When Steven Spielberg came up with the idea to make a TV drama about the production of a Broadway musical, there were few writers more qualified to take charge of the idea than Theresa Rebeck. Her career has gone back and forth through the world of both television, where she’s written for “NYPD Blue,” “L.A. Law” and “Third Watch,” among others; and theater, where Alan Rickman is starring on Broadway in her latest play, “Seminar.”
Spielberg, Rebeck, veteran songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (among many others) have collaborated to create “Smash,” which debuts on NBC tonight at 10 (you can read my review here). The series stars Debra Messing and Christian Borle as a successful Broadway writing duo who begin working on a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe, Anjelica Huston as their producer, Jack Davenport as their director and Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee as the two actresses vying for the lead role.
I spoke with Rebeck about the genesis of “Smash,” the differences between her two writing careers, how the show is incorporating musical numbers into the action, what might happen if the show is successful enough to survive to a second season, and more.
I’ve seen many many shows about the making of a television show, but not much on the subject of the theater. And it occurs to me that there aren’t a lot of writers with your resume, other than (“Law & Order: SVU” showrunner) Warren Leight and a few others, who move back and forth between plays and television. Is that the reason why: that writers write what they know, and very few of them know the theater? Why has this not been a big subject for TV in the past?
People have been pitching it for a while. I always wanted to do one years ago, and there was just a strong sense – you still bump into it every now and then – that the theater world is quote-unquote “rarified,” which is a misnomer. I don’t think that’s true, but some people think it is. There are tropes in the business. For the longest time, you couldn’t do a show about television until “Murphy Brown” came along. They always say “you can’t do this,” and so for a long time, people were saying you couldn’t do a backstage show.
And then Spielberg was very interested in doing one for a long time, and after “Glee” came along and really busted down the door in terms of a musical on television, then the musical element could enter this idea and lift it. After “Glee,” Spielberg said, “I still want to do a backstage drama, and I want it to be backstage of a Broadway musical.”
And I actually think that part of the idea is quite brilliant. You may think of the world as rarified, which I do not. Everybody knows what theater is: we go to the theater all the time, even if it’s just that our kids are in plays, or we were in plays in school, and there’s a much livelier American theater than people act like there is. Also, I think people really do love musicals, and this aspect of it is a very populist kind of approach to the world.
So that’s what I think happened, and that idea went to Bob Greenblatt. And he had a great passion for the musical.
Whose idea was to make the show about Marilyn, specifically?
That was Scott Wittman’s idea. Once the creative team was gathered, we didn’t have anything other than the words “backstage at a Broadway musical.” There was not anything more. It was like a concept. So it was actually Spielberg and Greenblatt, who are not theater people themselves, who said, “We’re going to try this.” And they went to Zadan and Meron, who had produced musicals on film, and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote “Hairspray,” and then they came to me. So there was a deliberate gathering of real theater artists who had experience in film and television.
But it’s an interesting choice as a subject matter. It’s theater about film, and a fairly iconic character.
Once me and Mark and Scott started talking about what would that musical be, their first impulse was to make it based on a movie. That’s actually what they do. My impulse was to make it based on something in the 19th century, because I have a big history with 19th century storytelling. They were like, “No, we don’t do feathers.” And I said, “Let’s talk about it, you guys!” I was also very concerned about how complicated the rights situation would be around (a movie adaptation), and I’m someone who doesn’t really like movies-to-musical, even though I like theirs. So at some point, Scott said, “What about Marilyn Monroe?” And everybody had a very complicated reaction to it. Because someone tried a musical about Marilyn many years ago, and it failed, and that’s all we know about it. It’s a little peculiar. And I finally thought, “I don’t know if I can write a great musical about Marilyn Monroe – but I do know I could write a great television show about people trying to write a musical about Marilyn Monroe.” And having worked on it for a year now, I would say I could write a great musical about Marilyn. She’s a fantastic subject for a musical.
In terms of the songs, the other guys are writing those, but how do you structure the episodes so that you know where a good place for a song would be?
There’ve been different processes around it, but generally you have to start with the story. Sometimes, at the very beginning, when I was working on episodes 2 and 3, I’d call the guys and say, “This is what the episodes are going to be about. It would be really great if you could write a song that’s kind of like this.” So then they came back with very firm and muscular ideas about the songs for those episodes. As we proceeded, and things got more complicated, we also had a moment in the middle of the summer where I sat down with them and went, “What songs have we already written?” And we mocked up what “Marilyn” the musical would be. And we had a great time dreaming up numbers and where they would go. And once we had done that, the ideas for the numbers were out there. As we’ve been planning out the later episodes, the numbers that we know are still waiting to be used inform how you tell the story. Then there was another point where we had had a strong idea for a number for the last episode, and Scott came to me and said, “You know what? This is a better idea.” And he described an idea for a song, and I thought it was perfect, but it changed things. There’s a lot of give and take.
But you don’t just use the songs from the musical. There’s a scene where Karen is having a daydream and suddenly it’s a song. So it’s not all natural and diegetic; sometimes it’s fantasy. How do you choose to approach that and incorporate other songs into it?
When we were putting together thoughts about the series, we always wanted there to be contemporary music. Just on a common sense level, those guys can’t write that much, and how many Marilyn songs do you want? And we wanted it to feel like a very contemporary show. Because so many people are in musical theater, they have big lives, they record demos for musicians, they sing bar mitzvahs. They’re singers and dancers, and that’s what their lives look like. There are a lot of opportunities to see our people in other situations singing more contemporary songs, and doing covers. There’s a deal with a record company where some of those songs will be used on iTunes.
But in terms of your deciding that they don’t all have to be within a real-world context of things…
There is always a relationship to reality. Nothing ever flies off into fantasy in a completely pure way. That number is her in her head running songs around to keep herself pre-occupied. Or the number (at the end of) the pilot, it looks like they’re singing the way they would in a musical film, but then it reaches reality. So there’s always a touchstone to a real situation. There’s never going to be a moment where the door to the elevator shuts and someone sings “I Gotta Be Me” – unless they’re really doing it.
Just getting back to the idea of you as someone who’s moved back and forth between TV and theater, and that many viewers know a lot about what goes on in TV from other shows about the medium, what aspects would you say are different about the theater from television that will either surprise people or are important to stress in doing this?
I think there are a lot of surprises. I think the show really is about people who have a dream for their lives, and who are willing to put themselves in danger – who don’t make safe choices for themselves. These are not people who landed in an office. These are the opposite. But there’s something truly universal. I feel like all of us have a dream. All of us have something we dream for ourselves, and there’s something really beautiful about watching people have the courage and insanity that it takes to pursue their dream. There’s a lot of large-scale psychological disappointments and triumphs. So much is at stake, really. The theater world looks like it’s rarified, but the stakes are very, very high, because people care so powerfully about what they’re doing. And there’s a lot of beauty and love in the music. I think that will surprise people, how universal the show is.
And how much is the show going to deal with the troubles that are facing Broadway right now, with the economy?
Oh, those things are going to show up. Though I think Broadway goes up and down in cycles. My play is a bit hit.
But my hope is, honestly – I heard after “Glee” was on the air a couple of years, that there were so many kids trying to be in choruses around American high schools that a lot more money was going there. And I hope this could be a way of rejuvenating people’s interest in the theater. I think it’s a beautiful form of storytelling – obviously I think that, I’m a playwright. It’s my life. I didn’t walk away from it for a reason. I think it’s really beautiful and relevant. So hopefully, people will recognize that it’s cool to go to the theater.
And do you still view yourself as a playwright first and foremost, and TV is just something you do from time to time?
It’s hard to view myself that way right at this moment.
This falls under the category of high-class problems, but if the show is a hit, what is season 2?
I do have a lot of ideas about season 2, but I want to keep those cards close to the vest. We do have to get through the opening. But there are many ways to go. I’m very excited about the possibility – the first season takes “Marilyn” out of town for a tryout, and the second season would take her to Broadway, if we’re lucky enough to have that. And then there are other things that we could do. There are many musicals out there to overlap in. The one that (Debra Messing and Christian Borle’s characters) wrote, “Heaven On Earth,” we have a number from that in episode 9, which is pretty fantastic. So I’m going, “‘Heaven On Earth’ is shaping up well.”
From what I’ve seen in the first two episodes, most of the singing is coming from Megan and Katharine. Might we be getting a Debra Messing musical number? Anjelica Huston?
Yes, we’ll be doing other things. And you know, Christian is a major American musical theater star, and he’s going to be singing quite a bit. And in episode 3, the guy who they cast to play Joe DiMaggio comes on board, and he has a lot to do and sing.
What was the biggest culture shock when you moved into TV from having done theater?
Well, I’ve been doing TV for a long time. I wrote for “NYPD Blue,” “LA Law,” “Dream On.” And there are so many people who thought, “What’s going to happen when a playwright takes over a television show?” And I’m like, “Guys, I’ve been on 9 writing staffs, and I was trained by David Milch and Stephen Bochco, and John Wells has been a mentor to me.” I’ve been trained by some of the truly great showrunners, so I knew what was up.
But I’m not talking about now so much as back then. What was the biggest adjustment?
I think that there’s a kind of psychosis sometimes that I find peculiar. The logic is different. It seems psychotic to me, that people can get so rabid about details that come and go. I found that startling then and I find it startling now. But it seems to be part of the culture.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com