When Musical Producers Take on the Oscars, Is It Dream or Disaster?

When Musical Producers Take on the Oscars, Is It Dream or Disaster?

This year's Oscar producers have experience in musicals and on Broadway — and history suggests that can be a glorious mix… or a dangerous one

Academy President Hawk Koch has handed the keys to the Oscar show to a pair of producers best known for making musicals.

Is that a good idea?

History suggests that it could lead to a fresh, lively show … or to a glitzy, cheesy one. Producers with strong musical backgrounds have tackled the Oscars before, and for every one who's won raves on the demanding Oscar stage, there's another who's fallen flat.

AMPASOf course, we don't know what Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have in mind for the 85th Academy Awards, which they were chosen to produce this week. Zadan told TheWrap that it would be "the obvious thing" to assume that their Oscars will be long on music, but that it wouldn't necessarily be accurate.

Still, he admitted that the pair's DNA is in musical films like "Chicago" (performed at the Oscars, above) "Footloose" and "Hairspray," and in Broadway musicals like the recent revivals of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and "Promises, Promises."

It's probably safe, then, to figure that their musical-theater background will influence what they put on the stage of the Dolby Theatre. And while it's not fair to saddle the new guys with the hits and misses of their predecessors, it might be instructive to take a look at what other musical vets did with the Oscar stage when they had a shot at it.

Also read: New Oscar Producers Say They'll Find a Host 'Momentarily'

[Note: The Academy labels its shows by the year the contending movies are released, not the year in which the shows take place.]

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion1968: GOWER CHAMPION

While previous Oscar producers like Mervyn LeRoy, Valentine Davies and George Sidney had experience making musicals, Gower Champion was Broadway-musical royalty when he took the reins of the show at a time when screen musicals were thought to be going out of style. Recruited by Academy President Gregory Peck, Champion immediately had an impact on the show: He agreed to produce only if the Oscars were moved from the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to the newer and more upscale Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (right) in downtown L.A.

Champion also said that it was "a bore" to always use Bob Hope as host, so he brought in 10 "friends of Oscar," including Ingrid Bergman, Sidney Poitier, Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis. He also loosened the dress code, had a rock band play while dancers wearing the nominated costumes danced the frug and the jerk, and moved the Best Actor award to the middle of the show.

Upon his arrival at the Governors Ball, guests greeted Champion with a standing ovation.

Robert Wise1970: ROBERT WISE

Two years after Champion's show, "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music" director – and future AMPAS president – Wise took the group-hosting concept to its extreme. Abandoning the idea of a host entirely, Robert Wise used 32 different "friends of Oscar" – or, as we might call them these days, presenters.

Wise also insisted that everybody appearing on the show be a true movie star – which meant, for example, that the Carpenters had to turn over the performance of their nominated song "For All We Know" to Petula Clark, because she had an onscreen career and they didn't.

To a degree, Wise was hamstrung by the fact that only one of the acting winners showed up and that all the suspense revolved around whether the Best Actor award would go to George C. Scott, who had said he didn't want to be nominated for "Patton" and wouldn't accept if it won. He did win, and he didn't accept.

Afterward, according to the book "Inside Oscar," Daily Variety summed it up: "At 43, Oscar looked tired."

Stanley Donen1985: STANLEY DONEN

In 1998, director Stanley Donen gave one of the most delightful acceptance speeches in Oscar history, singing "Cheek to Cheek" while dancing with the honorary Oscar with which he'd just been presented (right). But a dozen years earlier, the director of such classic musicals as "Singing in the Rain," "On the Town," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Damn Yankees" had produced the Oscars, with mixed results.

His show began with an elaborate and unfortunate opening number featuring film clips from "Flying Down to Rio" interspersed with shots of actress Teri Garr piloting an airplane and then climbing onto the wing with a chorus line of dancing girls. 

"After that, things improved considerably," the Academy's official history understates – and, in fact, the rest of the show, which included Howard Keel serenading a bevy of leading ladies from MGM musicals, was for the most part enthusiastically received. Despite the opening number, the New York Times called Donen's work "the best Oscar show in years, maybe ever."

Rob Lowe and Snow White1988: ALLAN CARR

You might have heard about this one. To spice up the Oscars at the end of the '80s, the Academy turned to Allan Carr, who had worked on "Saturday Night Fever," co-produced and written "Grease," produced the Village People musical "Can't Stop the Music" and produced the Broadway musical version of "La Cage aux Folles."

Carr immediately proclaimed that he was going to stage the most fabulous Oscars ever. Instead, he staged the most infamous.

His show opened with a monstrous 11-minute musical extravaganza whose most memorable moment came when Rob Lowe butchered a rewritten version of "Proud Mary" with an actress dressed as Snow White — a character for which Carr had forgotten to get clearance. A later musical number, "I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner," was almost as long and just as bad.

Disney sued over the Snow White fiasco, the critics trashed the show, and many said that Carr never recovered from his very public failure.

Quincy Jones1995: QUINCY JONES

Quincy Jones had made a bigger mark in the music industry, where he's set the record for most Grammy nominations with 79, than he had in movies when the Academy asked him to produce the Oscars in 1996. But he'd also produced "The Color Purple," written music for films and won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and he enthusiastically took the job with co-producer David Salzman, saying again and again that he was going to change everything about the Oscars.

He didn't quite accomplish that, and during rehearsals his Oscars appeared to be an impending train wreck, chaotic and disorganized.

But on the night of the show it all came together – and once you got past a silly fashion-model presentation of the costume awards, Jones' Oscars had energy (Stomp), music (Bruce Springsteen), eloquence (Emma Thompson's acceptance speech) and real emotion (Christopher Reeve's first public appearance since being paralyzed in a riding accident).

Michael Yada/AMPAS2008: BILL CONDON & LAURENCE MARK

Writer-director Bill Condon, who tackled the Oscars with producer Laurence Mark, got the Academy job after directing one musical, "Dreamgirls," and writing another, Best Picture winner "Chicago." But he and Mark showed a theatrical flair in their Oscar show, with frequent Broadway leading man Hugh Jackman winning raves for his job as host.

If you can get past the incongruity of Jackman singing an opening number about a downsized, lower-budgeted Oscars while standing beneath a million-dollar crystal Swarovski curtain, the Condon and Mark show was the freshest and best of the recent Oscar shows, nicely re-staging the Best Actor and Actress presentations and bringing a shot of adrenaline and intimacy to the entire enterprise. 

Todd Wawrychuk/AMPAS2009: ADAM SHANKMAN (WITH BILL MECHANIC)

The year after Condon and Mark had their turn, "Hairspray" and "Rock of Ages" director Adam Shankman, who'd begun his career as a choreographer, teamed up with producer Bill Mechanic for an Oscars that was not exactly as successful as its predecessor.

(Right: Shankman at Oscar rehearsals.)

"It wasn't the worst Oscars ever, but it may have been the most disappointing," wrote Joe Adalian at TheWrap, complaining that the show was conventional and tired.

The Shankman/Mechanic show, which did away with performances of the nominated songs for the first time since the Allan Carr Oscars, included Neil Patrick Harris singing a lavish opening number before handing the reins to co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. 

Shankman also hired 69 dancers, many from the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance," on which he served as a judge – but their use never seemed anywhere near as exciting and revolutionary as he'd promised.

Shankman's and Mechanic's biggest innovation – changing the phrase "and the Oscar goes to … " back to the edgier "and the winner is … " – was abandoned the following year.