Remembering Craig Zadan's most important productions
Zadan was part of the team of executive producers who helped set Hollywood ablaze with director Rob Marshall’s 2002 adaptation of the sinful Kander and Ebb classic. Upon winning an Academy Award for Best Picture (not to mention one for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ inimitable Velma), Chicago jumpstarted a new era of big-screen Broadway titles in the early 2000s, paving the way for cinematic adaptations like The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, The Producers, and Dreamgirls. Critically speaking, Chicago continues to be regarded as one of the best movie musicals ever made, and it was the second highest-grossing musical in America (after only Grease) until 2017.
The Sound of Music Live! (2013)
Even more tangible than the impact of Chicago is the rebirth — and to call it anything less than would be inaccurate — of the live televised musical, a once-classic TV form that skyrocketed back into the zeitgeist thanks to the architecture of Zadan and producing partner Neil Meron. Their experimental Thursday-night NBC airing of The Sound of Music, starring an arguably equally experimental Carrie Underwood, was a ratings smash, drawing in over 18 million viewers and immediately spurring NBC to bring the producers back to mount follow-ups Peter Pan, The Wiz, Hairspray, and most recently, Jesus Christ Superstar. A measurable sign of success: Other networks started doing it, too. Less measurable: A generation of young theater lovers suddenly born.
Sunday nights in the ’90s were significantly more musical thanks to Zadan's part in the last iteration of ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney programming. At the top of the marquee: A now-iconic, culturally groundbreaking Cinderella adaptation starring Brandy and Whitney Houston that marked a historic coup for representation in fantasy. The producers later followed up their success with 1999’s Annie (starring Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald and Victor Garber) and — fresh off Chicago — a revised The Music Man (starring Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth) in 2003.
In some ways, this movie-turned-musical-turned-movie was the exemplar of the fun Zadan cultivated in his musical projects: huge celebrity leads (John Travolta’s casting as Edna Turnblad remains a wild and inspired choice, even a decade later); a beloved, bouncy score (from frequent Zadan collaborators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman); a director with nothing less than deep theatrical know-how (Adam Shankman); and a touch of watercooler buzz and Hollywood glamour that helped make Hairspray one of the top-grossing movie-musicals. (By the way, it still is.)
It's been cut and printed, but nobody moved on from the beloved, ballyhooed NBC series that admirably strove to bring musical theater to the masses, weekly, in primetime. Another theatrical collaboration between Zadan, Meron, and NBC chief Bob Greenblatt, Smash followed the behind-the-scenes drama of a Broadway musical, peppered with juicy stage cameos, Debra Messing in scarves, and an insanely catchy score of original music (from several shows-within-the-show, to boot). Critics and fans still can’t get over some of the over-the-top melodrama, but though Smash may be gone from NBC, a visit to any cabaret, cast party, Musical Monday bar night, or Twitter-of-a-theater-geek is proof enough that Smash lives on in the musical theater lexicon — and a legacy is far better than a recoupment.
Zadan and Meron left their mark on another grand musical tradition — adaptations of Gypsy! — with their 1993 made-for-television entry starring Bette Midler as the stage mother to end all stage mothers. Well, unless you count…
Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001)
A cult following (and Emmy voters) got happy about the 2001 miniseries based on the life of screen legend Judy Garland. Much of the hubbub around the four-part series, which Zadan and Meron produced with Garland's daughter Lorna Luft, centered on Judy Davis and Tammy Blanchard, who played Garland during her adult and teenager years, respectively and memorably. Biopics would play a major role in Zadan's career, with his credits including projects about the Reagans, the Beach Boys, the Three Stooges, Anna Nicole Smith, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis.
A Raisin in the Sun (2008)
In between musicals and biopics, Zadan gravitated to projects with strong political and social messages, particularly among underrepresented groups (see: 2012's all-African-American adaptation of Steel Magnolias or 2017's topical TV movie Flint, shedding light on the overlooked water crisis in Michigan). One particularly powerful social peak, however, came in 2008 with Zadan and Meron's passion-project adaptation of Kenny Leon’s scorching 2004 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking drama A Raisin in the Sun. After seeing the show on stage, the producers hooked Sony and ABC on the all-star cast, led by Sean “Diddy” Combs and Phylicia Rashad, and kept the project afloat through years of scheduling hell until the superstar ensemble finally coalesced in an acclaimed television movie that dovetailed right with the inauguration of President Obama.
Zadan’s first major Hollywood gig? Partnering with Lewis J. Rachmil on Footloose, the 1984 dance pic starring Kevin Bacon. Even on his first big studio credit, Zadan worked to keep the film accessibly entertaining despite a famously difficult development process, during which the project almost veered into darker morality-tale territory. Almost 30 years later, Zadan would return to the warehouse to produce the 2011 remake.
The Bucket List (2007)
The Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman terminal-buddy comedy was Zadan's third-biggest film and important because it marked success for a rare non-musical, non-biopic, non-political movie for the producer.
Zadan produced three consecutive Academy Award ceremonies from 2013 to 2015, bringing in hosts Seth MacFarlane (in a ceremony dedicated to movie music), Ellen DeGeneres (in a ceremony dedicated to movie heroes), and Neil Patrick Harris (in a ceremony dedicated to magic, for some reason).
Promises, Promises (2010)
In New York, Zadan flexed producing muscle in the ’70s by mounting an epic Sondheim tribute and the successful Peter Allen concert Up in One (which he directed). He returned to the Main Stem in 2010, in typical Zadan fashion, producing bubble-gum-colored revivals of what he saw as underproduced musical theater gems: the rom-com Promises, Promises, starring Kristin Chenoweth and frequent collaborator Sean Hayes, and…
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (2011)
…the kooky, corporate How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which cycled through buzzy leading men Daniel Radcliffe, Darren Criss, and Nick Jonas. In retrospect, Zadan's essence was all over the show — a fantasy fable about a charming, ambitious storyteller who brings musical joy into a mundane world with little more than a wink in his eye and a well-produced song.