EXCLUSIVE: Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls and Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago will be performing their Oscar-winning roles on Sunday’s Academy Awards as part of a celebration honoring the resurgence of movie musicals of the last decade. In the same segment revisiting their roles from this year’s Best Picture contender Les Miserables will be several of the film’s key cast members including Oscar nominees (and former Oscar hosts) Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway along with Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tevit, Samantha Barks, and Helena Bonham Carter.
This year’s Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who last month announced the musical tribute would be part of their show, have kept the participants who will be singing a secret until finally first breaking the news to Deadline this morning.
They have produced musicals for film like Chicago and Hairspray, for television films like Cinderella and The Music Man, on Broadway with How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and Promises Promises, and on series TV with their current NBC drama Smash. Music is obviously in Zadan and Meron’s DNA and, as evidenced by the musical talent they are luring to the telecast, that is clearly what their Oscar show is going to be all about. Host Seth MacFarlane will be merging music with his comedy bits right from the opening as well.
When I sat down with the producing duo this week in their temporary office at the Dolby Theatre, where they have been ensconced the past 10 days prepping the 85th Academy Awards show, they seemed enthusiastic and confident about the way it’s going so far despite the enormity of trying to cram in more entertainment segments than usual; deal with an all-star cast of singers, dancers, presenters and collective egos; and still give proper due to all 24 Oscar categories. Zadan and Meron compare it to opening a Broadway show ”with a cast we could never afford”. It also helps their ratings hopes that six — almost seven — of the nine Best Picture nominees have made more than $100 million in the U.S. Last year, only The Help could boast that it hit that magic mark. The producers hope this means the audience will have a rooting factor.
With segments including the aforementioned tribute to movie musicals of the last decade including their own Chicago (which will also have a cast reunion on the show), a spot with Barbra Streisand performing on the Oscars for only the second time in her career, and a 50th Anniversary James Bond tribute that will include the first appearance on the show by 007 song diva Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger), there is a lot of anticipation for Sunday night. But as I have previously reported, and despite what other media keep saying, don’t expect a reunion of James Bonds onstage — that was never in the plans. As Zadan and Meron point out, their Oscar show is all about music, and that includes Bond.
Yet with all the star power, Meron says they are most proud of the six college filmmaking students who won a contest they devised to be on the show as statuette presenters. Their idea was to bring in passionate young moviemakers of tomorrow to share the stage with the cream of the crop working in the industry today. Call it an Oscar show for all generations. At least that is what this pair is hoping for, as well as a show you can walk out humming apparently.
Deadline: You’ve been planning this show for a long time, but here you are now finally in the Dolby Theatre.
Craig Zadan: Yes, since August when Hawk (Koch) called us we’ve been working on it. The weirdest thing is we’ve been saying “Oh we have four months. We have all this time”, and now all of a sudden we are saying, “it’s this week!” It’s inconceivable that it’s gone by so fast. It really crept on us.
Deadline: You have a big musical theme for the Oscar show this year with a lot more entertainment planned than usual. How are you going to bring this in at three hours?
Zadan: They would like it to be three hours and we are doing as much as we can to bring it in as close to three hours. It’s not going to be three hours, but we will try to get it close to that.
Neil Meron: What Oscar show has been? If you look at the past shows as we have done they are not. Take a look at the Grammy Awards. They hand about 11 awards in 3 1/2 hours. And we have to do all 24 awards plus we want to do our theme which is music of the movies.
Zadan: There’s so much more entertainment this year, especially compared to a normal Oscar year. We were in the recording studio rehearsing Sunday with orchestra for the first time. We have a 60-piece orchestra this year. And the musicians who I guess do it almost every year said to Bill Ross, our musical director, “This is the Oscars?” Usually when they have their rehearsals for the Oscars it is in and out because there’s nothing to play except lead-ins and entrance music and all that. And we were rehearsing all the musical numbers that we were doing and they couldn’t believe it.
Meron: They were ecstatic. They said this was their dream of what an Oscar show should be.
Zadan: And at rehearsal I think the biggest shock for everybody, not for us but for everybody else, was hearing Seth rehearse and sing the stuff he is going to sing on the show with the orchestra. He sounds like Sinatra. I mean the voice is unbelievable. And I think that that will be a big surprise for people because they know he can do the comedy and he’ll be funny and irreverent, but I don’t think they are prepared for when he sings….We learned from the nominations announcement (which Seth hosted with Emma Stone) that we’re going to have people who love Seth and then we’re going to have people who say “Why did he tell that joke?” So it is going to be a controversial show. It’s going to be really interesting. The one thing I can say is Seth sat on the couch where you are sitting right now and did the opening monologue for us the other day, and it’s not only really funny and clever and sort of unique, he did feel like a throwback to the days of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. We felt like we were watching Hope and Carson. He had that kind of thing going on. We love the cutting edge of his contemporary humor with the old fashioned kind of host.
Deadline: Have you had any problem booking stars as some producers have in the past?
Zadan: We’re very excited about the stars who are presenting because actually we have had an embarrassment of riches. It’s interesting because when some of the other past producers warned us of what we will encounter they said, “You know you will be surprised that a lot of stars you can’t get”. What we have found is that we have had so many stars that want to be on the show but we can’t accommodate. We have a lot of people pushing really hard saying, “Can’t you find a place?” and we haven’t so I guess that’s a good thing. It means that this year people want to be on the show which is great and really exciting.
Meron: And I think that is also because they know there is a lot of really good entertainment on the show. I mean between Adele and Barbra (Streisand) and Shirley Bassey.
Deadline: Bassey will obviously be part of the James Bond tribute.
Zadan: Yes, we wanted to celebrate the music of Bond. And yes we have Shirley Bassey for the first time ever singing on an Oscar show. And yes, we have Adele singing “Skyfall”.
Meron: The truth of the matter is the music of James Bond has been sadly overlooked for years and years and years by the Academy and never won. And it’s fantastic music. We can’t do everything, but it is going to be represented.
Zadan: We feel the Bond sequence is going to be very impactful because it will really cover the music of Bond so we’re very excited about that.
Deadline: And Barbra Streisand will be singing on the show for only the second time ever. What will she be singing? I have been guessing “The Way We Were”.
Zadan: Everyone has been asking us that. When we went to Barbra the first day we got the job, we said we are doing this theme of music and we said, “How can we do it without you? We must have you”. And she said yes. What we didn’t know when we asked her is that she hadn’t sung on the show in 36 years since she won for “Evergreen”. How thrilling is it to have her be part of this? And she also likes the fact that in planning what she’s going to do on the show — we had to spend several meetings planning what she is actually going to sing on the show — she said, “I love the fact that you announced me but you didn’t announce what I would be doing because I really want to surprise people when I come out as to what I am going to be doing”.
Meron: But we love the speculation.
Deadline: How do you keep things secret in this day and age of instant information?
Zadan: What we decided to do was basically from the whole time we were prepping it to Oscar Day is to keep announcing what we’re doing but we’re not announcing specifics. So we are giving a tease of the show to get people excited but we are not telling specifics. But we do have a lot of surprises in the show that we haven’t announced and are not announcing. We are being like the CIA. We have some stuff that is going on that we really hope nobody discovers so that when it happens on the show, people will be surprised in a huge way. And we have those moments that people will go “Oh my God’. We are not putting them on our rundowns. We are not rehearsing them. We’re going to wing it so there are those moments that could be really, really jawdropping.
Deadline: The Golden Globes were way up this year with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler getting great reveiws , the Grammys had their second-biggest audience in years. Do you feel any particular pressure to really deliver the ratings for Oscars now?
Zadan: Hopefully we will get the audience that watches the Oscars every year no matter what. But we think there could be a wider audience because of Seth because he brings males to the show which is not the predominate audience, younger males, so he’s got that audience. And because this is the only time Adele sings “Skyfall”, she’s never sung it before and probably never again, we hope the millions of Adele fans will tune in to see that. And those who want to see Barbra Streisand and haven’t seen her perform on the Oscars in 36 years may want to tune in just to see her. So besides the great movies and the great nominees, we have a lot of great people on that stage performing live.
Meron: Sometimes the award shows themselves are not relevant to today’s audience because they don’t really embrace popular films. But this year we not only have popular films but we’ve embraced Bond, we’ve embraced The Avengers (the key cast members will present), we’ve embraced Adele. So we hope that we can make the show more relevant…The other thing is rebranding it and not calling it the 85th Annual Academy Awards, which kind of mires it to a kind of heaviness, and just now calling it The Oscars.
Deadline: Are you surprised by the massive undertaking of producing the Oscars? Is it more than you expected?
Zadan: The job itself is massive and terrifying and intimidating, but when you then add to the mix all these live performances and rehearsals and choreography sessions for dancing, all of a sudden it just grows and grows and grows. And the biggest test of that is us observing the people who work here. They’ve done the Oscars literally every year. They are veterans and they’re even all intimidated.
Meron: But what’s really great is they are intimidated and kind of jostled by the enormity of it but they’re excited. And we’ve been told there is a renewed passion for the show because of these new elements.
Zadan: The other interesting comment in terms of telling us what we’ve taken on this year is from Don Mishcer, who is directing the show and has done two Academy Award shows prior to this. He had always said to us in the beginning that as big as the Academy Awards are, doing the Olympics as he has done is even bigger and more complex and more difficult. Don said the other day that this Oscar show now is as difficult as the Olympics because of the enormous show we have put together. He said he never thought they would be the same in terms of magnitude and ambition but this is like doing the Olympics. We don’t know any better. We’re virgins. We’re just doing what we’re doing.
Meron: At the end of the day we have to be happy with our show. That’s the key. Because it’s a kind of no-win proposition doing the Oscars. People are probably already lining up to throw their bricks at us. But in the end if we’re happy with it that’s all that matters.
Zadan: We’re not saying the show is better than any other show. We aren’t saying this is the Oscar show. What we feel is we are doing the show we want to see. In our minds we saw an Oscar show in our fantasy of what we would like to see as an Oscar show. And we’re recreating that fantasy. Is it going to work? We don’t know. What we don’t want to do is play it safe.