Long before he was an Emmy- and Tony-nominated producer, Craig Zadan was a man who made things happen.
Zadan, who died Monday at the age of 69, was a musical theater devotee in his early 20s in 1973 when he was recruited to help produce a tribute to famed composer Stephen Sondheim as a fundraiser for the American Music and Dramatic Academy and the National Hemophilia Foundation. What started out as a typical charity dinner evolved into a musical production with 33 prominent Broadway stars and a 30-piece orchestra. After a triumphant event, Zadan wound up negotiating a deal with RCA Records to release an album from the evening, “Sondheim: A Musical Tribute – March 11, 1973.”
Zadan’s determination to put on the best show possible for the composer he greatly admired was indicative of the drive that would fuel his prolific output over the next 45 years. With his longtime producing partner Neil Meron, Zadan delivered distinctive work on stage, in TV and film ranging from the modern-day breed of live TV musicals to issue-oriented TV movies to three consecutive Academy Awards telecasts to the 2002 best-picture Oscar winner “Chicago.”
“He had a singular passion for producing,” Meron told Variety. “He loved bringing the elements together and seeing the vision take shape. And it was a passion that drove him. He was delighted by things that turned out well because of the choices he made as producer.”
Meron was a student at Brooklyn College when he first met Zadan in the mid-1970s. Zadan, who grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and attended Hofstra University, had just published his study of Sondheim’s work, “Sondheim & Co.,” and Meron was booking speakers for a Brooklyn College lecture series. A letter from Meron to Zadan about speaking at the school led to a lunch meeting in Manhattan. It was an afternoon that changed Meron’s life.
“From the first day we met we just had a similar mentality,” Meron recalled. “He was like food for me in terms of being able to nourish my theater-nerd appetite, and he was like that from the first day.”
Meron was floored when Zadan “literally offered me a seat at the table” by inviting him to come along on dinner dates with Broadway legends like John Kander. “Craig always treated me as someone who should be there,” Meron said, tearfully, as he spoke of his longtime friend and collaborator.
After Meron finished school, he became Zadan’s assistant. Zadan was expert at developing and nurturing contacts that would allow them to pursue projects. The pair wrote and produced a series of cabaret shows dubbed “Broadway at the Ballroom” that were showcases for composers and lyricists to unveil songs from new works in a low-key setting. One of those who took part was Andrew Lloyd Webber while he was at work on “Evita.”
To Meron, it’s fitting that Webber was involved in one of the first things Zadan produced, and Webber was composer of the last show Zadan delivered, NBC’s Easter Sunday telecast of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” which snagged 13 Emmy noms.
“There’s some sort of heavenly path between those two shows,” Meron said.
Zadan’s enthusiasm for his job and his love for even the hustle involved in getting a show on its feet – or a series on the air or a movie to the big screen – was utterly infectious, Meron said. In their partnership, Zadan tended to be more heavily involved in dealmaking, marketing and promotion for their projects, while Meron would be knee-deep in development and the details of production when the time came.
But Zadan could spot the hole in the story or a deficiency in the set a mile away, Meron noted. He was a natural leader who could articulate a vision and bring a few hundred people together to work toward a common goal. He was anything but the stereotype of the tyrannical producer.
“He could not be cruel,” Meron said. “He was compassionate. He was ready to give advice whenever you needed it. He listened, which is a rarity.”
Zadan was also tenacious, in a charming way. It took many phone calls to Bette Midler to convince her to star in Zadan and Meron’s 1993 production of “Gypsy” for CBS – the show that Zadan and Meron considered to be the “Mount Olympus” of Broadway efforts. One night Zadan reached Midler after she had just come out of a sauna, Meron recalled. “He said to Bette, ‘Is this not the greatest role in theater for a woman?’ And she said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘Is this not the greatest musical of all-time?’ And she said ‘Yes.’ And he said ‘Well, what’s your problem?’ ” When Midler finally relented, Zadan hung up quickly so as to not give her time to back out, Meron said.
Off stage, Zadan was “wickedly funny,” whip-smart, and a born raconteur, Meron said.
“I envied his way of telling a story,” Meron said. “He could have a party spellbound with show business stories told in the kindest way. He was really, really funny and obviously so smart.”
Even in his rare moments of downtime, Zadan was still immersed in pop culture. “He loved going to the movies,” Meron said. It was meaningful to Zadan to be accepted as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after producing the 1984 smash “Footloose.” “He really valued that Academy membership long before we even thought about producing the Oscars,” Meron said.
Also significant to Zadan were the stories that friends and fans would share about how they were touched by his work. He treasured the knowledge that NBC’s live musicals were family-viewing affairs in many households. He was emotional about the power of a production such as NBC’s 1995 movie “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,” toplined by Glenn Close, to change attitudes about gays and lesbians serving in the military.
“That’s the kind of impact we’d hoped and dreamed for with our work,” Meron said.
Zadan was always fulfilled and fueled by whatever was just around the corner for the duo. He was energized by the challenge of doing something new, something dazzling, and something important such as the Lifetime movie “Flint,” about the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich. The movie, toplined by Queen Latifah, is nominated for best movie at next month’s Primetime Emmy Awards.
Meron is still stunned by the sudden loss of his friend and collaborator. Zadan died at his Hollywood Hills home Monday night after complications from shoulder replacement surgery. The pair had been busier than ever with a slew of projects in various stages of production and development, including a live staging of “Hair” for NBC next year. In the show-must-go-on tradition, Meron will guide “Hair” to fruition with the help of the A-list team of stage and TV vets who have coalesced around the NBC musicals since “The Sound of Music Live” started the tradition in 2013.
Meron knows that there is no better way to pay tribute to his dear friend than by getting “Hair” on its feet.
Zadan “took great satisfaction in being a producer,” Meron said. “Because it’s about trusting your instincts and getting the right people to execute a shared vision. That was his passion.”