When OUTFest tapped producing partners Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (executive producers of Chicago, 2002 winner of the Best Picture award) to receive the 2012 Legacy Award, nobody could have anticipated the irony of asking Darren Criss -- who had made his Broadway debut in their production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying -- to present the award, because while the Meron/Zadan partnership has always radiated an aura of success, as they tell it, their career has been anything but effortless.
Meron and Zadan's partnership initially took shape in New York City at the Public Theater, where, working for producer Joe Papp, they adopted the legendary producer's forward-looking ethos of color-blind casting and championing minority writers. Papp's early influence on the duo has been reflected in a body of work that reflects America's challenging cultural and ethnic diversity: the first multicultural Cinderella, starring Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Paolo Montalbán; What Makes a Family, starring Brooke Shields and Cherry Jones; and crowd favorites Hairspray and the smash Smash; and of course producing the 2013 Academy Awards.
I recently spoke with Meron and Zadan by phone about the secrets of their artistic success and longevity in a fickle business, the mythic "power gay," and Hollywood's casting couch.
Tomas Mournian: You both started working for Joseph Papp, who produced Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and championed Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line). Do you view Papp as a straight instigator of gay culture?
Neil Meron: He didn't specifically say, "I'm going to do gay plays." He really looked to the disenfranchised. So the Public Theater wasn't gay-centric so much as it was disenfranchised-centric. Joe was really great at reflecting the world that was right outside the door.
Tomas Mournian: How have you navigated Hollywood, an environment known for its macho behavior and/or casual homophobia?
Neil Meron: There wasn't blatant homophobia being thrust in our faces, because the truth of the matter is Hollywood's a business, and if you have the product they want, you're going to be embraced, and if they don't want it, you're not going to be embraced.
Craig Zadan: If you are a really talented writer, or a talented director, or talented producer, or whatever, nobody really cares if you're gay or straight.
Tomas Mournian: Right, but what about gay actors?
Craig Zadan: There was always a fear that the female audience that fantasizes about leading men would not want to go see that person. But Neil Patrick Harris, and a huge list of others have come out in the last couple years, have been able to play anything. So the idea of being gay and turning off a straight audience is becoming ludicrous.
Tomas Mournian: What's been the key to a successful partnership in a business not known for longevity?
Neil Meron: Hard work. Respect. Healthy fighting.
Tomas Mournian: Healthy fighting?
Neil Meron: When you disagree on some things, and you work it out, and you continue. You let off the pressure cooker of the environment. It's like any relationship.
Tomas Mournian: What is the difference between "healthy fighting" and that oft-used Hollywood phrase "fighting for a project"?
Craig Zadan: For Hairspray it was going back, over and over again. People lose jobs and don't work when the ego gets in the way: :Look, I've earned this, so therefore they should give this to me." We never took the attitude that they owed it to us or we deserved it.
Tomas Mournian: While 1950s Hollywood agent Henry Wilson was famous for grooming Lana Turner, he's since become infamous for sleeping with and "inventing" beefcake stars: Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue, and Tab Hunter. Does the gay casting couch still exist?
Craig Zadan: Obviously, there is a gay casting couch, but there is a straight casting couch, too. But I don't know anybody, straight or gay, who slept with somebody and actually really got a job.
Tomas Mournian: So you would agree with the late Julia Phillips (You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again), who said, "You don't sleep your way to the top, only into the middle"?
Neil Meron: There is that myth in general about Hollywood. And I'm sure the myth is founded in some sort of reality. But have we heard stories? Sure.
Tomas Mournian: What would be the three most important traits for any aspiring "power gay"?
Neil Meron: Three essential traits? Why three?
Tomas Mournian: OK, 10. A hundred. You can email me.
Craig Zadan: I don't understand this. Can you give me an example of what you're talking about?
Tomas Mournian: Richard Zanuck spent 25 years pitching Driving Miss Daisy before he was given a green light. To me that says that patience is an element of power. What are other elements or qualities of power that you would identify?
Neil Meron: I think the question (for both of us) was when you specifically said "power gays." We are members of the entertainment industry and must have the same passion and perseverance and dedication and cleverness as anybody.
Tomas Mournian: But you're receiving the Legacy Award from OUTFest, which is an LGBTQ film organization.
Neil Meron: That's correct.
Tomas Mournian: An award that recognizes you're both powerful gay men in the entertainment industry.
Neil Meron: That's great.
Craig Zadan: I think it has to do with perspective. We get up and go to work just like everybody else. We have disappointments, and great things happen, and wonderful, thrilling moments, and we have horrible moments where people are disrespectful and awful to us. We don't see ourselves as being powerful or important in that way, because we have really tough days where we don't feel so important. We feel like every producer out there, struggling and fighting, and working to get their shows, their TV things, their movie things, their everything, made.
Neil Meron: We are also at the mercy of people that say they want to give us the money to do it. I don't think we're completely in control of our destiny.
Tomas Mournian: Ten years in development hell, and Miramax Films is about to give up on Chicago (which grossed over $300 million)... What about you clicked with the project?
Neil Meron: The right DNA. But it's like any other project: It could have gone another way.
Craig Zadan: Rob Marshall. His concept and vision was so right, and so inspiring, and so different from what anyone else tried to do that as a result, it immediately happened and got made.
Tomas Mournian: And after Darren Criss presents you with the Legacy Award, next year you follow in the footsteps of Gower Champion, Stanley Donen, and Quincy Jones and will be producing the biggest show on Earth: the Oscars. How did that happen?
Craig Zadan: Academy president Hawk Koch called and said, "What would you say if we asked you to produce the Oscars this year?" We went, "Really?"
Tomas Mournian: If there are two poles of the Oscars, one being Grease and Saturday Night Fever producer Allan Carr's campy opening (featuring Rob Lowe paired with Snow White singing "Proud Mary") and Laura Ziskin's "speeding locomotive years," where will your Academy Awards land?
Neil Meron: Like all the other Oscar producers, we're going to make it our own.
Tomas Mournian: Will there be any dancing dwarves?
Craig Zadan: There is no history in our TV or movies of any dancing dwarves.
The OUTFest Legacy Awards will be held Oct. 13 at the Orpheum Theater (842 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, Calif., 90014). For ticket information, click here, and for more information on the event, go to outfest.org/legacy/events.
Craig Zadan: We're also really thrilled that our friend Darren Criss is going to present us with this award. He starred for us on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, so we gave him his chance to be on Broadway and make his Broadway debut. Of all the people that we know, we're thrilled that he's the one who agreed to perform, and sing, and hand us the award. It's going to be an incredible night for us and, hopefully, for everyone in the audience.
Meron and Zadan discovered Rob Marshall and made Chicago: The Musical. Craig Zadan: We discovered Rob Marshall as a young choreographer working on Broadway, and we hired him to choreograph Cinderella for us. And we were so impressed with him, we gave him his directing debut on Annie on TV with Kathy Bates, and he did such a brilliant job on Annie that he then earned the ability to go in and pitch Chicago.
Whitney Houston starred with Brandy on TV in the first multicultural Cinderella. Thomas Mournian: Hindsight being 20/20, and given that you might have known about Whitney Houston's lifestyle during Cinderella, would you have guessed she wasn't long for the world? Neil Meron: There are so many factors that we are not privy to, nor should we be privy to, that informs an actor's journey. It's hard to comment on somebody's emotional journey. I can't do it other than respect what that person is going through, and if it's brought to us, then to offer advice as we see it. Craig Zadan: When we produced Cinderella, rather than saying, "It's an all-white production of Cinderella like every other production of Cinderella," we had the first multicultural Cinderella. The whole cast of that movie was so mixed up, we reflected the world as it is today.
Thomas Mournian: Can an out actor play straight? Craig Zadan: Sean Hayes came out and was able to play the male lead in our Broadway musical Promises, Promises, with Kristin Chenoweth. And every single night, 1,500 people sat in that audience and believed in the love affair and the romance between Sean and Kristin on that stage. Nobody said, "Oh, he's gay," or, "He's in Will & Grace, so I don't believe in him as a straight character." The show obviously worked and was a big hit and sold out, and audiences were screaming and cheering and carrying on.
Angela Lansbury won her fifth Tony Award for Blithe Spirit. Craig Zadan began his producing career with a tribute to Stephen Sondheim in 1972 at the Shubert Theater, starring Alexis Smith and Angela Lansbury. Craig Zadan: We're very good friends with an actress named Angela Lansbury. And one time we were having dinner with her ... She had just won her fifth Tony Award, and we said, "Boy, after all those Tony Awards, you probably have your pick of Broadway shows that you can do, whatever you want to do." And she said, "That is so not true. When I do a show and it closes, I'm always convinced it's the last show I'll do." I've never forgotten that, because she really meant it; she felt it.
On reviving The Bucket List: Craig Zadan: The Bucket List had been turned down by everybody. Our development person brought it to us, and we read it and loved it and handed it to Rob Reiner, who read it immediately and committed to it. [He] handed it to Morgan Freeman, who read it and committed to [it] immediately. And he ... wanted Jack Nicholson opposite him, and Rob Reiner gave it to Jack Nicholson, who read it and committed to it immediately. We took a project that had been sitting on a dead pile at an agency, and within a very, very short period of time, this script had Rob Reiner, Morgan Freeman, and Jack Nicholson, and all of a sudden it was a movie, and it got made very quickly.
Judy Davis as Judy Garland in Me and My Shadows: Life with Judy. The scene's location in the film is immediately after the meeting between Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli to discuss the film, and right before the "Trolley Song" is shot. If there's a line from Ethel Merman to Bernadette Peters to Andrea McCardle, with Judy Garland in there, how would you describe that singularly American voice? Neil Meron: It's a voice that jumps into your soul and is deeply emotional and brilliant. How can you describe how art touches you? It's kind of an ephemeral thing; it's something that... how do you describe an emotion? When you find yourself in that indescribable moment, that's when you know it's special. Craig Zadan: When we said, "Judy Davis is going to play Judy Garland," people said, "Are you crazy? An Australian actress? What does she have to do with an American icon?" Judy Davis is "not easy" to work with, yet we did three movies with her.
This is the 'Smash' theme, performed by Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty. Craig Zadan: One day, Steven Speilberg said, "I'm doing a TV series called Smash, and would you want to produce it with me? Because based on your work, I think you're the perfect match for this show with us." It's a matter of really feeling like if you work hard enough, and you don't give up, and you keep fighting for it, your point of view and vision, maybe somebody will notice sometime, and if they notice, maybe they'll want you to do their project, as well.
The Lifetime original Steel Magnolias (Oct. 7, 9 p.m.) features an all-black cast, including Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott, and Queen Latifah, who gives a remarkable performance as M'Lynn. Craig Zadan: The movie is so terrific, and performances are out of this world. To have an all-black cast, it's such a different version of Steel Magnolias. Photo credit: DailyBillboard
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