Concerning TV Musicals

Mister D: Looks like we are going to have a deluge of Movie Musicals coming our way on the little screen, but whether they will have the “big” movie stars in them is anyone’s guess….looks like the Cher project is “out”…Bette and Billy Crystal both turned down one….and no mention of “Hello Dolly”….still it gives one hope that these projects are being made. With the recent success of “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge”, maybe musicals will make a comeback…it would be nice…

By Elizabeth Jensen
Friday, January 3, 2003

NEW YORK — There’s a new Professor Harold Hill coming to town, to sell parents on the dubious virtues of 76-trombone marching bands, when ABC revives “The Music Man” in mid-February. A new Billy Flynn has just arrived too, and the scheming “Chicago” lawyer, embodied by Richard Gere, is hard at work concocting perfect story lines to win clients the attention of tabloid newspaper reporters and sympathy of gullible juries.

Even those master salesmen might have learned a thing or two from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The executive producers behind “Music Man” and “Chicago,” the business partners have perfected a razzle-dazzle sell-job in recent years persuading doubtful entertainment executives and audiences that decades-old musicals can have a new life as events for a new generation.

Unlike Hill, the duo’s Storyline Entertainment has come up with the goods to back up their sweet talk, resulting in a successful string of television hits, including CBS’ Bette Midler-starring “Gypsy,” and at ABC, “Annie” and the music-filled “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.” The films have earned critical praise for their fidelity to the material, big production values and inspired casting. The projects have been important for the networks at a time when competition is fierce and TV movies are a difficult audience sell.

So Zadan and Meron expanded their sales pitch. The Miramax theatrical release “Chicago,” a film version of the Broadway musical starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Gere, just opened, after weeks of buzz about possible Oscar nominations. Up next, and a big test of whether Storyline can break into completely different territory, is the ABC action-adventure series “Veritas: The Quest,” set to launch Jan. 27. More feature films, dramas and even sitcoms are in development.

The new projects come on top of a busy — some might whisper overextended — period for Storyline’s bread-and-butter business. A “Martin and Lewis” biopic earned solid ratings for CBS in November. Final details are being cleaned up on the much-anticipated “Music Man,” which stars Matthew Broderick. Casting on a new “Fiddler on the Roof,” also for ABC, is ongoing. CBS is expecting a three-hour film about the creation of “I Love Lucy” for May.

“Our interests were never ‘Friday the 13th Part 3,”‘ says Meron. “Or Part 8,” adds Zadan.


Lucky for them, nostalgia TV came in vogue just as they were hitting their stride. Both raised in New York’s Brooklyn, Zadan, 53, and Meron, 48, first met in New York in the 1970s, when Meron, a Brooklyn College student, invited Zadan, author of a book on Stephen Sondheim, to speak at a lecture series. Eventually, Meron went to work as Zadan’s assistant on a series of club acts at the Ballroom in SoHo; they later spent three years working together at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. In 1979, Zadan moved to Los Angeles, where he lives in the Hollywood Hills; Meron, who lives in West Hollywood, followed in 1980.

With a long string of theater credits and a grab bag of Hollywood film and television jobs between them, including Zadan’s just-ended work as producer of “Footloose,” they teamed up in the mid-1980s to form Storyline, first focusing on long-to-gel features. It was in 1993 that having realized TV was a faster process, they hit it big with “Gypsy,” spurning the then-vogue “women in jeopardy” TV movies for a project that got CBS’ attention only when they promised they could bring in a star and landed Midler. Roughly 36 million viewers tuned in.

“Cinderella,” for ABC, followed in 1997, with its groundbreaking colorblind casting of Whitney Houston, Brandy and Bernadette Peters. (In between, there were some less notable projects, the Jack Lemmon-James Garner feature film “My Fellow Americans” and the well-received “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,” starring Glenn Close as an Army officer ousted for being gay.)

With ABC’s 1999 “Annie,” Storyline took off, catapulting them, along with Robert Halmi Sr., into the top rank of big-event TV movie producers at a time when few are making it in the shrinking business. Susan Lyne, now president of ABC Entertainment, was running ABC’s movie department and took on oversight of “Wonderful World of Disney,” where “Annie” was in development.

Storyline, which does much of its production work in Toronto, did seem to have the charmed touch. Other producers’ TV movies about ’60s and ’70s rock drew lackluster audience response; Storyline’s “Beach Boys: An American Family” followed on ABC and succeeded. Zadan says that as with all of their films, the key was to “give it an emotional core” that revolves around family. “If we can’t find that, then we find it hard to tell the story,” adds Meron.

So “Beach Boys” was about an abusive father; “Martin and Lewis” a platonic love story about two men as close as brothers; “Annie” about a little girl looking for family; and “Music Man” will emphasize the love story. With biopics especially, Zadan says, the audience will come based on the appeal of learning about “a show business icon, but they’ll stay because they can relate to the emotional point of view.”


Others around Hollywood zero in on different Storyline strengths. The company, they say, is about bringing in the stars and then selling the projects to audiences once they are finished. “They realize that making the movie is often the least of it,” Lyne says, crediting their savvy choice of material as well as casting.

As for the selling, Quinn Taylor, who oversees ABC’s movie department, calls Zadan and Meron “the single best marketing machine in town.” Lyne agrees: “Nobody is better at marketing their material.”

For “Annie,” they spent weeks fine-tuning a theatrical-length trailer to send to reporters, something ABC had never done, to build buzz for a project that wasn’t going to be finished until very close to its air date. They also have good relationships with many important TV critics. Then there’s the prodigious amount of e-mail Zadan sends out with quotes from positive reviews (such as a recent Liz Smith column devoted entirely to a rave about “Chicago”) and news of awards, wins or just nominations, an in-your-face approach that rankles some. Zadan blames former Walt Disney Studios Chairman Peter Schneider, who, he says, “screamed at us that we were sending too many faxes” and insisted they start using e-mail.”

The ability to generate attention can make others want to get on board. “I have not yet worked with any producers more adept at getting publicity for themselves and their projects,” said Kirk Ellis, a journalist-turned-writer who has worked on three Storyline projects, adding that, “I’ve been a beneficiary of that.”

“They come in with these great big branded titles and put every breath into these movies,” says Bela Bajaria, who runs CBS’ movie department.

Not everything has been coming up roses recently. With the “Fiddler on the Roof” remake, they started out with hopes of casting Billy Crystal and Midler as Tevye and Golde. Instead, the much-praised but lesser known Victor Garber — who also had starring roles in “The Music Man,” “Life With Judy Garland,” “Annie” and “Cinderella,” when not playing Jennifer Garner’s slippery father on “Alias” — is expected to play Tevye and the Golde casting remains undecided. ABC recently took the long-promised remake of “Mame,” with Barbara Streisand as an executive producer and Cher in the starring roll, off its futures list because the much-delayed project hasn’t come together, although network sources said ABC would still like to revive it.


With bravado to rival Harold Hill’s, Zadan and Meron haven’t gone timidly into their new ventures, many of which seem to have few threads in common with the formula that has worked for Storyline so far. Zadan rattles off a list of eight series with script orders at Disney’s Touchstone Television: five comedies and three dramas. Series television, says Meron, is a way to “make a better living. It’s a great way of securing the future.”

Among the prospects: an hourlong drama set in the world of gladiators. A dramedy about a young businesswoman who also must take over her family business, which happens to be a Mafia family (“Sex and the City” meets “The Sopranos,” Zadan says). A half-hour “anti-‘Sex and the City’ show about real Midwestern housewives.” And a sitcom, in its second go-round in development, about gay parents, which would be groundbreaking if it gets on the air.

There’s also another theatrical film, based on Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel “Fahrenheit 451,” with Mel Gibson, as well as “a slew” of family feature films for Disney, Zadan says. In addition to “Fiddler” for ABC, the pair are working on a movie based on “Ghostlight,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s memoir of growing up fascinated by the theater, and a live-action “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with new music from Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken to augment their original songs for the animated version.

At CBS, a long-in-the-works biography of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and a remake of “Butterflies Are Free” are in development.

The list is lengthy for a reason, they say. “I made the most tragic mistake of my life after ‘Footloose,’ ” Zadan says. He was new to Hollywood in 1984 and focused for years on the movie, neglecting to begin development of other projects. When “Footloose” was a hit “for two seconds, I was a very hot producer. All the studios were wining and dining me, and I had nothing to make.” He began to put things in development, but by then, he says, “people had moved on. It was a really bad time for me in life. I wasn’t able to capitalize on ‘Footloose’ at all and I never made that mistake again.”


Most imminently, there’s “Veritas: The Quest,” an “Indiana Jones”-like show about a father and son’s archeological adventures in “search of the truth behind the mysteries of history and civilization.” With a tough 8 p.m. eastern Monday time slot, up against CBS’ comedies, NBC’s “Fear Factor” and the WB’s family-friendly “7th Heaven,” industry observers are already speculating that it may be short-lived. ABC’s Lyne calls it “a really fun commercial program,” but the network declined to make it available for viewing.

It may also have the dubious distinction of being one of the most expensive pilots ever, having started out as a $7-million, two-hour movie that was cut to an hour. ABC was considering a lengthier hourlong version without commercials, but in the end it will air with ads. Zadan says the shorter version was chosen so the program could air the night after ABC’s Super Bowl broadcast.

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