying now and also the timeliness of what the musical is. It's one of these shows that people embrace in any sort of format. Hopefully, audiences will have a fun time and will be moved and we'll be able to present a whole new cast to a whole new generation. There are still some young people who haven't seen it. This is going to be a new look at it.

FOX just scored a big hit with Grease: Live and the members of their creative team said they had been taking notes on how the two of you produced live musicals for NBC. What were your thoughts on their first go at it?
NM: It was fantastic to see Grease: Live. What they pulled off was miraculous, and the scope of it, the energy of it, what their choices were, were great. So we were thrilled because if other people do well that only helps us, and it helps what we set out to do, which was really to bring musical theatre into people’s living rooms. Also, in a way we kind of felt like proud parents, in terms of this genre, that people were being able to take what we started and make it their own; and when you see that happening, you can only have a sense of pride.

CZ: The other thing that we realized really early on when we started doing musicals, is that you cannot feel competitive with other musicals, you have to feel encouraging to other musicals, because every time a musical fails it takes away the chances of you getting to do it again. So, you're rooting for every other musical to succeed.

We thought that the technique that they used on Grease was unique, but also a technique that was appropriate for Grease. You couldn't do that with The Sound Of Music; you couldn't have bleachers of people singing to the Nazis. So you have to look at the property and see what's appropriate. We used a different technique for The Wiz than we had used before; we used digital technology, and the sets were completely unique from what we had worked with previously. It was appropriate because we wanted to create a world of fantasy and we were able to create that world with the set design and the animation on the screen, so what we did was appropriate for our show, and what Grease did was appropriate for their show.

One thing that is really important to us... I can't tell you how many times people thought we were crackpots. When we first did TV musicals, starting with Gypsy with Bette Midler and then followed by Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Brandy and Annie with Kathy Bates... I remember that we were waiting for Gypsy to go on and people were laughing at us, going "These people are nuts. They're putting Gypsy on TV with Bette Midler; it is going to be on of the most expensive disasters ever on television." And we were very aware that people were unkind about their views of what we were doing, until the ratings came out. And when the ratings came out it was such a big hit, and it changed the face of musicals on television, which enabled us to then do the others. The same thing happened when we did Chicago for the big screen. There hadn’t been a big screen musical that was a success in such a long time. Then Chicago comes out and becomes the highest grossing film in the history of Miramax, and it's the first musical to win Best Picture Oscar in 34 years. Exactly the same thing happened when we said, "Lets do Sound of Music Live!," everyone was going, "Are you kidding?"

Carrie Underwood in <i>Sound of Music Live!</i>
Carrie Underwood in Sound of Music Live! Photo by NBC

Among the projects you mentioned was Cinderella with Whitney Houston for television. We're just at the anniversary of her death. What do you remember from working with her?
NM: With Cinderella she was at the height of her stardom. It was post "The Bodyguard," there was no bigger star on the planet than Whitney Houston, and the expectations were that she was gonna be some sort of monster. But it was just the opposite with her. She was as sweet and as kind as you could hope. That's not to say that the troubles weren't there in terms of the lateness, and the focus was beginning to go in a different direction. But, in terms of what she delivered, she delivered! And we enjoyed her, but you could see that the storm was beginning to get louder, and unfortunately, it did. So we were there just as the teardown was happening, but that's not to take away from her kindness and her magnificence.
CZ: About a year before she passed away, we were in Atlanta shooting the new version of "Footloose," and I got a call that she wanted to get together because she lived in Atlanta. I was thrilled because I hadn't seen her in a long time. I spent the day at her house, and it was so emotional and so powerful because she was so clean, in that, I've never seen her eyes so clear. I've never seen her so calm and vulnerable. She kept asking me things like, "Do you think that people still care about me?" You wanted to cry, and I kept saying, "People love you. They want you to come back. What are you talking about?" and she said, "Really?"

That day with her was just once-in-a-lifetime. It was so extraordinary; the things we were able to talk about, the way we were able to connect again, and seeing how shattered she was and how she desperately she wanted to come back. But she was so scared, her confidence was gone. We started talking about doing a new project together, which we started putting together after that meeting. And the sad part about it was that as we started getting involved in the new project we got the news that she passed away.

What other projects would you consider for live television? Is there a possibility that you'd move the dial a bit and take on more dramatic, or serious musicals for live broadcast?
CZ: It's important to build the trust of the family audience, and I think that by doing the shows we've done, and then doing Hairspray, I think that we're going to be able to build that audience where they're looking forward each year to the next musical. At that point, when we've established a rock-solid base, I think it's possible to do a more serious musical and one that has more drama and more adult audience factors, compared to right now where we feel like we really need to appeal to every age group and all of that. Which is what FOX did; Grease certainly falls into that group of doing something that’s family-friendly.

The one thing I will tell you is that our goal is to also grow into a situation where we're doing a live musical and a live drama each year. We would love to do the right play with the right cast, and it has to be exactly right because it can't be something that appears like PBS. It has to be something that looks like it's a great entertainment, that's dramatic and has a stellar cast that people would watch. We're looking forward to branching out into that area too, to experiment and to see what happens. We're looking to explore this world of live television.

Will Chase and Megan Hilty in <i>Bombshell</i> the Broadway concert
Will Chase and Megan Hilty in Bombshell the Broadway concert Photo by Jay Brady

How are things progressing with the stage adaptation of Bombshell?
NM: We have not hired anybody yet, but we have been tossing around names back and forth, so meetings will begin shortly for the entire creative team.
CZ: And the only reason why you haven't heard more about it yet is because, honestly, Bob Greenblatt at NBC asked us to put it slightly on the back burner until we finished The Wiz.
NM: And now we're going to be working with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman every day [on Hairspray Live], so it's easy to discuss.
CZ: What we'll do is, while we're working with Marc and Scott on Hairspray, we will also work with them daily on putting together all the elements of Bombshell.

Watch 4 Exclusive Performances From the Broadway Bombshell Concert!

And The Wiz still remains on track for a 2016-17 Broadway arrival?
NM: Yes, that's the plan. Absolutely!

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