Dedicating their lives to the pursuit of every iteration of the musical—from Broadway, to film and TV—Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have successfully reinvigorated a cultural phenomenon that has laid dormant for many years, in the form of the live TV musical. With the unquestionable validation of their 2013 test run—as 22 million viewers tuned in for The Sound of Music Live!—the producers have turned a one-off event into an annual NBC franchise, watching with great satisfaction as other networks follow suit. Taking six Emmy nominations for their latest, The Wiz Live!, the producers spoke with AwardsLine about their pioneering efforts in broadcast TV, their commitment to diverse casting, and the resonance of Hairspray in our times.
You’ve spoken of your appreciation of TV musicals from the ‘50s—those musicals that emerged in tandem with the very medium of television. How did those musicals affect you and your desire to bring the live musical back to TV?
Neil Meron: We always look backwards in order to go forward. One of the things that we’ve always been a big fan of was certainly the history of musicals in general—Broadway, features, television—and being somewhat of a geek about it, I was familiar with the musicals of the ‘50s; not that I recall seeing any of them, since I was thankfully too young. In exploring this, and looking at YouTube, and getting bootleg copies of things, it was fascinating how popular these musicals were. It was a different era, mind you, and the Broadway sound was a more popular type of sound to an audience than it is now, but they were wildly popular.
We’ve always thought about what the next iteration of musicals should be for us—since we did TV musicals on film, and then we did feature film musicals, and we’ve done Broadway musicals, what would be another challenge? We batted around the idea of actually doing something live to capture the attention, kind of akin to what happened in the ‘50s. Because looking at the way programming is, and in terms of how broadcast networks were eager for event programming and things that people didn’t DVR—that they’d have to show up to—we thought, what if we married this old tradition with some new way of looking at it?
When [NBC chairman] Bob Greenblatt called us, and said, “Are you guys interested in doing a new TV film musical of Oklahoma?” we said, “We think we have something a little bit different that may create a little bit more excitement and eyeball watching.” And then we pitched him Sound of Music Live! and without hesitation, he committed to it.
Craig Zadan: We had never done any live stuff on TV before, but all of the sudden we found ourselves doing the Oscars for three years in a row, and live musicals, and we then had two of the biggest events on TV every year, and they were live. So all of the sudden, we were sort of pioneering that aspect of it for ourselves, because we were learning as we were going. When you do these things, there are no rulebooks.
It must feel special to have built your musical franchise with NBC—one of the networks that pioneered the TV musical back in the ‘50s.
Zadan: It really comes down to one thing, and that is that it’s all, 100 percent, Bob Greenblatt. When Bob started at NBC, the first show he picked up was Smash. We did two seasons of Smash with him—it had its pluses and minuses, but it was a really amazing experiment. So when it was over, it was sort of like, “OK, what do we do now?” And that’s when we had the discussion about doing The Sound of Music, because Bob is the only one that understands the benefit of doing theater on TV, and that there’s an audience out there for theater on TV.
With these musicals, you’ve entered into the arena of event television in a time when viewing patterns continue to shift to streaming and DVR. It seems that you’re swimming against the tide, and yet seeing remarkable success in these endeavors.
Meron: That’s exactly why we decided to venture forward with this—just to see if our instincts were correct in thinking that maybe doing this type of programming would create more audience interest in broadcast TV. And, thankfully, it’s proven correct. We’re thrilled that Grease had the success it did on Fox; it’s very encouraging, and very flattering, and we’re happy that it’s reflected in terms of the Emmy nominations this year—the fact that Grease: Live got a boatload of nominations and so did The Wiz. It shows that this really has impacted on broadcasting in general. So it’s a great thing—a great thing for broadcast TV.
Given that this is now an annual staple for NBC, do you feel that there are unlimited musical properties to draw from, going forward?
Meron: That’s a very, very good question. We do think that we have to be very careful in our choices, because we think that not everything is right to be done live. We have to really analyze, why would an audience care about what we’re doing? There are a million choices that we’d love to do, but certainly out of those choices, maybe a handful would be right for a contemporary audience. I do think that there is a finite group of adaptations to be done, and then we’d have to look at new ways of reinventing what we reinvented.
Zadan: The other point I’d like to make is that we made Bob promise us that if we were successful with the musicals, that he would then, at some point, take a shot at doing a live play. In the case of A Few Good Men, we felt it was the right title because it’s a well-known title, where people know the play and the movie, which was so successful. It’s Aaron Sorkin, who is a genius—and when we went to Aaron Sorkin and said, “How do you feel about doing A Few Good Men live on TV?” he flipped out. He immediately said, “Oh my god. This is like a dream. I would do anything to have this happen.”
He’s so excited, and he’s even rewriting the play—because when he wrote the play, he was 26 years old, and he said, “I think I’m a better writer now than I was when I was 26. I would like to take another shot and rewrite it, and make it better.” There aren’t many authors who would say they’re going to go back to their classic piece and rewrite it. So we’re putting that together right now, and the Hairspray show is going to air in December, and we’re going to air A Few Good Men in February.
Meron: We’re casting right now.
You’ve spoken often about the decision to film your musicals live without an audience—but what exactly is behind this decision?
Zadan: Everything we do is thought through very carefully, so we looked at the way musicals have been presented. We looked at these shows that have used audiences—they mostly were PBS broadcasts—and there was something very much like a static, museum kind of approach to it. We wanted to create a world where the camera can move in every single area of the set and the performance, where we can create visuals that you can only create if you were shooting it almost like a movie. So we made the decision on the ones that we did previously to not have an audience for that reason.
Also, do you really want an audience sitting in bleachers while the Nazis are marching in in The Sound of Music? It didn’t feel appropriate to have people giggling or applauding, or doing all that stuff in the shows that we’ve done.
Now, we were very aware of when Fox did Grease, that they chose the opposite. There was an interview with Tommy Kail, the director, and he said his approach was that it was a big party—now, Grease is a big party. But The Sound of Music is not. The audience was so appropriate, and so right on for Grease, and yet not appropriate for the ones that we had done prior to this. That changes somewhat on Hairspray, simply because in Hairspray, more than half the show is done at The Corny Collins Show, in front of a studio audience.
So you are going to alter your approach with Hairspray Live?
Zadan: Organically, the question is: Can you actually do The Corny Collins Show with no one there? You can’t, because that’s not what the show is. That’s something we looked at in deciding how to go forward with Hairspray Live!
Between your three years producing the Oscars and your live musicals—with their diverse and surprising ensembles—you seem to occupy a unique position in relation to the ongoing diversity conversation.
Meron: Craig and I have this discussion all the time—diversity has suddenly become the current word of the moment. But if you look back, from 1997, when we did Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Brandy—it was the first African American Cinderella. We have been doing that from the start of our careers. It’s not anything new to us—it’s something that now has become ‘new,’ when people should have been doing this right from the get-go. It’s great that more and more people are taking an active look at how to make their casts more diverse, but, wake up guys! You should have been doing this for a long time.
Was it disheartening to be thrust into the midst of the Oscars controversy, when you’ve been actively working with diversity in mind for so long?
Zadan: The thing is that if you look at the number of diverse people who presented on the Oscars that we did—who performed on the Oscars that we did—we were so conscious of doing the right thing, because you have to. Why wouldn’t you do that? It was not even something that we had to calculate. When we did The Sound of Music, the very first person that we went after was Audra McDonald to play Mother Abbess. Even Audra said to us, “Are you sure you want me?” And we said, why? She said, “Well, because you want to cast a black Mother Abbess.” And we said, “First of all, we believe in colorblind casting, and second of all, we did research, and during that period of time in that place, there were black nuns.” So it made so much sense to us; and then when she did it, everybody went crazy.
Looking back at your careers, Hairspray is one of a few musicals you have returned to on separate occasions, across different formats. What was it about that piece that originally resonated with you, and continues to do so?
Zadan: That’s easy, actually, because we had just come out with Chicago, and it had just won the Oscar. We were saying, OK, we’ve got to do another movie musical—what do we want to do? We wanted to do something totally different. We were in New York, and we went to a preview of Hairspray, and we were going insane; it was the most exciting evening of theater we had seen in ages. Neil and I actually went to New Line Cinema and we staged a campaign— we went there and said, “This is our movie. We have to produce this,” until New Line said, OK, it’s yours.
After The Wiz—after doing something that had an African American element to it, with a contemporary sound, and a cool, hip feel to it—we wanted to do something that was more contemporary, and something that dealt with issues that were interesting to the times we live in. Now, when we committed to it, we had no idea what was going to happen in this country in the last year. We had no idea—but, my god, by the time this thing airs in December…What Hairspray is about is exactly what every debate is about, what every question of racism and integration is about. It’s unbelievable to us—it’s like Hairspray was written for these times.
Meron: Yes, and hopefully we’ll have a new President—and she will be able to be representative of the values that we have in Hairspray Live!
For a look at the first promo for Hairspray Live!, click below: