STAGE TO SCREEN: Zadan's World: Music Man, Mame, Miramax & Menken
By Eric Grode
Other than the news that Savion Glover choreographed those phenomenal Nike basketball ads and that Spike Lee is "in discussions" to direct the "Rent" movie (I'll believe it on the first day of filming), it's pretty quiet right now. So I'm devoting the entire column to a recent chat I had with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the men who got the ball rolling on live TV musicals almost 10 years ago with Bette Midler's "Gypsy" and have had an incredible winning streak ever since. Talking with the two can be a bit dizzying: They do their best to not talk over each other, but their enthusiasm for what they do — not to mention the sheer volume of projects to talk about — make it hard. At any given point, at least three different productions are being discussed simultaneously.
A full plate certainly seems to suit the pair. The Tony Awards may be fighting to keep their ratings up, but Zadan and Meron have turned theater-themed films into the year's top-rated TV movie in three out of the last four years ("Cinderella," "Annie" and, most recently, the Judy Garland miniseries "Me and My Shadows"). "Clearly, there's an audience out there that loves this stuff as much as we love making it," says Zadan, the slightly more talkative of the two.
Success begets success, and the two are currently juggling no fewer than five TV musicals for Disney/ABC — and one very big film musical for Miramax. (More on that later.) Be on the lookout for "Mame," "The Music Man," Fiddler on the Roof," "The Wiz" and a live-action version of what Meron calls "Alan Menken's masterwork," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." That last project requires a bit of explaining: It will be what Meron calls an "amalgamation" of the animated Disney film and the subsequent stage version, which featured a James Lapine book and five new songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. In a slight deviation from Disney procedure, the plan is to produce the show first on TV and then parlay that into a stage production.
Of all these projects, "The Music Man" had been the closest to production. Matthew Broderick was scheduled to take a well-publicized break from The Producers and star as Harold Hill right after Labor Day, but he requested that the project be delayed until later into — or even after — his Producers run. "He said, 'If you want me there, I'm there. But please, if you can reschedule...' " Zadan says. "And we decided that it was morally a bad thing to do." As a result, "Music Man" is somewhat on the backburner; it could start filming as early as January 2002 but could just as easily hold until after Broderick's run ends.
The other project dependent on its star performer is "Mame." "Cher is attached, and it really comes down to her schedule," Zadan says. She's currently finishing a new album and plans to tour afterward, so filming wouldn't start until mid-2002. Jerry Herman is reportedly thrilled with the idea of Cher singing the score, and there has been talk of his writing her a new song. Zadan and Meron also explained the involvement of executive producer Barbra Streisand, who had originally been rumored to take on the title role. "She wanted the option to read the script and see if she was interested," Meron says. "She loved it, but finally she just didn't see herself playing the role."
With "Music Man" on hold, that means "The Wiz" will probably make it in front of the cameras first. Casting is well under way, and the team hopes to be done with it by the end of the year. After scoring successes with such color-blind casting as Audra McDonald in "Annie" and Brandy in "Cinderella" — "You can't believe how many letters we got saying that children of color can now see themselves in a fairy tale," Zadan says of the "Cinderella" casting — the pair will use a multicultural cast in "The Wiz." "It will be predominantly black, but also Latino, Asian and white," Zadan says. "It will be more of a fairy tale, like 'Cinderella,' and not remotely like the Diana Ross movie."
Zadan and Meron's reaction to the original movie of "The Wiz" make it clear that they relish the chance to right certain wrongs, to take another crack at musicals that stumbled on their way to the big screen the first time. "Gypsy" and "Annie" both stand out as works that were crying out for a new telling, and the same could be said for "Mame" and "The Wiz." In fact, "Annie" composer Charles Strouse told the producers it wasn't until he saw their version of "Annie" that he totally understood what he had written.
In terms of other TV musicals, they welcome the competition — as long as the product is good. They feel any momentum that started in 1993 with "Gypsy" was almost obliterated two years later by the poorly-received "Bye Bye Birdie" TV musical, and they had a much harder time getting "Cinderella" off the ground as a result. "If somebody does a musical, we're rooting for it," says Zadan. "The minute somebody does one of these and it flops, it's a nail in the coffin of what we're trying to accomplish." (They also went down the list of musicals they have not been involved with. In addition to "Bye Bye Birdie" — an error I once made in this column — that list includes "Mrs. Santa Claus," "Geppetto" and the recent "South Pacific.")
That trust they've earned with writers (and writers' estates) has served Zadan and Meron well in their professional dealings. Under their contract with Disney, they establish contact with the creators and present their ideas before Disney gets involved. "We make the initial contacts, and then Disney makes the deal on behalf of us," says Meron. One stipulation is that the two are what Zadan calls "part of the deal": If Zadan and Meron are removed from the project, the writers can back out of the deal.
"Fiddler" appears to be furthest from production of all the theater-themed TV projects. We didn't talk much about it, other than that it was a personal request from Peter Schneider, who was chairman of Walt Disney Studios at the time. (As reported by Playbill On-Line, Schneider stepped down last week to start an independent theatrical production company, albeit one partially bankrolled by Disney.) "At the end of a meeting," Zadan says, "Peter looked at us and said, 'Do one for me. Please do "Fiddler" for me.'"
As if all this wasn't enough, the duo is also working with "Annie" director/choreographer Rob Marshall on "Chicago." (That's the big movie project.) "We've been observers on the project for about six years — we've read every script along the way in an unofficial capacity," says Zadan. "Annie" reportedly had a lot to do with Rob Marshall landing the Miramax job, and Marshall brought his "Annie" producers along. Zadan and Meron are wearing slightly different hats this time: They're executive producing, while Marty Richards and Harvey Weinstein handle the producing chores. When we spoke, Meron was in New York assembling a list of possible Roxies and Velmas. "Right now, we're looking to see what they can really do in terms of musicals," he says. "It's very preliminary."
Marshall is also in New York, working out the dance sequences. He plans to do most of the choreography before production, then shift almost exclusively into his role as director. "It's a really directorial script. Every page has Rob's imprint on it. They've cracked it," Zadan says of Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters"). "They've made it a real, honest-to-God movie musical."
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a bit longer for either of the two Stephen Sondheim film projects to which Zadan and Meron have been attached. Their options on Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd have reverted back to the writers. The way Zadan tells it, both were extremely close to being made; the replacement of a studio chief scuttled "Woods," while "Sweeney" director Tim Burton dropped all plans after striking out with "Mars Attacks!" They say they're hoping to get those projects up and running again someday.
As enticing as those Sondheim movies may be, though, Zadan and Meron have plenty of other projects to worry about. In fact, if it were up to them, they would set up their own mini-studio system and work nonstop. Zadan says he'd love to line up each project in rapid succession, using much of the same crew, and keep the final products on the shelf until ABC is ready to air them.
Several of these projects will undoubtedly hit a snag or three along the way: The leading man's in a hit musical, the leading lady's planning a world tour, the actors and writers threaten to strike, the studio chief steps down. But with so many balls in the air at any given point, Zadan and Meron can just shift their attention to a different one.
"It's just a question of when we can work out the schedules and get the team together," Zadan says. "Once Cher is available, we'll do 'Mame.' Once Matthew is available, we'll do 'The Music Man.' All of these movies will be made. We've got the next two or three years booked solid."
Your Thoughts: I went pretty long with Craig and Neil, so the floor is yours. Which of these projects excites you most? Anyone care to cast the supporting casts for "Mame" and/or "Music Man"? And now that "Chicago" appears to be on the way, who's got both the starpower and the musical theatre skills? Don't forget to cast Billy, Amos and Mama.
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.
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