The NBC musical drama Smash celebrates the beauty and heartbreak of Broadway theater, as told through a group of individuals, all following their dreams. Centering on the process of creating a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, written by the successful songwriting duo of Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing), the series illustrates the rivalry that forms between youthful, inexperienced Midwestern beauty Karen (Katharine McPhee) and stage veteran Ivy Bell (Megan Hilty), both vying for the coveted lead role. When you add in a tenacious producer (Anjelica Huston) and brilliant director (Jack Davenport), there is sure to be a season’s worth of high drama with some great songs thrown in.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck, who is also the show creator and an executive producer and writer, talked about the evolution of Smash, how this is a show about the universal idea of following your dreams, assembling this incredibly talent cast of actors, the process for determining which songs to include in each episode, and how this season will end with the out-of-town try-out for the musical, with Season 2 (if there is one) being about whether the show makes it to Broadway. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
THERESA REBECK: I was approached with the idea. I actually had tried to pitch the backstage drama idea, a couple of times already. I’m not the only person and [Steven] Spielberg’s not the only person, but Spielberg is certainly the biggest person who had this idea, and I think he pitched it around for five years and nobody nibbled. And then, Glee came along and they added the musical element, and made it backstage at a Broadway musical. Bob Greenblatt was at Showtime, and he bought the pitch. Basically, all it was, was a pitch. And then, they hired [Marc] Shaiman and [Scott] Wittman, the guys who wrote Hairspray, to write the songs for the musical that we would be backstage of. Then, they called me up and said that they all knew my work, so they hired me. Spielberg had recently read one of my plays, and they wanted me to write the show.
Is there any extra pressure when you know you’re creating a TV show for Steven Spielberg?
REBECK: No, actually he’s pretty nice. I really like working with him. He’s very artist-friendly. He really understands story, in a great way. He’s been lovely to work with. It’s been a wonderful experience.
REBECK: The show is about the dream of your heart. This is about a bunch of people who have a very big dream in their heart. Instead of looking the other way or taking an office job, they decide to be very reckless with their lives and pursue that dream. It’s about innocence colliding with reality, in a way. I just think it’s a universal yearning, whatever your dream is – if it’s that you could be a baseball star, or a rock star, or write a novel, or own your own business. These are people who have tossed all caution to the wind and have put themselves in the crazy position to see if their dream could come true. I think that’s a universal story, and something that we all like to watch.
As something that you could be working on for a number of years, is this series the best of both worlds for you, in the sense that you get to write for TV and create a Broadway show, at the same time?
REBECK: Yes, it is. I’m so deep in it right now, but I would say that that’s accurate, yes.
At what point in the development process did the idea come up to have Marilyn Monroe be the subject of the musical?
REBECK: Oh, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and I had been kicking around what the musical would be ‘cause we knew that we’d be working on it together. They had some ideas, but we just didn’t agree at all, at the beginning. And then, Scott Wittman had the idea of Marilyn, which we all had to think about for awhile. It was a strikingly different idea, for everyone. We presented it to Spielberg and Greenblatt, and they thought it was a terrific idea.
Does it feel like a blessing with the success of My Week From Marilyn, and that film bringing Marilyn Monroe back into the spotlight at the best possible time for the show?
REBECK: I don’t think she’s ever been out of the spotlight, in a way, which is partly what makes her so compelling and unique to me. But, I certainly think that Marilyn movie is fantastic. I saw it and was knocked dead by it. I think the musical within the show is wonderful and people will be really excited to see the show come to life before them, over the course of the season. I also think that the show itself is actually about all the people making the Marilyn musical. So, it’s not only about Marilyn, it’s about a cast of characters who Marilyn becomes a touchstone for.
How did you develop the Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee) character to balance and be different from each other?
REBECK: That’s a hard thing to talk about. It’s so much a part of the writing process. But, those two actresses are quite brilliant and such beautiful singers. It’s fun to end up building characters on those two beautiful girls.
Were those the actresses that you immediately pursued, or did you see lots of people for those roles?
REBECK: They were our first choices for those parts. It’s not like I wrote the parts with them in mind. I didn’t write any of it with anybody specifically in mind, but they were certainly at the top of our list, so we all feel really thrilled to work with them. It’s been a terrific experience.
REBECK: No, that’s actually always how we had conceived it. Just in terms of storytelling, if you take the pilot to the end of, “Who’s gonna get it?,” you have to answer that question in Episode 2. I actually think that it’s a nighttime soap, just in the sense that there’s a slightly galloping narrative. You really want it to be very real, but you also don’t want to wallow in indecision. I wouldn’t have done that.
Did you find it easy to assemble the rest of this amazingly talented cast of actors?
REBECK: Yeah, people wanted to do it. There was real excitement about it. But, there was a certain amount of wrangling. There always is.
How did you find a balance in the speed with which you tell this story, so that you don’t get to the finished musical too quickly?
REBECK: I don’t know how to answer that. That’s actually not the problem. Musicals take time to build. But, I actually do know what you mean. The lives of the characters have enough ups and downs and story in them that you don’t have to just concentrate on the musical itself. The musical is more of the ongoing story, on top of which everybody’s lives exist.
REBECK: It’s pretty challenging. The biggest challenge, for me, has been that it requires a lot of discipline from everybody. You have to have collaborators who don’t ever fall off the train. It’s been extremely exciting for me to work with Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman], who are such masterful songwriters. They’re amazing. They just write one song after another. I’m their biggest fan, and I think their work is amazing. They can be very, very fast. There was one episode in which there was some rockiness around a song and the network ended up saying, “We think you guys need a different song in this one episode,” and it was very last minute. And, Marc and Scott went home and wrote an amazing number, in a day. There’s something so exciting to me about that. Our choreographer is also very much like that. He’s just fast. It’s exciting to work with those people, partially because the work is so great, but also because television moves so fast that nobody is really allowed to fall off the train. If anybody falls off the train, the whole train stops, and that’s not happening.
Do you have a process for deciding how many original songs you use versus how many and which cover songs you use?
REBECK: There’s a bit of an equation. Our hope is always to have one original song from Shaiman and Wittman for the musical, and one contemporary cover, and then there’s room for a third song and it’s always a question of what that will be. For instance, I’m working on Episode 12 right now and there’s two original Shaiman and Wittman songs. One of them is from Marilyn: The Musical and the other one is actually a Bollywood fantasy number that we’re just starting to talk about staging. That’s pretty exciting. And then, the other song is a contemporary cover for Kat [McPhee]. It’s an ongoing discussion.
Since viewers will only get to see pieces of the song and dance numbers, will you eventually put those full numbers on the DVD?
REBECK: We don’t always stage the full number. We try to stage the full number, every time we can, but it’s not always possible. But, we’ve got a lot of fully staged number.
Are there any particular notes or suggestions that you’ve gotten from Steven Spielberg that you hadn’t foreseen?
REBECK: Yeah, of course. There’s always some liveliness around the discussion. We don’t always agree with him, and he doesn’t always agree with us, but it’s always workable.
REBECK: We have some thoughts about next season, but we don’t know if we have a next season, so they’re slightly limbo-y discussions. People have asked me about a second season, but I really can’t go too deeply into that without knowing if we have one. Everyone will have opinions about the second season and I’ll have a lot to sort out, if that actually comes. But, Marilyn will absolutely be carried over to next season. At the very least, I can say that this season ends up at the out-of-town try-out and, if we have a next season, the questions will be around, “How does Marilyn make it to Broadway?” Right now, they did a workshop and they’re going out of town to do an out-of-town try-out, which is what always happens with musicals. You can’t put them straight to Broadway. So, there’s no question that, if we get a second season, Marilyn will be part of it.
After all the work that you’re putting into the show, if there is demand for it, would you like to turn Marilyn into an actual Broadway show, at some point?
REBECK: I don’t know. We’re all being very cagey around that question, but we sit around and watch it in dailies, and we watch cuts, and all of us are going, “I’d go see that musical.” I think that would be a good musical. But, no one knows what’s going to happen next. I just don’t know what’s going to happen next.
With everybody already talking about how much they love the show, and with NBC hoping to have a huge success with it, does it make it nerve-wracking for you, or is it more exciting to know that there’s so much interest?
REBECK: It makes it a little more nerve-wracking. Some days I’m more successful [at tuning that out] than others.
As a writer, what do you enjoy about the opportunity to tell a story over a longer period of time on TV?
REBECK: It’s great. I’ve always wanted to do it, honestly. I’ve always had a fantasy of writing a Dickens novel, or something like that, and I think this is a contemporary version of that. It’s very Victorian storytelling. It’s like a saga. I suspect, with those big, sprawling 19th Century novels, they didn’t fully know where they were going when they started them up. Those are big, long masterpieces. I think that television actually mimics that form, in a lovely way.
Smash will air Monday nights on NBC, starting February 6th.