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Jennifer Hudson, Renee Zellweger and More Remember Craig Zadan at Star-Studded Tribute

Craig Zadan was looking forward to Thespians Go Hollywood, the Educational Theatre Foundation’s gala that was held on Sunday night. He and his producing partner Neil Meron were set to receive the inaugural Theater for Life Award, which supports theater programs in underserved schools. When Zadan unexpectedly died on Aug. 31 after complications of a shoulder replacement surgery, Meron suggested that the celebration become a tribute to Zadan.

And what a tribute it was. With Broadway figures Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman serving as musical directors, the evening was a star-studded trip down memory lane.

“How do you say goodbye to a friend?” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” actress Nia Vardalos asked the crowd at the Television Academy in Los Angeles. “How do you say goodbye to Crag Zadan? Well, we’re not going to. We’re going to sing some songs and tell some stories. We are going to honor and celebrate the life of our friend.”

The night began with Harry Connick, Jr. performing a rendition of “When I Get My Name in Lights,” a song he recorded with Peter Allen on the late entertainer’s last album.

NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt recalled being a fan of Zadan’s 1974 book about Stephen Sondheim musicals, “Sondheim & Co.”

“Years later, in 1990, after I landed a job at the Fox network I decided to track Craig down,” he said. “He and I and Neil quickly realized we all variations of the same person — lovers of theater, lovers of movies and lovers of musicals.”

Greenblatt, Zadan, and Meron would eventually work together in 2012 on NBC’s “Smash.” They also teamed on a number of live TV musicals that aired on the network.

“One day, Craig and Neil pitched me a new idea,” Greenblatt said. “I remember like it was yesterday. Craig nonchalantly said, ‘Hey, what about doing a new version of ‘The Sound of Music’ for television — but live.’ I thought about it for about two seconds and said, ‘Let’s do it.’

He added, “Of course, we had no idea how to do it, but we rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Would anyone really want to watch an old-fashioned musical live on the fourth placed network? Probably not, we admitted to each other quietly, but who cares, we’ll have a blast doing it.” The TV rendition of “The Sound of Music” became a huge success, with 18.5 million viewers tuning in, and inspired a number of live musicals that followed.

“Smash” star Megan Hilty sang “Don’t Forget Me” from the musical drama, while her co-star Debra Messing remembered her first interaction with Zadan and Meron. In a meeting at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Messing told the duo that she could sing. And she proved it by belting out a song from “Guys and Dolls” while the three of them were squeezed into her two-seater Porsche in the hotel driveway.

“‘Smash’ was a very personal project for me,” Messing said. “I got to live in that magical world for two years, watching the likes of Bernadette Peters, Megan Hilty, Christian Borle and Leslie Odom Jr. — Broadway luminaries — singing right in front of me every day.”

Peters took the stage next to perform one of Zadan’s favorite songs “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle.”

McDonald, who sang “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music,” teared up while crediting Zadan and Meron for her success. “Everything huge that has happened in my career — on a huge national scale — happened because of Craig and Neil and their belief in me.”

She was surprised when they asked her to play the secretary of Daddy Warbucks in a television production of “Annie.” “Really? A black Grace Farrell in ‘Annie?’” she said. “I got to marry Victor Garber. Are you kidding me? Disney [wasn’t] sure if we should get married at the end, and Rob and Craig and Neil saying, ‘No, it’s going to happen.’ And it did.”

THESPIANS GO TO HOLLYWWOD; HONORING THE LIFE AND WORK OF CRAIG ZADEN -- Pictured: (l-r) Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald, John Stamos, Neil Meron, Elwood Hopkins, Marc Shaiman, Nia Vardalos, Harry Connick, Jr., Amber Riley, Robert Greenblatt, Megan Hilty, Renee Zellweger, Bernadette Peters -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

After rolling a career highlight reel, Renee Zellweger was on hand to present Meron and Zadan with the award of the night. While on stage to accept, Meron reminisced about meeting Zadan when he had asked the producer to lecture about Sondheim at his college.

“The power of theater has linked all of the performers and the presenters here tonight and I think of that chain, of how we’re all linked and how all of these people have come together for this honor,” Meron said. “And it really is the theater. I wouldn’t have met Craig if it wasn’t for the theater and I wouldn’t have met anybody if it weren’t for Craig and the power of theater and for that I am more than eternally grateful.”

Zadan’s husband Elwood M. Hopkins said that not long before Zadan passed away, he “had decided definitely that he didn’t want to accept any more awards and he wanted to give other people the spotlight.”

But when he learned about ETF’s work, he agreed to accept the award with Meron. “Of all the services and rituals and ceremonies we could have organized, nothing would have meant more to Craig than tonight’s show. That’s because he was not religious in a traditional way, but for him, theater was a sacred place,” Hopkins said. “He loved that universal themes about the human condition were being acted out in a pitch-black room before an audience. He especially loved it when the emotion being conveyed was so great that scripted dialogue would not support it and that the actors had to break into song. Those were spiritual moments for him. That was his church experience.”

The night was capped off with Jennifer Hudson singing “I Know Where I’ve Been” and students of Thespians Go Hollywood performing “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” two songs from the musical “Hairspray.” Presenters and performers also included Amber Riley, Darren CrissKristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, and director Kenny Leon.

Last night’s gala raised more than $200,000 for ETF’s in Craig’s name. For more information about ETF and how to donate, go to educationaltheatrefoundation.org.

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