Creators of Smash Give Regards to Broadway


In the second episode of "Smash," Debra Messing's character, the lyricist of a new musical about Marilyn Monroe, gets a little testy with her writing partner's assistant, who in the first episode had idly suggested that the screen icon would be a good topic for a Broadway show.

"A lot of people think that something said in passing is the same thing as an idea, which isn't strictly true," says Messing's Julia. "We're the ones that do the work."

Theresa Rebeck, creator and executive producer of the show, says that when she wrote the line she was "making a snide comment about how often that happens in our business.

"There are so many people that don't understand that an idea is nothing unless there is attention and passion paid to it. Theater is about work," says the playwright (her comedy "Seminar" is now on Broadway) and veteran writer on a number of TV series.

But Rebeck wants to make it clear she wasn't reacting in that line to Steven Spielberg and Robert Greenblatt also having the idea for a series about the making of a Broadway show.

The playwright had wanted to pitch her concept for years, but was discouraged by her agent. Meanwhile, Spielberg was shopping around a similar idea.

After being turned down by HBO -- even a giant in the entertainment industry doesn't always get what he wants -- Spielberg went to Greenblatt, who at the time was head of entertainment at Showtime. Greenblatt liked the proposal and when Greenblatt departed for a similar post at NBC, he took the idea with him.

Once the show was green-lighted, Rebeck was approached to help develop it.

"I had the idea too, but I didn't land it. I didn't sell it," she says. "And those guys deserve so much credit for protecting the show and moving it to this position. This is all their muscle and their belief that has gotten us here."

"Smash," which debuts Monday, is a frothy mix of music and drama that captures the competitive, sweaty -- sometimes incestuous -- world of Broadway.

The series has multiple story lines. The early episodes revolve around the embryonic beginnings of the Marilyn musical and the decision on whom to cast in the crucial title role, with it ultimately coming down to two young actresses, one played by Katharine McPhee (the Sherman Oaks singer who gained fame on "American Idol") and Megan Hilty (who starred in "Wicked" and "9 to 5" on Broadway).

Other key roles include Oscar winner Anjelica Huston as Broadway producer Eileen, Christian Borle as Julia's composer partner Tom, and British actor Jack Davenport ("Pirates of the Caribbean" films) as a somewhat homophobic British stage director named Derek.

As it turned out, the casting for "Smash" wasn't quite so cutthroat as what goes on in the show. Both Rebeck and Messing had been at Brandeis University and knew each other through emails and alumni letters.

"When Debra came on board it was very exciting and helped clarify a lot of things," says Rebeck, who based Julia on herself but "obviously fictionalized."

The playwright has a 17-year-old son and an adopted daughter of Chinese decent. Julia has a teenage son, and she and her husband are trying to adopt a Chinese girl.

"I wasn't sure if that character should be so central to the story, but Bob and Steven kept pushing me to write more about Julia," Rebeck says.

The Emmy-winning Messing says the balance that Julia is trying to find between her career and home is one of the things that excited her about the script.

"The way Theresa writes, there's such richness," Messing says. "And all of our characters go through difficulty and challenges, and we're often surprised at the table reads. You know, we have no idea what's happening next, but it's all interesting and it all feels authentic."

Davenport's casting was a bit more complicated, says Rebeck. Though she and others on the creative team thought he was perfect for the role of Derek, Spielberg was concerned that he wasn't dark enough.

"So I wrote this darker scene, and Jack came in and he was so frightening that Bob Greenblatt said, 'This guy is too dark.' And we said, 'You have to look at all three of the scenes."'

"No one has asked me to be sociopathic for ages," says Davenport, who was seen last on the ABC series "FlashForward." "I think a story like this requires a Machiavellian element ... and that means I get to be kind of evil and I like it."

For Rebeck, who wrote for "NYPD Blue," having a character like Jack -- who is uncomfortable with gays but has to work with them given the culture -- is realistic.

"I'm curious why we don't see bigots and misogynists on television," she wonders.

The playwright bristles a bit over a question she heard earlier in the day about a "casting couch" scene being stereotypical.

"You can't pretend that those things aren't an ongoing situation, and I think we told it in a way that was truthful," she says. "It's creepy and coercive. And that's what I find original about the scene -- that it's more coercive than a casting couch."

When asked about the casting couch and backstabbing on Broadway, McPhee and Hilty said the stereotypes are there for a reason, but don't go into specifics.

"That's going to be in the memoirs," Hilty quips.

Being on a broadcast network, there are, of course, limitations about what you will see on "Smash."

"Sometimes I miss the F-word," says Rebeck, "because it's part of the language in the world I live in." But she has told her writers she wants to see "f-ing" or "freaking" as a substitute and "to find a different way to construct a sentence to express that kind of frustration."

The sex scenes are also a bit problematic. Rebeck says she gets memos about the number of thrusts.

"I still find it challenging," she says. "They have a parsed version of what you can do in a sex scene, and that's difficult." But she quickly adds that NBC has been very supportive with the adult themes of the show and she has not been asked to soft-pedal them.

As you may gather from the amount of ads for "Smash" -- many of which you will no doubt see on today's Super Bowl telecast -- NBC and Greenblatt are looking for a hit. Calling the series a "Glee" for grown-ups would be doing it a disservice. It's much more sophisticated and nuanced.

"I don't think that any of us feel that the show is like 'Glee,' but we feel grateful to 'Glee' for opening that door," says producer Craig Zadan.

"Smash" features a mix of cover songs -- show and pop tunes -- and original numbers written for the Marilyn musical by Broadway songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who won Tony Awards for "Hairspray."

"It's actually kind of perfect, because most musicals, I'd say, have 18 to 21 songs. We have 15 episodes in this season," says Shaiman.

Spielberg has even talked about eventually bringing the Marilyn musical to Broadway when it's complete.

As it turns out, it's a big year for the Monroe legend, with Michelle Williams winning a Golden Globe and getting an Oscar nomination for playing the screen icon in "My Week with Marilyn."

Rebeck says she was a little reluctant to see the film, but ended up loving it and Williams' performance. Right now, she says, "I'm glad I'm not writing about something that is just about Marilyn Monroe. I'm writing about people who are writing about Marilyn Monroe."

If "Smash" is a smash and Spielberg has his way, though, that could change.

In that second episode of the series, Huston's Eileen is walking down a New York City street with Davenport's Derek when she blurts out, "There is nothing bigger than Broadway."

Rebeck says she wrote that line last summer when she found out that "Seminar" was indeed going to be her second Broadway-produced play. The first time around she had blogged that Broadway "didn't suck," but realizes she was being a bit disingenuous.

"It's fantastic. It's true excitement," she says.

And Rebeck and the others involved in "Smash" are hoping that translates into ratings.

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