“Smash” is a musical drama about the making of a musical, so you can rightly expect lots of singing and dancing in every episode of the show. There is one musical-theatre convention, however, that the series won’t really follow: You won’t hear every character singing their thoughts.
“Everybody sings in a way you can sort of explain,” creator and executive producer Theresa Rebeck tells Zap2it. “In a musical every now and then, someone just goes, [singing] ‘I gotta be me!,’ and it’s sort of like an expression of the self. … We don’t do that. If [Katharine McPhee] is going to sing alone in her apartment, it’s because there’s a song on the radio she starts to sing along to, and then her version of it fills the room.”
You’ll see that kind of musical expression in Monday’s (Feb. 6) series premiere, when McPhee’s character sings Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” at her audition for a musical about Marilyn Monroe, and throughout the series. Rebeck says she and the show are trying to get across the idea that performing can be “like a drug” to the characters.
“We wanted to communicate the feeling that theatre people get when they’re performing, that it does become this magical world,” she says. “It’s part of the difficulty of being someone who works in the theatre — when you’re actually doing it, when all the pieces come together, it’s so thrilling and wonderful. … And the rest of the time you’re in your life. A lot of times there are long down periods where people don’t work. It’s very, very hard on a lot of people — it’s like heroin in a way. You’re addicted to this unbelievably great feeling, and the rest of the time you’re sitting around waiting for somebody to let you have that great feeling again.”
We talked much more with Rebeck, a playwright and veteran of TV shows including “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” about the genesis of “Smash,” what about Marilyn Monroe made her the right subject for the show within the show and where this season will lead.
Zap2it: Where did the idea for “Smash” start, and where in the process did you come in?
Theresa Rebeck: Steven Spielberg had been pitching around town a backstage drama, and independently, so had I. … After “Glee,” he had the great idea of actually making it a musical, backstage at a Broadway musical. … Spielberg sold the concept to Bob Greenblatt at Showtime [Greenblatt is now the head of NBC], and they started gathering the team. They put [Craig] Zadan and [Neil] Meron on to produce it, [Marc] Shaiman and [Scott] Wittman to write the songs. They looked for a writer and settled on me — it was a great day for me when I got the call.
So when I came on, there really was nothing other than “backstage at a Broadway musical.” Then Marc and Scott and I talked a lot about what would that musical be, and out of that I built who these people are.
Is the idea of a Marilyn Monroe musical something that’s been floating around for a while?
There was another Marilyn musical that was apparently a big flop. And that discussion becomes part of [the pilot] — “Somebody else tried it a long time ago, and it was a huge flop.” That’s really all we know about it. When Marc and Scott and I were talking about what the musical would be, we went back and forth. The usual thing they do is movies to musicals [“Hairspray,” “Catch Me If You Can”], and I have a lot of interest in a completely different kind of musical. I was pitching some 19th century thing — I thought it would be fun to do “The Three Musketeers” or something like that, that had great stage pictures and cool costumes. And somehow between those two ideas, Marilyn emerged. We wanted it to be something that would be immediately recognizable to the audience, so even though you don’t know what the whole musical is, you have an idea about who Marilyn Monroe is.
How have you handled balancing the backstage drama with the characters’ personal stories?
It’s a pretty time-honored formula. On “The West Wing,” you got some of the shenanigans going on in the White House, but a lot of those people’s lives. So I’m pretty much letting the form have its strengths. It’s a workplace drama in a lot of ways, and the workplace is fun. The work is people learning singing and dancing and having arguments about really stupid stuff, and the rest is their lives. “NYPD Blue” was like that. … You go home, you have your personal lives, and the work you do together is a musical.
Where will Season 1 take us? How far along will the musical get?
We’ll end up making it all the way to an out-of-town tryout, which is the first major public step anything — musicals do not land on Broadway without them. So first we have to see how they do out of town, and then Season 2 will be about — if Marilyn gets a Season 2 and we get one — it will be about Marilyn goes to Broadway.
Have you thought longer-term about where the show could go in success?
Yeah — I’m pretty excited about the options that are out there for us. I think it allows you to crystallize stories in a way. Everybody sort of turns around Marilyn, spends a lot of time talking about her. It’s not like the Marilyn movie which I like so much, “My Week With Marilyn” … it’s not about Marilyn the way that is. It’s more about all the things she represents to us. She becomes like a touchstone for everybody.
I like that, and I think there are many other subjects and other musicals that can provide different ways to bring everybody’s lives together and crystallize different questions. It’s fun to think of conceiving a whole different [story]. And I have to say, “Heaven on Earth,” the musical [Christian Borle and Debra Messing‘s characters, Tom and Julia] already have on Broadway — we finally do a number from that, and that’s really shaping up. So I sort of think maybe we go see “Heaven on Earth,” or do a revival of one of Tom and Julia’s other musicals.
“Smash” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday on NBC.