At the end of the year, Academy Awards show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron will produce a live, televised version of the musical "The Sound of Music." But before that, they've got the Oscars to finish – and that show, to hear them tell it, might as well use "the sound of music" as its own subtitle.
Veterans of the Broadway stage, television and film who have often specialized in musicals, Zadan and Meron detailed their plans (some of them, anyway) to TheWrap in a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation that took place this week in the office they share backstage at the Dolby Theatre. It's the first time they've been back to the theater since 2003, when the movie they produced, "Chicago," was named Best Picture and the venue was then called the Kodak.
(Photos from Neil Meron's Twitter account)
You watched 40 shows in preparation for producing one. What did you learn?
NEIL MERON: The great lesson, which was very interesting and eye opening, is the stamp that individual producers are able to put on the shows over the years. People try to shake things up every so often. I keep going back to the 1969 show, where Gower Champion was the producer. It started outside of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and he had installed a runway into the audience. You had 10 “friends of Oscar” instead of one host, you had performances that started in the audience and came onto the stage …
He tried to do an entertainment. He tried to do a Broadway show. He tried to do something that represented who he was as a director-choreographer. It was somewhat liberating to know that you can take such chances and you can have entertainment.
Are you trying to put your stamp on the show in that way?
CRAIG ZADAN: Well, we're putting our stamp on it in our way.
MERON: I think it really comes down to, what Oscar show would we like to see? That's why there's so much entertainment in our show. In going back and watching a lot of the shows, there were some shows that just gave out 24 awards, and literally nothing else. You get to the end of those shows and you just feel tired, because there's nothing to break it up or change the mood.
So that's why we decided to give ours a theme, which is celebrating the music of the movies. There's more music on the show than probably any Oscar show in a long time. And the performances are not naked. Everything is multi-media, and it's tied to the movies. So if you see somebody performing, you're also seeing a cinematic element to it.
ZADAN: We're very conscious that we’re not doing the Grammy Awards or the Tony Awards. We’re doing the Oscars.
The key question: If you have more music and performances than ever in the show, how do you keep the show from being four hours long?
ZADAN: The key word for us is pacing. Pacing is often a problem with Oscar shows, so we started to analyze, how do we pace the show and give it more energy? Every decision we made was based on that. Like, how do we take as much shoe leather out of the show as possible?
MERON: The truth of the matter is, you can see a 90-minute movie and it can feel like four hours, or you can see a three-hour movie where the pacing is great and it will fly by and you'll want to see it again. It really has to do with content.
You mentioned “shoe leather,” the time it takes people to get to the stage. Other producers have tried to deal with that by giving out awards in the aisle, or putting all the nominees onstage together, or having nominees switch seats during the show. What are you doing?
ZADAN: For the awards where people are situated further back, we've devised a plan to sit them closer to the stage during the commercial break preceding their award. And as a result, instead of taking a minute or longer to get to the stage, they could be on the stage in 15 or 20 seconds. We've analyzed every aspect of it, every bit of minutia.
Care to predict how long the show will be?
MERON: Absolutely not. We’re hoping to do our best, like every other producer.
ZADAN: Our goal is to keep it as close to three hours as humanly possible. We know it’s not going to be three hours. But we’ve talked to [director] Don Mischer, who's done more awards shows than anybody, and we’ve said, “Where are the spots where an awards show lags, and what can we do about them?” And as we went through the show, we were able to pull out 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute … It all accumulates over the three hours to give you more time for entertainment.
We’re taking it very seriously. And we feel that if we cut it and make it as tight as it can possibly be, we have a shot at coming in at a reasonable time.
MERON: We want the show to be entertaining. We won’t talk about length. We will talk about entertainment.
OK, let’s talk about your host, Seth MacFarlane. I thought he was pretty funny when he turned the nominations announcement into a comedy routine, but he did raise some eyebrows.
ZADAN: That’s right.
Is that the kind of thing you want from him as host?
MERON: Sure. I don't think he can help but be a little bit divisive. Some people love him, and some people think his humor goes a little bit too far. One of the great things about having him host is the speculation about how far he'll actually go.
ZADAN: A lot of big industry people said to us after the nominations that it was the first time they’d ever been entertained at that announcement.
And some others complained about a Hitler joke at 5:30 in the morning.
ZADAN: Mel Brooks had a whole career doing Hitler jokes.
MERON: Why hire Seth unless you let him be Seth? He's irreverent. The Oscars have been criticized in the past for being irrelevant and out of touch. Seth is in touch and he's relevant and it's exciting.
Also, with Seth there's a beautiful blend of comedy and music, because Seth is going to sing, and Seth is going to do comedy. Yesterday we had a rehearsal at Capitol Records, and it was the first time that anyone associated with the show heard him sing. I think people were floored, because he sounds like Sinatra.
You’ve announced that Adele will perform “Skyfall” and Norah Jones will do “Everybody Needs a Best Friend,” and the nominated song “Suddenly” will no doubt be part of the tribute to musicals that includes “Les Miserables.” Is it safe to assume that the other two nominated songs will be performed as well?
ZADAN: All the songs will be represented. They're all represented in different ways during the show, and spread out through the show. We ran what we were going to do by the Music Branch, and they all signed off on it. And there's more music on the show than there's ever been, so the Music Branch will be extremely happy.
Is music the focus of everything in the show?
ZADAN: That’s the theme of the show, and everything will be integrated very carefully. Like, when we announced the James Bond tribute everybody wrote, “They’re going to get the six Bonds together!” We never said we were going to do that.
MERON: And we never reached out to any of the existing Bond [actor]s, even though some of them have been doing interviews.
ZADAN: The theme of the show is the music of the movies – and obviously, when you see that we’re going to have Shirley Bassey there …
MERON: One can speculate, probably in the right direction.
Neil, you recently tweeted a picture of an Oscar choreographer and dancers. Over the years, people have cringed at the dancing on the Oscars.
MERON: I know. But we are doing a celebration of movie musicals, so it’s appropriate. When it's out of place and out of context, I think that causes people to cringe.
ZADAN: We ourselves, as viewers of the show over the years, have cringed at watching some musical sequences. But the dance that you see on the show will be very specific and appropriate for the numbers that we're doing. You're not just going to see some cavalcade of dance numbers.
You were chosen in a year with six Best Picture nominees that have grossed more than $100 million, and a number of tight races.
MERON: We were lucky to have such a good year for films, and a year where you can’t make any predictions. That was pure luck. We got some emails from former producers saying, “Fuck you, you lucky bastards.” Which is obviously true.
The late Gil Cates, who produced 14 Oscars, used to talk about how you’re really dependent on “the Oscar gods.” You can plan everything, but a lot of the impact of a show comes down to who wins and what they say – things you can’t control.
MERON: I’m 50-50 on that, because there are certain things we planned, such as Adele, Barbra Streisand, honoring movie musicals, which we’re hoping will have an impact as much as honoring the winners and the nominees. Of course we want surprises, and of course we want things we can’t plan. But we’re hoping that each of those is on equal footing.
ZADAN: And we think we are going to have some surprises that are going to be pretty exciting. We’re counting on that, and hopefully nobody will leak anything.
MERON: In this age of Twitter…
Good luck. Be careful with those rundowns.
MERON: Yeah, we know people pay to get them.
ZADAN: We’re not putting these surprises in the rundowns, and we’re not rehearsing them. There are some surprises in the show that most people at ABC don’t know and most people at the Academy don’t know. Some of the key people know, and they’ve even said, “Don’t tell anybody.”
So how confident are you that it’ll be a good show?
ZADAN: All you can do it get it to the place where you want it, and then hope for the best. Certain things we came up with may work, certain things may surprise us and not work. Certain things that we thought would be OK may be better than OK, and things we thought would be fantastic might fall flat. We have no idea. We just know that we’re going into it having tried something different.
MERON: Look, it’s a thankless job. We know we’re going to get the shit kicked out of us. People are going to rip us apart. But if we’re happy and we know we did the show we wanted, that’s what we’ll rest on.