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Neil Meron and Craig Zadan talk to Greg In Hollywood about losing Zac Efron as lead in new “Footloose”

Zac Efron’s box office appeal was given a test this weekend with the release of his first starring vehicle, 17 Again. It’s a test the High School Musical star passed with flying colors with the movie debuting in first place with an estimated box office take of just under $25 million.

So you can hardly place producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who worked with Zac on Hairspray, for wanting the young star to headline their new feature film version of Footloose in the role that lauched the young Kevin Bacon to stardom back in the early 80s.

Efrom was set to star but pulled out of the project last month.

I chatted with Neil and Craig about it last night at the opening of the musical review Back to Bacharach and David in Hollywood. They are planning to move ahead with the movie anyway with production set to begin in a few months.

“Zac spoke to us about it in advance and said he wanted to do some dramatic work next and we agreed with him and understood what he wanted to do next in his career.” Neil said. “Zach would have been phenomenal but we’ll have a wonderful replacement too who’s going to be phenomenal.”

I asked: “Who is it?”

Neil answered: “Well, we can’t talk about it yet but we will soon (laughs). Hopefully in a week.”

Added Craig: “You talk about win-win, everybody wins in this: a new star is launched and Zac did so well this weekend with 17 Again so it’s all great.”

Craig said the Footloose replacement “will be someone you have heard of who will become an even bigger star after this.”

But the prolific producing pair – whose credits also include Chicago, The Bucket List, A Raisin in the Sun and television productions of the musicals Gypsy, The Music Man and Annie - are not completely out of the Zac Efron business.

“Zac is coming back to us because we’re going to do Hairspray 2 and he is doing that – the whole cast is going to be coming back. John Waters wrote a treatment for the sequel and it’s brilliant and we’re going to be following the next phase of the story of the Turnblads.”

Until that gets off the ground, the pair are working on a CBS pilot called Back which stars Skeet Ulrich as a guy who disappeared in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and returns eight years later to a very different world. It also stars Sherry Stringfield and John McGinley.

“It’s the most original pilot for CBS as you’ve ever seen,” Neil said. “We’re really excited about it. We’ve been working on it 24 hours a day. We came here for this (opening) then we’re going rignt back to the editing room.”

Well, you know if Craig and Neil are involved, it’s got to be good!

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