“Good for them,” Theresa Rebeck thought when she read in Variety that Steven Spielberg had sold a drama series at Showtime revolving around an effort to mount a Broadway musical.
Rebeck, a playwright, novelist, TV and film scribe, had pitched a similar concept to various networks over the years, to no avail. When she learned in November 2009 about the project DreamWorks TV had in the early stages of development at Showtime, she felt vindicated that her idea had been a good one, and happy that someone was finally tackling an arena that she knew to be full of potential for TV.
What Rebeck didn’t know was that she would be the one tasked with getting the show on its feet for Spielberg and his tuner team of producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and composers-lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Witt-man. Nor could anyone have predicted that the ambitious venture destined to become “Smash” would eventually migrate from Showtime to NBC along with its biggest champion, Bob Greenblatt.
The NBC Entertainment chairman’s faith in “Smash” is evident by just how much the network is banking on the show to make a much-needed midseason splash in its Feb. 6 premiere, the night after the Peacock’s telecast of the Super Bowl.
NBC desperately needs the show — toplined by Debra Messing, Christian Borle, Katharine McPhee, Jack Davenport and Megan Hilty — to deliver an audience, but it is also counting on “Smash” to generate the kind of qualitative raves that have been few and far between for the network’s programming in recent years. The Peacock is throwing every resource it has at the “Smash” launch, starting with the decision to sked it in the Monday 10 p.m. slot behind returning reality hit “The Voice.” NBC’s struggles in the first half of the season have only heightened the stakes for the return of “Voice” and the bow of “Smash.”
Rooted in the lives of the key players developing a Rialto tuner about Marilyn Monroe, “Smash” is a high-wire act of a show-within-a-show, enhanced by at least one original song per episode, song-and-dance numbers and location lensing throughout Gotham. (Some have dubbed it “The West Wing” with music.)
The show, produced by Universal TV and DreamWorks TV, costs just under $3.5 million per seg, according to industry sources, a hefty sum for a first-year skein. But “Smash” demands the talents of legit pros and below-the-line specialists that aren’t required on the typical network crime procedural.
“Smash” is rooted in a world Greenblatt knows intimately. He’s a lifelong theater enthusiast who produced the Broadway adaptation of the film “9 to 5” in 2009 (as a sideline to his then-day job as Showtime entertainment prexy).
“There is nothing that gets people galvanized and excited quite like a musical,” Greenblatt says. “Everybody involved has to be energized about it, and then you add the songs and the choreography. It’s very physically demanding to do a musical, and that energy gets everybody really excited.”
The success of Fox’s “Glee” helped take the “Cop Rock” sting out of the notion of a series incorporating musical elements. But “Smash” ups the ante with the original music designed to coalesce by the end of the season into a cohesive musical.
As “Smash’s” creator and showrunner, Rebeck has not only crafted the story arc for the show’s 15-episode frosh season, she’s also written the book for an original tuner dubbed “Marilyn.”
“It’s very much an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ kind of world, but instead of a mansion, it’s a musical,” Rebeck says.
The production of each episode is complex, as the musical numbers are frequently shot out of sequence at various stages in Gotham, while the scripts for each seg have to be in shape early enough to allow Shaiman and Wittman, the tunesmiths behind “Hairspray,” to deliver songs that have to pass muster with producers. There’s a dance unit that almost always works separately on choreography with a regular troupe of hoofers as well as day players.
The show’s conceit requires that Broadway-caliber production numbers be staged with theatrical authenticity, but then filmed for the smallscreen. In addition to the original songs, there’s at least one cover performed in most segs. Amid all of this activity, McPhee and other key actors have to find the time for studio recording sessions for the songs that will be released via Sony Music, which has logged big sales in the past three years with its parade of “Glee” hits.
“Whenever you do anything musical, there are a million challenges,” says Meron. “We like to think of it as producing a gigantic action film. There are so many moving parts, so many details that must be taken care of. Scheduling is the biggest challenge. We are sometime shooting more than one (dramatic) segment at a time. One day you’ll be shooting a musical sequence for the second episode, and the next day you’ll be working on one for the fifth episode with a different director.”
To pull it off, Spielberg and his top TV lieutenants, DreamWorks TV toppers Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, recruited from a short list of creatives with the experience that bridges both mediums.
The first phone call after Showtime expressed interest in Spielberg’s concept went to Zadan and Meron, whose resume hit the bull’s-eye thanks to their varied track record with musical TV specials such as ABC’s “Annie” and “Cinderella,” telepics and drama series including Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” and film tuners including “Hairspray” and “Chicago.” If that weren’t enough, the duo were then in the midst of the launching the Broadway revival of “Promises, Promises.”
“If you start from the theory that the most difficult thing to produce well is a one-hour weekly drama, and you add all the elements we have (on ‘Smash’), this is without a doubt going to be one of the most ambitious shows the audience has ever seen,” Zadan says.
Shaiman and Wittman were also in from the beginning, having responded immediately to the initial overture that came in a phone call Zadan and Meron made from Spielberg’s office. The tunesmiths had some experience with Spielberg from working on the stage musical rendition of his 2002 pic “Catch Me if You Can.”
Rebeck was also a natural choice. The prolific playwright has an extensive background in TV drama from her years as a writer-producer on such series as “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “NYPD Blue,” “Third Watch” and “L.A. Law.” She also knew Greenblatt, Zadan and Meron from her professional travels over the years.
“It was pretty exciting when they came looking for me,” she says.
While Rebeck began navigating the “Smash” sked this summer, she was busy preparing for the November bow of her Broadway play, the dark comedy “Seminar,” starring Alan Rickman. It was her previous Off Broadway play, the backstage Broadway drama “The Understudy,” that convinced Spielberg she was the woman for the job.
Beyond the exec producers, “Smash” has reached deep into Gotham’s legit scene for cast and crew members. Director Michael Mayer, whose credits include “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot,” had never done any TV before he was tapped to direct the “Smash” pilot last year, as well as its second and third episodes.
Mayer enlisted choreographer Joshua Bergasse (who danced in Shaiman-Whittman’s “Hairspray”) to conceptualize “Marilyn’s” dance numbers. They tapped Bernard Telsey, the dean of legit casting in Gotham, to spearhead lining up the talent for a show that demands a high volume of guest stars and day players with legit experience. Lighting designer Donald Holder is a Rialto vet with credits ranging from “La Cage aux Folles” to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
“Because so many of us who are making this show spend our lives primarily in theater, it’s really important to all of us that the audience see the ways in which people dedicate their lives to this very unique art form,” Mayer says. “My hope is that people will be turned on to the creative process, as wel
l as (be given) a glimpse of what it’s like to be a writer, director, choreographer or dancer watching these numbers come to life in a rehearsal space. ”
Like others on the “Smash” team, Mayer juggled other Broadway duties while working on the show as he prepped for the December opening of the revival of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” with Harry Connick Jr. Looking at musical numbers through a TV lens gave him a deeper perspective.
“We stage (‘Smash’) as though these were being done for a Broadway show, but then we get the thrill of jumping inside the heads of people and give the audience another perspective that only the medium of film can deliver. In theater, you can’t be in more than one place at a time — there’s just one frame and everything happens inside it. In film, you can jump inside, outside, back and forth. It’s a very visceral experience.”
Besides McPhee, Jim Chory, the line producer and co-exec producer, marks a rare exception to the steeped-in-stage curriculum vitae of the “Smash” principals. His job is even more challenging than usual because of all the sked juggling and cross-boarding done to accommodate the tuner aspects of the show, but his background working on vfx and action-intensive shows like “Heroes” and “The Event” was good training.
Rebeck and her fellow exec producer David Marshall Grant and the writing staff also face intense pressure to go above and beyond the typically punishing sked of a weekly drama series.
“There are about six extra steps that you have to take on each episode,” Rebeck says. “The biggest challenge is that you can’t change your mind, you can’t hesitate, and you have to commit to all your story (points) earlier on. That’s been a trick to figure out, because the thrill of TV is that as you’re on the ride, a character or a storyline will really pop. For us it’s really hard to move things around, but we still need to be able to accommodate that if it happens.”
(Mayer notes that his assistant director on two episodes, Luis Nieves, came to “Smash” from USA Network’s high-octane drama “Burn Notice.” “He thought he was prepared for anything after all those explosions, and after two days he said to me ‘Oh my god, singing and dancing is so much harder.’ “)
From the start, the creative vision for “Smash” was to ground the series in the universal themes of ambition, aspiration and drive, rooted in the colorful clutch of characters who have to come together to get a Broadway musical off the ground — the test of wills that it takes to get it launched, and then the even longer odds that the show will have more than a fortnight in the footlights.
Spielberg and Co. were committed to making it absolutely Shubert Alley-authentic, but without being so inside the proscenium as to turn off viewers who have never set foot in a Broadway theater. It’s a tricky balance.
“We never want this show to become ‘Entourage.’ We never want it to be totally insular to the theater community, so that even if you have no interest in Broadway you could still love this show,” Zadan says. “We’ve all been watchdogs on the scripts. Every time it starts to veer into the direction of being too theater-oriented, we remind ourselves to broaden the base and go to the personal stories.”
The show’s move from Showtime to NBC wound up helping its producers keep the focus on the broader dreamers-and-schemers theme. The initial draft of the pilot that Rebeck wrote for Showtime featured the same group of characters and “Marilyn” concept, but it was darker and edgier in the way pay TV fare demands. The need to make “Smash” work for the traditional upscale NBC drama aud has helped keep the focus on the characters and their motivations.
“When it was Showtime, it was darker and a little bit more cynical. And honestly, it didn’t need that,” Greenblatt says. “I was happy to take another look at it in the broadcast venue. It’s a hopeful story that portrays the power of true optimism, which I think is a very welcome (sentiment) in our country today.”
Although the musical is the fulcrum of the show, Rebeck has no plans for an episode that features the “Marilyn” tuner from start to finish. “What we want you to see is the musical as something that is part of the lives of the people who are creating it,” she says. (It’s unclear where the storyline will go if the show is renewed for a second season.)
Greenblatt says he thinks the prevalence of reality shows that has created celebrities out of everyday folks in recent years sets the stage nicely for viewers to latch onto “Smash” and the quest of McPhee’s struggling singer Karen Cartwright to achieve stardom via “Marilyn.” It’s no accident that “Smash” will air in tandem with “The Voice,” which proved a surprise hit for the Peacock last spring. And of course, McPhee got her start as a contestant on Fox’s “American Idol.”
” ‘Smash’ is little bit like a scripted version of ‘The Voice,’ where out of obscurity someone is given a platform and suddenly everyone’s talking about that person,” Greenblatt says. “We want to tap into that exhilaration and the highs and lows of performing. The audience may learn a little bit about how a musical is put together, but that is not the main intention. We want the audience to be carried along by the drama and the passion and the excitement of it all.”
Sam Thielman contributed to this report.