Executive Producers of “Chicago” Give The Credit To Bette Midler For Success of Musical Comebacks

Mister D: Now really give “the lady” her due and get her back on the BIG SCREEN!!!!…..thank you Mr. Zadan and Meron for being honest (in my opinion)


Strike up the band!
By Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post Film Writer
Saturday, February 15, 2003

This is a good week for Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. OK, a great week.

The executive producers of the film Chicago saw it receive 13 Oscar nominations on Tuesday, further cementing the popular return of the movie musical. On Sunday, their new, nimbler version of the 1957 show The Music Man airs nationwide on ABC.

And the phones keep ringing with calls from studio executives. The corporate suits who used to roll their eyes when these guys would arrive pitching musical projects are suddenly pursuing them.

“Now it’s all changed,” says Zadan, 53. “Because now they’re all sort of in a state of shock. They don’t know what hit them. This is something that just came out of left field.”

The old-fashioned movie musical — except for animated features like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King — had long been dormant in Hollywood. But because of a couple of high-stepping, gun-toting murderesses in the razzle-dazzle Chicago, studios are scrambling to get musicals into production.

Such long-shelved projects as Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd, along with a new version of Bye Bye Birdie and a singing-dancing biography of composer-lyricist Cole Porter, are getting placed on the fast track.

Much of this about-face on the commercial viability of movie musicals is due to the efforts of Zadan and Meron.

But they credit… Bette Midler.

Back in 1993, they were offered the rights to the backstage biographical show Gypsy for television. All they had to do was persuade one of the major networks to bankroll and broadcast it.

They went to a personal friend, CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky. “So we called Jeff and said, ‘Jeff, would you ever do a musical?’ ” recalls Meron, 46. “He said, ‘Arghh, why are you asking me? No, they don’t work.’ ”

But once they mentioned Gypsy, Sagansky was intrigued enough to ask who they had in mind for Mama Rose, one of the great female roles of the musical theater canon. Thinking on their feet, Zadan and Meron mentioned Bette Midler, a then-hot film star who was weaned on musicals. And Sagansky agreed on the spot if they could persuade the actress.

“Then we started our journey to talk to Bette Midler,” says Meron. “So basically I would say Bette Midler is responsible for the rebirth of musicals. We give her the credit. If Bette hadn’t committed, we wouldn’t have made Gypsy, which put the whole ball in motion.”

True to the original

Not only did they hook Midler, they filmed the program with enormous fidelity to the stage show — in sharp contrast to the indifferent 1962 Rosalind Russell movie version — and viewers were enthralled.

“Sagansky called early the next morning after we aired and said, ‘You’ve just changed the face of television for musicals.’ From that point on, we were able to do Cinderella and then Annie, now Music Man and soon Fiddler (on the Roof),” says Zadan. “All of this really came from that one show.”

It is no coincidence that most of the shows they produced for television were previously filmed badly. Zadan and Meron had strong feelings about doing them right, often by hewing close to the original stage script.

The Music Man, starring Matthew Broderick as con artist/traveling salesman Harold Hill and Kristin Chenoweth as wary librarian and piano teacher Marian Paroo, was a different matter.

“A lot of people feel that it’s a really good movie musical,” concedes Zadan. “We explored something completely different. Our approach was to do the movie much more naturalistically, less buffoony, less cartoony.”

Zadan said Broderick avoided “the sledgehammer approach” of original star Robert Preston, deciding instead “to be more subtle… to go in and seduce the town, to be mischievous and impish and fast on his feet and to improvise. We thought that would lead to the final thing, which is the most important thing for us, which is that we wanted to tell a love story.”

Although Marian is described at one point as an “old maid,” Zadan and Meron were intent on casting the leading characters, and the rest of the town folk, younger than they traditionally are.

“Once we had Matthew, it became a whole different ballgame, because he seems so young,” says Meron. “We just thought, every time you see the barbershop quartet, it’s a bunch of much older men. And here we thought, ‘Why?’ And then Victor Garber and Molly Shannon made a younger mayor and mayor’s wife. All the ages came down a lot.”

While TV was starting to embrace the genre, it remained a dead issue for feature films. For one simple reason.

“Because they were bad,” notes Zadan. And even worse than low quality was low box-office return.

“We worked with Disney for a long time. Every single time we raised the issue over the last number of years about doing a movie musical, they’d say, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We did Newsies.’ That was literally enough, because every time we’d bring it up, they’d say, ‘Newsies.’ ”

“It kind of started in the ’60s. There were these colossal original film musicals that were kind of beginning to nail the coffin shut,” adds Meron. “Like Star! with Julie Andrews, Doctor Dolittle or even, when it came out, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wasn’t the biggest hit.”

Even Broadway’s biggest hits — from Fiddler to Man of La Mancha to A Chorus Line — were turned into embarrassing, overblown failures. “They were all terrible,” bemoans Zadan. “Brilliant shows, terrible movies.”

Musicals beloved again

Fortunately, Zadan and Meron hooked up with maverick Miramax studio head Harvey Weinstein, who was willing to gamble on making the 1975 musical Chicago and gamble even more on a rookie director, Broadway’s Rob Marshall.

And they acknowledge the help of Moulin Rouge in demonstrating the appeal of movie musicals. “I think with two in a row, first Moulin Rouge and now Chicago, the resistance has disappeared,” says Zadan.

Not only resistance from studios, but from stars, too. “Oh, yes. Everybody wants to sing and dance now,” chimes in Meron.

“Everybody that was not in Chicago has called Rob Marshall and said, ‘What was I thinking? Why didn’t I call you or come after you and say, I want to be in this?’ ” says Zadan.

Ask them who the next star with the singing and dancing chops to cross over to a movie musical might be and they mention Kate Winslet. “I mean, she has an incredible singing voice,” responds Meron. “And Kate Winslet’s a great opportunity to attract a young audience to musicals. Tom Cruise sings and dances.”

Who knew?

Even A-list directors are getting interested in musicals. “When I did Footloose, the first person I offered the movie to was Ron Howard,” recalls Zadan. Howard read the script and liked it, but turned the project down, feeling he would be unable to film the musical numbers well.

“We spoke to Ron recently and he said, ‘I still don’t know how to shoot the musical numbers, but now I’m more adept as a filmmaker after all these years, so I think I might take the chance and try and figure it out.”

One flop may spoil it

Of course, Hollywood is so bottom-line-oriented that the first musical to flop could seriously dampen the industry’s new excitement. Still, Zadan and Meron are barreling ahead, mulling their next projects and enjoying their current success.

“We’re sort of in this dream state. Within a month of each other, we release Chicago and then we’re airing Music Man, you want to pinch yourself and go, ‘Boy, are we lucky,’ ” says Zadan. “Because we came out to Hollywood from New York. We thought that we were leaving our theatrical background in the dust. But not at all. The studios were skeptical at first, but now we’ve got their attention.”

“I think we really are looking at the rebirth of the American movie musical,” adds Meron. “And we hope it continues.”

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