NBC's musical drama Smash, about the behind-the scenes efforts to stage a lavish Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, achieves a small miracle. It's that rare series with actually lives up to the accompanying fanfare and hype. Part of the reason is surely the prestigious cast (Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing, Broadway star Christian Borle, Wicked's Megan Hilty, and American Idol's Katharine McPhee) and its pedigreed production team (among them are producer Steven Spielberg, Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, renowned writer-producer Theresa Rebeck, and Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer). Also instrumental to the authenticity of Smash is the multi award-winning team of Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who've produced the Oscar-winning Chicago, Hairspray, and the current hit Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Meron and Zadan tell The Advocate why the backstage drama of creating a
musical about Monroe has mass appeal and why big stars like
Anjelica Huston, Uma Thurman, Bernadette Peters, and Nick Jonas were eager to appear in it.
The Advocate: Smash is certain to be a big hit with people who love musical theater, but how do you anticipate it will play to people outside of urban areas?
Neil Meron: Our point of view is that we do think in all the areas outside of New York there’s experience in musical theater because of the tours of Cats, Les Miz, and Phantom during the past 10-15 years. Theater has really infiltrated America like never before, so we consider theater popular and right up there with going to the movies and watching television as far as being accessible. We believe that audiences are ready for a show about theater because they’ve been nurtured by all the tours in their hometowns.
That makes sense. Did you take any steps to make the show accessible to as broad an audience as possible?
Craig Zadan: We were very cautious to make sure each script has universal characters so it’s not a show for a niche audience like Entourage. For instance, in the pilot you have Anjelica Huston’s character going through a divorce, Debra Messing and her husband are adopting a child, Katharine McPhee’s family is visiting from the Midwest and expressing their fear about what she’s going to do and how the likelihood of her success is minimal. We think the show is actually universal. If you look at the show like A Chorus Line — it’s about a bunch of dancers but it played all over the world and was an international hit because everyone related to the characters.
Although they're very different, I imagine the success of Glee made it easier to get Smash on the air.
Meron: One hundred percent. I think Glee opened the door for us to come in and be our own show and exist in the same universe as Glee but be different.
You've assembled an incredible cast. Did everyone audition, or do you write the roles specifically for someone like Anjelica Huston?
Zadan: A bunch of people auditioned, but a lot of people contacted us after reading the script. I think what distinguishes the show in terms of casting from other series is when you cast a new series you’re always pursuing agents and managers to go after actors and convince them that this is a show worth joining. This was the opposite of that. When the script went out we were all deluged by agents and managers saying their clients wanted to be in this.
Debra Messing returns to NBC as a New Yorker with a gay best friend. Was there any concern about distinguishing her character from Grace Adler?
Zadan: Debra just responded to the role that was created by Theresa. She thought it was an opportunity to do some dramatic acting, and there are moments when she’s very funny. She finds the humor in the drama, but it’s basically a dramatic role. It just turned out to be a coincidence that the other character is gay. Will & Grace was a sitcom with a very, very different style. When Debra read this script she said, "I want to play this character."
The cast is filled with actors who have solid theater credits. Was this a conscious decision?
Meron: Yes, we wanted to embrace the musical theater community because a lot of times actors don’t get credit they deserve. Christian Borle and Brian Darcy James and Megan Hilty, they can hold up against the best of the best in terms of acting ability and they offer a certain authenticity to the nature of the show.
Speaking of Christian Borle, he's terrific in the show, and his character, Tom, is gay but not neutered or stereotypical.
Zadan: We’re very, very cognizant that we’ve created a very diversified gay character who falls in love and has a relationship. Theresa has done a brilliant job, so the character is a fascinating and unique gay character for TV.
Meron: He has a love life that the network hasn’t shied away from. It’s quite evolved, and we’re very proud of that.
How did you get such big stars such as Bernadette Peters, Uma Thurman, and Nick Jonas to make guest appearances?
Zadan: Neil and I are very close friends with Bernadette Peters and we knew she was someone we wanted in the show, but she was busy doing Follies on Broadway. But then we decided to have a character who is the mother of Megan Hilty’s character, so it was a great opportunity to get Bernadette to come in. If it works out we can bring her back as often as we like to play that character. Nick Jonas was funny because we’d just signed him to do How to Succeed. At the end of the dinner when we signed him he said, “By the way, if there’s every an opportunity where I can be on Smash, I’d love to be on that show.” Then a very short time later we were talking about this character and said, "Well, if you’re interested we can get Nick Jonas." So we called him and told him we had a character for him and he was thrilled. Then one day Neil had coffee with Uma Thurman and they hit it off and we needed someone to play this other character. Neil asked her and she said she’d love to do it.
Meron: She had never done any television series at all. She’s amazing.
What was behind the decision to make the musical about Marilyn Monroe?
That was Scott Wittman’s idea. We were having a huge meeting with
Spielberg, [NBC entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt, Craig, and myself, and we were discussing the musical
we were going to present. Scott brought up Marilyn Monroe. At first we
went, Hmm. Then the more we discussed it, the more we thought it
was the perfect subject because of her iconic stature. We thought it was
something that wouldn’t require a lot of explaining for the public.
There’s been a lot of speculation that if the show is a hit, you might actually produce the Marilyn musical on Broadway.
Meron: We all watch the numbers and fantasize about seeing them on Broadway. The truth is that if the show makes it to Broadway, there’s still a lot of work to be done. I think there’s a very, very strong skeleton. But now everyone is just focused on turning out the best television show each week rather than thinking about taking Marilyn to Broadway.
What message do think is conveyed by Smash?
Zadan: What’s so great about the show to us is we’re putting into a drama some of the elements you get when you watch reality shows like American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, and The Voice. You watch these competitions on TV, and people become very emotionally involved in these real-life characters. We want audiences to be as involved with these characters. We’re able to capture that wish fulfillment and that dream people have to work hard and make it in the business.
Smash premieres Monday night on NBC. For more information, go here.