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Craig Zadan sparked a renewed interest in live musicals with his TV productions

Craig Zadan sparked a renewed interest in live musicals with his TV productions
John Legend starred as Jesus in the Easter Sunday live production of "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert." The Emmy-nominated NBC event was produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. (Paul Lee / NBC)

Before there was “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen,” there was Craig Zadan.

In a decades-long career that spanned film, theater and television, the producer, who died Tuesday at age 69 as a result of complications from shoulder surgery, and his creative partner, Neil Meron, did as much as anyone in Hollywood to revive popular interest in musical theater.

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Not only did they resuscitate the once-moribund movie musical with the 2002 hit “Chicago,” which was at the time the first musical to win an Academy Award for best picture in more than three decades, they also brought musical theater to the masses with such live television productions as “The Sound of Music Live!” and, most recently, the Emmy-nominated “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” at NBC.

“Luckily or crazily enough we were both mad and passionate about musicals, and that was one of the things that bonded us,” Meron said in an interview Wednesday.

Zadan began his work in musicals as an observer. Once a journalist with New York magazine, he wrote a biography, “Sondheim & Co.,” which detailed the creation of musicals by Stephen Sondheim. He eventually partnered with Meron and began producing — with music almost always playing a central role in their projects, such as 1984’s star-making Kevin Bacon vehicle “Footloose.”

In 1993, the duo teamed to produce a TV movie of “Gypsy” starring Bette Midler for CBS — the first small-screen adaptation of a Broadway musical in years. “Everybody thought we were nuts,” Meron said. “But it was a gigantic success, and that set the stage for us following our passions.”

Whitney Houston and Brandy starred in ABC's 1997 production of "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella."
Whitney Houston and Brandy starred in ABC's 1997 production of "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella." (Neal Preston / ABC)

Other TV projects followed. Years before colorblind casting became more common in Hollywood, “Cinderella” aired on ABC in 1997 featuring R&B star Brandy in the title role and Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother. In 2002, the duo executive produced the Oscar-winning “Chicago.” They went on to produce the Oscar ceremonies themselves three years in a row.

They were also behind the NBC series “Smash,” an ambitious but uneven attempt at bringing the behind-the-scenes drama of Broadway to a television audience. The series, which debuted in 2012, was canceled after two seasons but led to a fruitful partnership with NBC, whose chairman, Bob Greenblatt, is an avid musical theater fan.

Meron and Zadan approached him with a wild idea: bringing back the live musical, which had been a fixture in early television but died out in the 1960s. “The trend was: people like to tune in to live events,” Meron said. In 2013 — to much cynicism — they executive produced “The Sound of Music Live!,” an adaptation of the 1959 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.

Featuring country music star Carrie Underwood as Maria, a role made famous by Julie Andrews, the production attracted 18.6 million total viewers, exceeding all expectations and giving NBC its most-watched night of entertainment programming in nearly seven years. While reviews for the musical — and Underwood’s performance in particular — were not exactly glowing, the musical was an undeniable technical accomplishment.

Broadcast from a Long Island soundstage, the three-hour production required two directors, 13 cameras and dozens of quick-change costumes. It was the first live musical to appear on network television in nearly 60 years, since CBS aired a live version of "Cinderella" in 1957.

“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” Meron recalled on Wednesday. “We knew that we were doing a hybrid of sorts, and we had to figure out the language of that.”

In an interview on the set of the production at the time, Zadan summed up the high stakes. “We told everybody, 'Just keep going, no matter what happens. You can't start over.’ ”

Despite some critical dings, the audacious gamble spawned a new holiday tradition, and what Meron and Zadan initially saw as a one-off morphed into a new genre. The pair followed up “The Sound of Music Live!” with a staging of “Peter Pan” starring Allison Williams in 2014 that drew more modest ratings but similar levels of Twitter snark.

Still, they pressed on, continuing to experiment with the nascent format and growing more creatively ambitious with each staging. For “The Wiz Live!” they cast an unknown, Shanice Williams, as Dorothy. They added a live audience for their timely 2016 production of “Hairspray,” which aired weeks after the contentious presidential election and dealt with racial division in working-class Baltimore. They also broadcast a pared-down “Jesus Christ Superstar,” starring R&B musician John Legend, from an armory in Brooklyn, on Easter Sunday this year.

Although ratings never quite returned to the levels of “The Sound of Music Live!,” skepticism gradually melted away. Of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” which is nominated for 13 Emmys, Times critic Lorraine Ali wrote: “The show was a collision of religion and theater and pop culture that could have been one holy mess. But by the grace of God, or maybe a great cast and lots and lots of expert staging, a great musical became a great TV production.”

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Meron and Zadan’s work inspired other networks to follow suit with their own musical productions, including “Grease” and “A Christmas Story” at Fox. The live musical, once seen as an audacious stunt, fast became a TV staple — a shift Zadan was happy to take credit for.

“We didn’t sort of start it,” he told The Times on the set of “Hairspray” in 2016. “We started it. … I don't mean to be rude, but we did it and now everyone's copying it, which is great.”

“Craig Zadan, along with his partner Neil Meron, brought musical theater back into mainstream popularity and into the hearts and minds of so many,” said actress Laura Benanti, who appeared in “The Sound of Music Live!,” in a statement to The Times. “It is because of his love of the theater and live arts that we will have so many beautiful shows and performances memorialized forever.”

“Think of the kids all over the United States who could never afford to go to New York City and see a show, and here they are, able to see a real Broadway production right in their own living rooms,” added actress Kristin Chenoweth, who appeared in a 2010 Broadway production of “Promises, Promises” that Meron and Zadan helped produce and in NBC’s “Hairspray Live!,” in an email to The Times.

Zadan’s impact will continue after his death. NBC said it is moving forward with plans for a live staging of Aaron Sorkin’s play “A Few Good Men.” (A live version of “Bye Bye Birdie” with Jennifer Lopez has been delayed several times.) Also in the works from Zadan and Meron are a Broadway adaptation of the Billy Wilder classic “Some Like It Hot” and a stage musical inspired by “Smash.”

Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this story.

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