Producers Zadan & Meron Continue Their Revival of the Movie Musical

As writer-director John Waters remembered it—and filmed it—civil rights didn’t march into his hometown of Baltimore in 1962 as much as it rocked-and-rolled its way in.

Waters and his teen peers didn’t just take a stand against segregation, their stand was more “American Bandstand”: They racially integrated the local televised dance hop. In 1988, when he reenacted this Giant Leap for Mankind, he frivolously camouflaged it by calling it Hairspray, after a key prop from that bygone era of bangs, bouffants and beehives.

In 2002, composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman touched up the authentic golden oldies with some original rock ’n’ roll of their own—and an eight-time Tony-winning Broadway musical was born, one that’s still going strong on The Great White Way.

Now, on July 20, comes another reincarnation of Hairspray—New Line’s film version of that stage smash, produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Truly music men of the new millennium, they have kept the Broadway-musical beat alive and throbbing in movies.

Their company, Storyline Entertainment, is kind of a latter-day Arthur Freed Unit—a happy throwback to the midsection of the last century when MGM stood for Makes Greater Musicals. “If only!” Meron modestly demurs, but the truth is he and Zadan are leading the way in bringing stage musicals back into cinematic style after a long dry spell.

They started small—on the small screen—producing for ABC-TV musical remakes of Annie, Gypsy, Cinderella and The Music Man. For the big screen, they produced the long-overdue movie version of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1975 hit Chicago, and it went on to become not only the highest-grossing movie in Miramax’s history but also the first musical to win the Best Picture Oscar since The Sound of Music 34 years earlier.

There’s a method to their musical madness. Characters in their films don’t abruptly break into and out of songs. The songs flow organically out of the situation. There’s a filmic fluidity to the musical sequences that keeps the action in step with these pragmatic times.

To achieve this effect, Zadan and Meron recruited like-minded unknowns and gave them their first screen shots. Rob Marshall, a Broadway hyphenate Tony-nominated for choreographing and co-directing the 1998 revival of Cabaret, got their nod to wear both hats on Annie (for TV), then Chicago (for theatres), and made the Emmy and Oscar running with both.

Their secret ingredient for Hairspray is director Adam Shankman, whose past credits—The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2—hardly signaled a major movie music man. Only it turns out Shankman did all of the above with one hand tied behind him. None required his choreographic skills, and because Zadan and Meron knew these to be considerable, they gamely elected to give him a chance to combine his talents.

“Having a director who is a choreographer means we’re going to be speaking the same language,” offers Meron. “It’s like shorthand. That person doesn’t have to be educated to how musical numbers flow into dialogue scenes and then flow back into musical scenes.”

Zadan says that he and Meron “have known Adam forever socially, but we’ve never had the opportunity to work together before. What happened was New Line, after they signed us to produce the movie, basically said, ‘You guys go figure out who you want to direct and then come back to us,’ so we went on a journey which lasted several months. We talked to about 20 different directors—some in person, others on the phone because they were in London or New York, some really illustrious filmmakers, too—but, at the end of the day, only one person understood how the pieces fitted together, and that was Adam.

“It was like working with Rob Marshall all over again. With someone who’s directing and choreographing, there is a seamlessness. The most important thing in a musical is that you get in and out of the musical number in an easy way. The ones that don’t are the ones where the scene stops, they do the song, the song stops, then they go on with the scene.

“We have a concept for movie musicals, whether they’re for television or for theatres, and that is: We really believe that they must be reinvented for film. You can’t go in and shoot the show. What works on stage does not work cinematically. You must find a different language to translate the material into the cinematic form—that’s life or death. If you look at the movie musicals that came after Chicago—without mentioning any names because we don’t want to criticize anything—you could see that basically they shot the show. We have never shot the show, and we don’t ever intend to do that sort of thing.”

By way of illustrating his point, Zadan cities the different ways that a stirring song called “I Know Where I’ve Been” has been done on stage and screen. “On stage, it’s absolutely fantastic for it to be the 11 o’clock number—for a singer-actress to stand on stage and, for five minutes, sing the big ballad and bring the house down—but you just can’t do that on film. Instead, it became the civil-rights march. At the beginning of the march, Queen Latifah starts the song. The march takes you through the entire city of Baltimore, and when they arrive at the TV station, the song ends. You’re taking the number and musicalizing a cinematic style for it. You have to, for things to seem seamless.”

The advantage of this director-choreographer one-vision approach is abundantly apparent from the outset. The film begins in exuberant overdrive with the show’s curtain-raiser, “Good Morning Baltimore,” in which Our Heroine—a cheerful, socially aware chubette named Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky)—skips to school across a sordid terrain of city seediness. One sight for sore eyes: Hairspray creator Waters, doing a gag bit as a flasher.

Nikki Blonsky is the newest unknown who, her first time at bat, succeeds in hitting a home run in the role of this pudgy protester. Marissa Jaret Winokur won a Tony Award for it, and Ricki Lake did a star-making turn with it in the original movie 19 years ago. All three join voices for “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” which has been cut from the film but is used as one of the end-credit songs. (Incidentally, the lengthy credit-crawl is so packed with joyful numbers that most audiences tend to sit it out—a rarity, indeed!)

Lake also contributes the cameo of a talent agent. Her father from the original film, Jerry Stiller, has likewise been drafted into the role of Blonsky’s dress designer, a “Mr. Pinky.”

Why cut “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now”? It was a solid number in the Broadway show. “It slowed down the film,” responds Meron. “We needed to get Tracy on that TV show as quickly as we could. Y’know, some of these cuts are very hurtful. In Chicago, for instance, we cut ‘My Own Best Friend.’ Love that number, but it didn’t work.”

To say nothing of “Class,” a brilliant comic duet between Queen Latifah and an Oscar-winning Catherine Zeta-Jones that made the DVD but not the movie theatres.

“Now, that didn’t work at all,” Zadan chimes in. “When we tested the movie at a preview with ‘Class’ in it, the movie stopped dead and never really recovered. What happened was you had a pace going that would get you to the courtroom finale, and that number stopped the flow so much that you had to start from scratch again. When Richard Gere had his big tap number, it did not land at all. Then, when you took ‘Class’ out, Richard’s number got applause. Another thing that was wrong with ‘Class’ was that every musical number in the movie of Chicago came from Roxie’s mind. They’re all in her head. ‘Class’ was not. ‘Class’ was the one number that had nothing to do with her. As a result, it also broke the concept and the vision that Rob Marshall had for the movie.”

There was a redo for their Hair-do as well. “The Big Dollhouse” didn’t make it into the film, and “The New Girl in Town,” which was cut out of town, was resuscitated and reassigned to Brittany Snow. A reprise of “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” was added for Michelle Pfeiffer, at her suggestion, to replace a scripted sequence and give her a chance to sing.

Composer Shaiman and lyricist Wittman rather obligingly came up with four or five new songs to sweeten their already Tony-winning score. “‘Ladies Choice’ replaced ‘The Madison,’” says Meron, “because Adam wanted to do something really different and more dynamic than what ‘The Madison’ was. That was written specifically for Zac.”

Zac Efron from High School Musical (and High School Musical 2, bowing in August on the Disney Channel) as the young Caucasian heartthrob and Elijah Kelley as the African-American one are expected to emerge from the film with teen-idol star status.

The true star of the film is, like his predecessors on screen (the late Divine) and stage (a Tony-winning Harvey Fierstein) a man in a fat-suit muumuu playing Tracy’s mom, Edna Turnblad. Peering out with disappearing eyes through a black thatch of low-slung bangs, looking like something in the ferret family, is John Travolta, of all improbable people.

Talking Travolta into this outrageous bit of stunt-casting was, you can imagine, no easy achievement for Zadan and Meron—even though they’ve been good friends of his for eons (Zadan goes back to 1974 when Travolta was a Broadway chorus boy in Over Here!), but both of them were singularly unsuccessful at talking Travolta into a role he was ideally suited for—the slick shyster who helps brazen damsels get away with murder in Chicago.

“After Chicago came out,” recalls Zadan, “John called us, extremely upset he’d turned it down. He’d seen the Broadway show and felt the roles that were good in the show were the two women, not Billy Flynn. When he saw the movie and what we had done to it and how Rob Marshall had directed it, he then realized, ‘Oh, my God! What have I done?’”

That colossal career miscall assured Zadan and Meron that Travolta would listen long and hard when they came to him with their next offer. Still, the prospect of Hairspray baffled the actor—not because he had to don a dress and play a woman. The issue was how to follow his own phenomenal first act: When he started in movies with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, both of those films went through the box-office stratosphere. The pressure of topping them was so tremendous, he never quite got around to another movie musical.

“Basically, Neil and I spent one year and two months meeting with him, having dinners with him, flying places, him flying to us—we just continued talking about it—and during that process, he figured out how, as an actor, he could play Edna and, if he did, who she would be. He wanted his Edna to be different enough from the stage show and the movie so he’d feel he was doing a character that was fresh and new and no one else had created.

“When he finally figured out how Edna would look and speak—all the elements that go into creating the character—he said, ‘You know what? I can do this. I know how to do this.’”

Travolta got to pick his own husband for the film, too—Christopher Walken, another Broadway chorus boy whose screen career veered almost exclusively into heavy-duty drama rather than dance (exceptions: a barroom sequence in Pennies From Heaven and a Spike Jonze-directed music-video in which Walken sprinted and flew around a hotel lobby). Their “Timeless to Me” soft-shoe here was, comparatively, a piece of cake.

“John wanted someone who’d really make him better, and Chris Walken could do that,” said Meron. “He’s an Oscar-winning actor and has great singing and dancing chops.”

After Hairspray, Zadan/Meron Productions will be returning to their normal non-musical mode. “We’ve just finished a new movie for Warner Bros. that’s directed by Rob Reiner and stars Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman called The Bucket List,” says Zadan. “It’s a drama that’s going to come out at the end of the year. Tonally, it’s a Terms of Endearment kind of movie where it’s very, very funny and yet it moves you to tears.

“Also, we did a movie of A Raisin in the Sun with the Broadway cast of Sean Combs, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad. There’s another example of taking someone from Broadway—namely, Kenny Leon, who directed it on Broadway—and turning him into a full-fledged movie director. It is one of the greatest debuts you’ve ever seen. This guy is going to be one of the hottest film directors around. The movie is gorgeous. We didn’t film the play. It never really feels like you’re watching a play.”

On their immediate musical horizon, Meron says they have two plates twirling. One is an original film musical with Oscar-winning composer Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz. “It’s going to be Stephen’s first original live-action film musical.”

Their next stop is Never Never Land. “We’re doing, for ABC, a new version of Peter Pan—the Mary Martin version—and we’re doing it on film. It has never been done on film. It has only been done on videotape. TV is a great medium for these musicals. Just the availability of the audience is so tremendous.”

“With Cinderella, we reached 60 million people,” adds Zadan. “Those are, like, Super Bowl numbers. ABC feels that Peter Pan could be just as big as Cinderella—or bigger.”

Who’ll fill the title role is anybody’s guess at this point, but “Peter Pan will definitely be a woman,” Zadan insists. “The tradition is for women to play that part. It was written for Mary Martin. The songs were written in a woman’s key. The way we’d never dream of casting a woman as Edna in Hairspray, we’d never dream of casting a man as Peter Pan.”

Read Film Journal International's review of Hairspray here.