MTV set to sell a five songs EP with music from Steinman's 'Wuthering Heights' TV musical

    NEW YORK (Billboard) - The success of the Academy Award-winning film "Chicago" has fueled a gold rush of musicals on more than just the big screen.

    A slew of made-for-TV musicals is set to premiere during the next year.

    Among those in development are the ABC musicals "1776," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Once Upon a Mattress."

    Meanwhile, MTV will premiere a modern musical version of "Wuthering Heights" Sept. 14; it is also developing three musical movies, "Gloss," "Phantom" and "MTV's Hip Hopera: Faust."

    "There's always been an audience for musicals, but it's an audience that's been underserved for many years," says Craig Zadan, on e of the producers of the movie "Chicago."

    Zadan and producing partner Neil Meron are two of the key business players at the center of Hollywood's renewed love affair with musicals.

    The duo's Burbank, Calif.-based company, Storyline Entertainment, is currently developing several musicals for the big and small screens, including most of ABC's musicals.

    Storyline is also developing TV-musical versions of "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Wiz" and "Mame," as well as a music-based TV drama for Fox called "The Rise," about a group of aspiring singers and dancers.

    Zadan and Meron were behind the 1993 hit CBS-TV musical "Gypsy," starring Bette Midler.

    "When we started with 'Gypsy,' people laughed at us because they thought musicals hadn't worked for a long time on TV," Zadan says. "But then 'Gypsy' was a ratings success."

    The ABC network, owned by the Walt Disney Co., has paved the way for the comeback of TV musicals. The network has presented updated remakes of "South Pacific" in 2001 and "The Music Man" this year.

    The network's musical repertoire also includes "Geppetto" in 2000, "Annie" in 1999 and "Cinderella," the 1997 musical starring Whitney Houston and Brandy.

    "Other networks have tried to develop these projects over the years, but most don't have the financial structure in place like we do," notes Quinn Taylor, ABC senior VP of movies and miniseries. "We have all the other arms of Disney for resources, and the Disney brand name is a huge asset.

    " 'Chicago' has changed the one-upmanship of musicals," Taylor continues. "But oddly enough, I think 'Chicago' may have benefited from these prior . I think we helped each other."

    "It's probably three times harder to do a musical than other movies," Zadan says. "If a musical is good, it looks effortless, but what you have to go through to make them is extraordinary."

    For starters, TV musicals cost more than the average made-for-TV movie. Current industry estimates put the average production costs of TV musicals at $4 million to $8 million.

    By contrast, TV-movie dramas and comedies have an average production cost of $3 million.

    Most made-for-TV musicals also are adapted from previously known work, such as books, or musicals from film or theater. But the challenge in presenting a successful adapted musical is bringing something so new to the production that it will be perceived as more than a mere retread of the original.

    "With 'Cinderella,' a lot of people thought multicultural casting wouldn't work, but we proved them wrong," Zadan says.

    Maggie Malina, MTV senior VP of original movies for TV, says, "Pick the right classic, make sure you have a great script and make it relatable to your audience."

    CABLE FARE

    On the cable-TV front, MTV is leading the charge. Disney Channel has also weighed in with TV musicals, most recently with "The Cheetah Girls," starring Raven and members of 3LW.

    In 2001, MTV presented its first official TV musical, "MTV's Hip Hopera: Carmen," starring Beyonce Knowles in her first major acting role. Before that, the network had taken a step in the TV-musical direction with the 2000 movie "2gether," a satire on the boy-band craze.

    MTV's musical movies in development include "Gloss," an original musical about a teenage girl who transforms from a misfit to a member of high society.

    Also in development are "Phantom," a modern take on "Phantom of the Opera" (with the MTV version taking place in a performing-arts high school), and "MTV's Hip Hopera: Faust," which will be a hip-hop version of the legend of Dr. Faust.

    MTV's modern musical adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" was conceived by songwriter/producer Jim Steinman, who is best known for his collaborations with Meat Loaf. Steinman served as the movie's executive producer and wrote original songs for it. MTV says it will sell the soundtrack, an EP of about five songs, on mtv.com.

    Steinman says he had a clear vision of how he wanted to do a musical version of the Emily Bronte classic: "It had to be set in Northern California, with teenagers and rock 'n' roll."

    THE CASTING DILEMMA

    For those responsible for casting musicals, the question always arises: Should the stars of the musicals be actors who can sing or singers who can act?

    Mike Vogel, who stars as Heathcliff in MTV's "Wuthering Heights," originally was considered for a supporting role, but he impressed the filmmakers so much with his acting and musical talent that he was ultimately cast in the lead male role.

    In "Wuthering Heights," Vogel and co-star Erika Christensen do their own singing. Vogel's character also becomes a rock star in the film, which required him to do live concert performances and record songs for the "Wuthering Heights" soundtrack.

    Vogel says that to prepare for the role, he went to rock clubs, watched DVDs from acts like Nine Inch Nails and Jeff Buckley and got advice from the members of MxPx, who have a cameo in the movie.

    "My voice grew from the time we did rehearsals to filming and recording," Vogel continues. "I attribute that to becoming comfortable in the surroundings. I pretty much winged a lot of it; that's the beauty of acting."

    Maggie Malina, MTV senior vice president of original movies to TV, says that with the exception of MTV's "Hip Hopera" series, the network prefers that its musicals' lead roles go to actors who can sing: "With 'Hip Hopera,' it has to star established music artists who can act. We like discovering new talent, too."

    For TV musicals, Zadan says that he and Meron usually like to cast people who have a strong background in theater, while established stars from TV and film tend to get the lead roles.

    Matthew Broderick headlined ABC's "The Music Man," while Glenn Close starred in the network's "South Pacific."

    Cher has committed to star in the TV musical "Mame," according to Zadan. Carol Burnett and Tony Award-winning "Hairspray" star Marissa Jaret Winokur will headline "Once Upon a Mattress."

    For "1776," Zadan says, "we have the biggest movie-star cast we've ever put together for a TV musical." Zadan says he could not reveal any names yet but promises that "the marquee will be eye-popping."

    The booming interest in TV musicals can be sustained, Zadan concludes, "as long as we do them well, take chances and bring new ideas to the genre."

    Fri August 22, 2003 07:12 PM ET
    By Carla Hay

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    Reuters/Billboard

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