Remembering Craig Zadan: A Final Interview With A Showbiz Great As Possible ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Emmy Love Awaits

Craig Zadan Neil Meron

Some things just hit you in the gut and have no easy explanation. The death Tuesday of Craig Zadan is one of them. I am still trying to process it.

I have done so many interviews over the years (along with his longtime producing partner, Neil Meron) of this prolific producer and true showbiz devotee, including one I just did in June at our Deadline studios, that it is hard to comprehend his sudden and unexpected passing reportedly due to complications from shoulder-replacement surgery.

He had contacted me in May saying he and Neil would be open to any interview tied to Emmy season and their wildly acclaimed NBC live-musical staging of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on Easter Sunday. I told him at the time it represented their greatest chance at finally winning the Emmy, after basically re-inventing the network live-musical format with the likes of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Wiz and Hairspray.

Just Tuesday morning, I saw an expensive ad NBC had taken out on the cover of sister publication Variety for the special, nominated for 13 Emmys, and thought again this was Zadan/Meron’s year after 14 previous nominations remarkably without a win for the likes of Sound of Music, Hairspray, three consecutive Oscar telecasts and such TV movies as Bonnie and Clyde, A Raisin in the Sun, The Reagans, Life With Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows, The Beach Boys: An American Family, Gypsy, Cinderella, Annie and Serving In Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story. In addition to their Jesus Christ Superstar nomination this year, the pair are also up for Best Television Movie for Flint.

Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert
NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert” Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Of course, those titles are just a drop in the bucket for the many they have produced including 2002’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Chicago, on which they were listed as executive producers but except for a technicality of billing would actually have personally received the Oscar themselves if there was any justice. They had recently wrested away their planned big-screen version of Pippin from the ruins of The Weinstein Company and were planning a major motion picture in the new age of the movie musical.

As they told me when we did our interview in mid-June, they were also excited about returning to Broadway next season with a new musical version of Some Like It Hot, after successfully reviving Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in recent years.

No one I know had the spirit of old-fashioned show business enthusiasm than Zadan, who I first met in 1986 for a book party at his house for the second edition of his Stephen Sondheim book , a definitive bio first published in 1974. He started as a journalist and probably knew the possibilities of the business called show better than anyone in the industry — witness his and Meron’s groundbreaking idea to revive the network live musical when most thought that a format that died in the 1960s.  It will be up to Meron to carry on, but there is big hole in the heart of the business right now because one of its greatest showmen has left the stage. Zadan was clearly one of the last of a great breed of producers who respected tradition but knew how to make it relevant for new generations, a unique combination hard to duplicate.

Craig Zadan
Patrick Randak/NBC

In our interview we also talked about producing the Oscars, and the trick to making that show work — advice he and Meron shared while making it clear no one had the easy answers. With all the recent talk since then about Oscars in crisis and major changes in the show, what he and Meron had to say about the Academy Awards remains pertinent and pointed. It was obvious they were honored and excited to take on that challenge and believe in the history of the Oscar and its ongoing importance. They were the first to produce the show three years in a row since the heyday of Gil Cates and have lessons to share.

I thought it would be appropriate to share this final interview to celebrate the unique talent and great human being Zadan exemplified. In true Zadan style, I heard from him right after it ran with great thanks for the opportunity.

No, Mr. Zadan, the thanks is all due to you for an incomparable career and a wonderful legacy that won’t be soon forgotten.

Watch the conversation above.

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