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Craig Zadan, Oscars producer and the man who helped bring musicals back to TV, dies at 69

Craig Zadan, Oscars producer and the man who helped bring musicals back to TV, dies at 69
Producer Craig Zadan, shown in 2007, was known for his work on NBC's live musicals, the Academy Awards and films including "Chicago." (Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Craig Zadan, the prolific producer who helped to steer the Oscar-winning film “Chicago” and to jump-start the resurgence of live musicals on television, died Tuesday following shoulder surgery. He was 69.

Zadan and producing partner Neil Meron were the forces behind a recent string of live musicals for NBC, including “The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan” and “The Wiz.” Meron said Wednesday that Zadan’s death was sudden and unexpected.

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“He had very successful shoulder replacement surgery,” Meron said. “We don’t really know what was the cause.”

Craig Zadan, left, and Neil Meron, highly successful producers of "Chicago" and "Hairspray" and other productions.
Craig Zadan, left, and Neil Meron, highly successful producers of "Chicago" and "Hairspray" and other productions. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt issued a statement Tuesday expressing “profound sadness.”

“On behalf of his life partner, Elwood Hopkins, and his producing partner, Neil Meron, we are stunned that the man behind so many incredible film, theater and television productions — several of them joyous musicals — was taken away so suddenly,” Greenblatt said. “Craig’s distinguished career as a passionate and consummate producer is eclipsed only by his genuine love for the thousands of actors, directors, writers, musicians, designers, and technicians he worked with over the years. His absence will be felt in our hearts and throughout our business.”

Born in 1949 in Miami, Zadan attended Hofstra University on Long Island in New York before embarking on a career in show business. His enduring partnership with Meron would take shape in the mid-1970s thanks to a college speaking engagement: Meron, a student at Brooklyn College, invited Zadan to speak at the school because the latter had been writing about theater for New York magazine and had written a book on Stephen Sondheim (“Sondheim & Co.”).

The pair began making their mark in film, notably helping to translate stage productions for the big screen, including “Chicago” (2002) and “Hairspray” (2007).

The duo later produced the Academy Awards telecast for three consecutive years. In 2012, after they were chosen, Zadan said the job was a decade-old dream, and that he and Meron had long brainstormed ideas while watching the broadcast together.

“ ‘Oh, good, they didn’t do that,’ we would say every year,” Zadan told The Times. “We thought: Once they do all the stuff we have in our minds, we will have nothing to offer. Luckily, nobody has done what we wanted to do. Now we can take out of the drawer all the stuff that we have been fantasizing about.”

Their first Oscars, in 2013, drew criticism for host Seth MacFarlane’s song-and-dance about breasts but drew a strong 40 million viewers. The following year — with “12 Years a Slave” winning best picture and host Ellen DeGeneres handing out pizza to the audience and taking a selfie with Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Bradley Cooper — the telecast drew 43 million viewers, a 14-year high.

But in 2015, with Neil Patrick Harris as host and “Birdman” taking best picture, the show drew just 37 million viewers, and the academy announced it was moving in a different direction for 2016.

Zadan and Meron kept busy with NBC’s successful live musical franchise, most recently staging “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The show earned 13 Emmy Award nominations.

"Music gets to people in a way that dialogue doesn't," Zadan, also an executive producer on the NBC musical drama series “Smash,” told The Times in 2016. "We were always looking for ways to use music in a dramatic context that's different."

That same year, as NBC ramped up for “Hairspray Live!,” Zadan noted how the bubblegum-colored, kitschy musical carried a serious message about race relations.

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"This sadly doesn't feel like a period piece,” he said.

In 2017, Zadan and Meron were among the producers on “Flint,” a Lifetime project starring Queen Latifah, Marin Ireland and Betsy Brandt centered on the Michigan water crisis. Next month “Flint” will vie in the Emmys’ movie category.

Zadan’s Broadway productions included “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” starring Daniel Radcliffe in 2011 and “Promises, Promises” with Kristin Chenoweth in 2010.

Productions helmed by Zadan and Meron have earned six Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, 17 Emmy Awards and two Tony Awards.

Times staff writers Deborah Vankin and Meg James contributed to this article.

Twitter: @villarrealy

12 p.m., Aug. 22: This article has been updated with comment from Neil Meron and additional details.

This story was originally published at 6:05 p.m. Aug. 21.

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