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Movie musicals a tricky gambit

'Hairspray' next entry in genre's renaissance

It takes guts to tackle a movie musical. Fail to achieve just the right balance between believable, accessible reality and attention-grabbing, stylish entertainment and you fall on your face.

For every success like “Grease” or “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” there are 10 disappointments like “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Evita.” Even top Hollywood directors have come up short, from Martin Scorsese (“New York, New York”) to Chris Columbus (“Rent”).

But thanks to three hit movies — Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Paris fantasy “Moulin Rouge,” Rob Marshall’s 2002 Oscar winner “Chicago” and Bill Condon’s 2006 Motown saga “Dreamgirls,” the movie musical — is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

Despite their pedigrees, both “The Producers” and “The Phantom of the Opera” did less than stellar biz. Clearly, not everyone knows how to make a good musical.

So when New Line Cinema decided to turn its hit Broadway musical “Hairspray” into a $70 million movie, it was no surprise that chairman Bob Shaye selected “Chicago” exec producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

Lifelong musical fanatics, Zadan and Meron know the special language of cinema musicals.

“It’s about re-creation vs. reinvention,” says Zadan. “Some filmmakers set out to re-create the theater experience they got on Broadway. They kept everything the same. They shot the original casts. We reinvent the whole thing, look at it solely as a movie. We pretend that nobody saw ‘Chicago’ or ‘Hairspray.’ From the moment the movie starts until it ends, the movie has to be a satisfying cinematic experience.”

Why has the musical genre faced such an uphill battle?

“The movies that Hollywood made after the Golden Agewere not good,” says Meron. “They became so expensive. Audiences didn’t go. So executives became convinced that nobody wants to see musicals. It goes back to story. The problem is not people bursting into song. It’s how the story is told. If the musical is well made, like ‘Moulin Rouge,’ people will show up.”

The tuners that grab moviegoers tend to be made by people who understand how they work. Richard Attenborough may have directed the Oscar-winning “Gandhi,” but was he the right person to direct “A Chorus Line”?

“I don’t understand how other producers who have no experience making a musical jump in and produce one,” says Zadan. “We refined the production of movie musicals through on-the-job training.”

As kids, Zadan and Meron grew up in the New York area adoring Broadway musicals. Zadan’s journalism career, including a stint at New York magazine, led him to write the 1974 Stephen Sondheim biography “Sondheim & Company,” which led to his first producing gig, 1973’s “Sondheim: A Musical Tribute.”

At Brooklyn College, Meron studied acting and booked a lecture series; Zadan was one of his guests. Meron started out as Zadan’s assistant; during the ’70s, they worked for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and eventually became producing partners at Storyline Entertainment.

Zadan’s first Hollywood film was Paramount’s 1984 soundtrack musical “Footloose,” written by Dean Pitchford. “He was able to write it like a real musical,” says Zadan. “It was not just a bunch of songs stuck into a story. He wrote each song to fit each character, even if they weren’t singing onscreen.”

“Footloose” coincided with the breakout of MTV musicvideos. Suddenly a new way of marketing movies was born. The bestselling “Footloose” soundtrack spawned six Top 40 singles.

When no studio would touch a remake of “Gypsy,” Zadan and Meron pitched their concept to Jeff Sagansky, then president of CBS. “Get me a movie superstar who doesn’t do TV,” he told them. They asked the biggest star they knew, Bette Midler, who was at the height of her movie fame. But she didn’t want to do TV.

“We convinced her that doing ‘Gypsy’ was a once-in-a-lifetime entertainment,” says Zadan. The 1993 three-hour musical delivered both boffo reviews and robust ratings.

The duo also reached a wide demo with the highly rated 1997 ABC movie “Cinderella,” starring a multiethnic cast led by Victor Garber, Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston and Brandy.

Impressed by “Cinderella” choreographer Rob Marshall, who had also just co-directed “Cabaret” on Broadway, Zadan and Meron asked him to direct their TV remake of “Annie” as his first feature. When the network resisted, Zadan and Meron refused to hire anyone else.

Marshall had to turn down choreographing an early iteration of the “Chicago” movie to direct “Annie” for television.

“It was very smart,” says Meron.

“He won the Emmy,” adds Zadan. “And launched a movie career.”

By then, Miramax Films’ Harvey Weinstein had spent 10 years interviewing directors and going through rewrites on a planned movie version of “Chicago,” with little to show for it. But after watching “Annie” with his kids, he asked Marshall to meet with him about another musical adaptation, “Rent.” At the meeting, the director hit him with his take on “Chicago” and Weinstein was sold.

Marshall brought in Zadan and Meron as his producers.

“We were his team,” says Meron. “We all spoke the same language. That’s the key.”

The producers knew when to schedule pre-production rehearsals and dance arrangers. “We had to educate Miramax about how to budget,” says Meron. “It was Musicals 101. Studios don’t know.”

Finally, after a lifetime of everybody saying no, Zadan and Meron got to make the first movie musical in 34 years to win the Oscar.

Unlike “Chicago” — which created an alternative fantasy vaudeville universe inside Roxy’s head — the characters in “Hairspray” sing to each other in real time.

“Hairspray” relies on book songs, in which actors talk and then break into song, as opposed to just performance songs, set within a showbiz milieu. In recent decades, very few movie musicals that are not backstage performance musicals have worked with the public. Book musicals that have performed well tend to inhabit an entirely artificial universe, like “Moulin Rouge” or “Grease.”

As much as Zadan and Meron wanted to realistically evoke the ’60s-era racial issues that grounded the musical, they knew movies are a tricky medium. They would have to walk a fine line between style and reality.

“It’s easier in a period setting like 1962 Baltimore,” says Zadan. “You create an environment of heightened reality where it’s OK to sing. The beehive wigs are authentic, close to real, pumped up with a bicycle pump a few extra pumps. Create that world and the audience gets past the first speed bump and says, ‘I’m comfortable here.’ ”

Written by Leslie Dixon, “Hairspray” jumps right in, with newcomer Nikki Blonsky running down a crowded street singing at the top of her lungs.

Picking the right director was key. While Adam Shankman had directed commercial comedies like “The Wedding Planner” and “Bringing Down the House,” he had never directed a musical. “But Adam had the background of being a dancer, a choreographer,” says Zadan.

Shankman knew the rules of the genre, and so did John Travolta.

But convincing the actor to don a fat suit and dance as Edna Turnblad took more than a year. Zadan had known the star since he was a New York chorus boy. Travolta has a history of turning down the wrong movies, like “Chicago.” Knowing he made a mistake in that instance, this time Travolta listened to Zadan.

“He was made to feel comfortable with how to portray Edna,” says Meron. “He imagined he was a 100-pound woman who liked to dance who had gained weight.”

Travolta demanded that veteran song-and-dance man Christopher Walken play his movie husband. Rounding out the cast were Queen Latifah (“Chicago”) and “Grease 2” star Michelle Pfeiffer, plus “High School Musical” star Zac Efron, 19, and Blonsky, 18, who beat out thousands for the lead role of Tracy Turnblad memorably played by Ricki Lake in the 1988 John Waters original.

Zadan and Meron’s Storyline also produces nonmusical pics — Rob Reiner’s upcoming “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, Frank Darabont’s remake of “Fahrenheit 451” and Bryan S
inger’s “The Mayor of Castro Street” are on their current slate — but their next musical mission is to bring back the weekly TV variety show.

“RSVP” is modeled after the producers’ fond memories of hanging out at Liza Minnelli’s latenight singing parties in the ’90s. Says Meron: “Imagine you’re invited to the coolest party in Hollywood.”

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