“Craig would have loved it” was a common refrain heard in the lobby of the Television Academy’s Wolf Theatre on Sunday night at the conclusion of Thespians Go Hollywooda tribute to the life and work of the late prolific film, TV and Broadway producer Craig Zadan. Not only would he have loved it, he could have produced it from above as it was the kind of dazzling, star-laden musical show only Zadan and his longtime producing partner Neil Meron could put together, as they have proven time and again in a long career celebrating the art and science of show biz.

Let’s face it, when you have a murderer’s row of incomparable talents like Kristen Chenoweth doing a duet with Sean Hayes from their Broadway teaming in the Zadan-Meron production Promises Promises, followed by her lilting solo of “Til There Was You” from The Music Man, in which she fought to stop the tears; then Amber Riley bringing down the house with a soaring “Home” from The Wiz; directly into Broadway superstar Bernadette Peters and her poignant rendition of the Sondheim song “With So Little To Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle; into Audra McDonald’s inspiring and powerful “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music ; and followed shortly by Jennifer Hudson and choir’s roof-raising Hairspray anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been” — with all receiving standing ovation after standing ovation — then you know you are witnessing something very rare and special in this business.

Craig Zadan
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It was all in honor of a singular sensation by the name of Craig Zadan, whose unexpected death due to complications from shoulder surgery at age 69 on August 20 sent shockwaves through the industry, even as it came just three weeks before Zadan and partner Meron (for their latest NBC live musical, Jesus Christ Superstar) would finally win an elusive Emmy after 17 — count ’em, 17 — nominations over the decades.

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Actually, this particular evening had long been planned by the Educational Theatre Foundation in awarding its first-ever Theatre For Life award to Zadan and Meron for their service to the American musical and its effect in bringing access to the theatre in schools, underserved and deserved everywhere. More than one participant, including Meron and Zadan’s husband Elwood Hopkins, noted he had often balked at accepting awards and honors when approached, vowed not to do it again,  and only agreed this time because he felt the cause of ETF was so important. “Sh*t, I guess we will have to do this one!” he is said to have lamented, knowing it was too important to pass on.

Zadan grew more enthusiastic over the idea of this particular award as he learned about the goals of the organization and what it means to the long-term future of the theatre and musicals he and Meron so passionately brought to mass audiences. On the day Zadan died, Meron suggested to Hopkins that they turn the evening into a memorial tribute, and that is exactly what happened with the help of now-former NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt, a passionate supporter of ETF; the songwriting team of Marc Shaiman (who served as musical director for the evening) and Scott Wittman (who also served as director); ETF’s president Julie Cohen Theobald; and many others.

Nia Vardalos, who appeared in Zadan-Meron’s CBS musical Gypsy in 1993, served as host and noted at one point that Zadan was “a rarity in this cesspool of a town.” When she opened the show she simply asked, “How do you say goodbye to someone like Craig Zadan? Well, we aren’t,” and in the best tradition of the business the show went on. And what a show it was.

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Harry Connick Jr. flew in just to sing a song, “When I Get My Name In Lights,” made famous by Peter Allen; Megan Hilty belted out a dynamite medley from Smash; brand new Emmy winner Darren Criss sang “I Believe In You” from his time in Zadan-Meron’s first Broadway show, the revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and well you get the idea of what kind of night this was. each song having a special meaning in the CZ universe and remarkable output of work in his lifetime.

Debra Messing, who starred in the NBC series Smash, which they produced with Steven Spielberg, told an amusing story about how she first met the team. She pointed out that although her TV character Grace can’t sing, she definitely could, and set out to prove it to these producers by cornering them and saying she really did sing, and had a tape of her rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls in her car which the valet brought up as she, Zadan and Meron crowded into it right there in the driveway of the Four Seasons Hotel to listen to her tape. Right there they agreed, saying they had to look for something to do together. That turned out to be the two seasons of Smash, the series about the making of a fictional Broadway musical.

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John Stamos told a hilarious story about how Zadan would take no prisoners when he saw a subpar show, including one starring Stamos in a production of Bye Bye Birdie. Zadan came backstage and gave a totally honest critique of what he thought was a less than magnificent night, flooring Stamos but then later that night sending an email to the star to temper his pain and praise his performance. Like others, Stamos noted the frequency of Zadan’s emails, something the producer did often to say the least (I will confess I have gotten a few over the years as well, and always happy to hear from him). Peters noted her 50-year friendship with the man that started when he came backstage after a flop show she was in to write a profile for the publication he worked for as a young writer. He told her (and Hopkins confirmed) the Sondheim song “With So Little To Be Sure Of” from a Broadway show called Anyone Can Whistle was indeed perhaps his favorite, with Peters surmising it likely summed up his philosophy of life. “It made me really rethink that song,”  she said before singing a heartfelt version of it in memory of him.

Craig Zadan
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McDonald said she owed her career to Zadan and Meron and volunteered to do anything at the memorial when she heard about it. “I will be an usher if you want. I just want to be there,” she said, noting that diversity was something that came natural to these producers early on, casting the six-time Tony winner as a black Grace Farrell in their TV film of Annie, then ABC’s movie A Raisin In The Sun, then as Mother Abbess in Sound of Music.

Greenblatt did a beautiful job laying out Zadan’s long career and noting that when he met him in the early days he realized that he, Meron and Zadan were three variations of the same person. He recalled the Sondheim biography, to early TV musicals of shows like Gypsy with Bette Midler, Cinderella with a black cast including Whitney Houston, Annie from director Rob Marshall, and The Music Man; then powerful dramas like Serving In Silence with Glenn Close and the Judy Garland biopic Me and My Shadows; to movies like Chicago in 2002 — which remains the last musical to win the Best Picture Oscar. He also noted his network’s Smash, as well as the idea Zadan casually pitched one day to revive the idea of a live network musical with The Sound of Music.

“It took me a couple of seconds to say ‘yes’ as we asked ourselves, ‘Would anyone want to watch  a new musical live on the fourth-placed network?’ Probably not, but we had a blast doing it anyway,” Greenblatt said before noting the ratings were through the roof and led to several more  including that Emmy winner this year Jesus Christ Superstar. “It was a shock that Craig wasn’t there with us that Emmy night to celebrate. Craig, my dear friend. we’ll all miss you. I feel like I lost a brother…  but we will keep making musicals,” he promised, in a reference to Zadan’s legacy.

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Afterward at the post-tribute reception. Meron confirmed Greenblatt will be working with him on the next planned NBC musical, Hair Live! But when asked about trade speculation that Greenblatt might be joining his company personally and teaming with Meron, he said he has had no talks about that happening, and that it hasn’t come up. In his speech though, Meron acknowledged the contributions of Greenblatt to what they do. “He once referred to Craig, myself, and he as the three musketeers, and I think I will always think of us as the three musketeers. There will always be three musketeers and I thank you for your friendship and belief in us, and for inviting us to this party.”

Craig Zadan Neil Meron
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Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, as well as Hairspray movie star John Travolta, appeared Sunday with their own tributes on video, and Bette Midler sent a letter read by Vardalos that recounted her time making Gypsy, as well as appearing on one of the three consecutive Oscar shows they produced in 2014 where she sang. “I did ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ and the irony isn’t lost on me that it was part of that year’s In Memoriam segment,” she wrote.

Watching this lineup of brilliant performances honoring Zadan, I thought back to the Oscar show Zadan and Meron produced where Barbra Streisand, in her first singing appearance on the show in over 30 years, Shirley Bassey (doing “Goldfinger”) and Adele all performed. It was quite a night, and Zadan told me more than once how proud he was to bring all those musical milestones to the Oscars. He and Meron were the first since Gil Gates to produce three consecutive Academy Award shows.

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On Sunday, their Chicago star Renee Zellweger came on to present the Theatre For Life award to the pair, and singled out Meron by asking the entire audience to stand for Neil before praising his work with Zadan. “You are a man of great character, an advocate for what is right and true, and you are among the greatest storytellers and producers that this town, and the one on the other coast, have ever known, ever. Your work with Craig has made history, and changed history, and has changed lives. And all of us will be cheering you on as you continue down the road and expand on that extraordinary legacy. It is my very special honor to now present the inaugural Theatre of Life award to Craig Zadan and Neil Meron,” she said in a speech where, like others through the night, she had to fight back tears.

“My comfort zone is not in doing this,” Meron said in his acceptance speech as he thanked many who worked on the event, saying Zadan was very excited about being honored as he learned of the goals and work of ETF after Greenblatt called to ask if they would accept this award and what it means for the theatre. “I wouldn’t have met Craig if it weren’t for the theatre, and I wouldn’t have met anybody if it weren’t for Craig and the power of theatre.”

Greenblatt told me afterward about the importance of the efforts to keep the arts going in school, especially the theatre programs that this group supports. The evening raised $200,000 toward that goal.

Kenny Leon, who worked on Zadan-Meron shows including Steel Magnolias, The Wiz and directing Hairspray Live, said he always referred to “CraigandNeil” as one word, and he brought the crowd to its feet in his fervrent, almost preacher-like appreciation of what he missed most about Zadan. “Like August Wilson said, ‘You die by how you live,’ and if that is true then Craig transitioned profoundly and lived an exceptional life.”

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“Of all the services and rituals and ceremonies that we could organize, nothing would have meant more to Craig than tonight’s show, and that’s because he was not religious in a traditional way, but for him theatre was a sacred place,” Hopkins noted when he got up to speak. “He loved that universal themes about the human condition were being acted out in a pitch-black room for an audience. He especially loved it when the emotion being conveyed was so great that scripted dialogue along would not support it and the actors had to break out into song. Those were spiritual moments for him. That was his church experience.

“Craig also believed that theatre was a creative link between the past and the future. That belief drove his lifelong project that theatre was not only for people who could afford to buy Broadway tickets, but that it was extended ever outward to more and more circles of people across race and geography and income groups through film and television and through its appropriation by a younger generation. So what would be most thrilling about tonight is the degree to which people have contributed and channeled their love for him and all that he stood for in the Educational Theatre Foundation.”

Hopkins then turned the stage over to some of the newest generation of students who belong to the International Thespian Society, who closed the show with the rousing and infectious “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray, the musical Zadan and Meron produced twice — as a feature film and a live television special. It was the perfect way to end an unforgettable evening.

Contributions to the Educational Theatre Fund can be made in the name of the Craig Zadan Memorial Fund here.