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A House of Mirrors Called 'Smash'

Katharine McPhee, Ivy's competition for the role of Marilyn Monroe.  

“Welcome to Inception,” she says.

It began, oddly enough, with Steven Spielberg, who in September 2009 called Bob Greenblatt to talk about a TV idea he’d long harbored. Each season would feature the creation of a new musical, and—here was the kicker—if any of them turned out to be stageworthy, he’d like to mount them on Broadway. Greenblatt was then president of entertainment at Showtime Networks, but he had an undergraduate degree in theater and had just produced (and closed at a loss) the musical 9 to 5. His reaction was: “Are you me calling me?” It was, he says now, “the perfect thing I would want to do.”

Spielberg himself was not previously known as a theater lover. Aaron Sorkin’s 2007 drama The Farnsworth Invention is the only Broadway production for which he is listed as a producer, but according to Greenblatt he’s invested anonymously in many others. In any case, after Greenblatt agreed to house the production at Showtime, he called in producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose work putting musicals on television (the Bette Midler Gypsy, Annie) and film (Chicago, Hairspray) had basically revived those genres. Zadan and Meron immediately suggested Shaiman and Wittman to write the songs, and only a few days after the initial meeting with Spielberg, the deal was announced in Variety.

But what kind of show would it be? Musical dramas on television were usually botched affairs: Cop Rock lasted eleven miserable episodes in 1990; Viva Laughlin eked out two in 2007. Nor was Glee, which had just started its first full season that September, what Spielberg imagined. Rather, his models were The West Wing and ­Upstairs, Downstairs. He wanted Smash (the name came from Garson Kanin’s novel, which DreamWorks optioned just for its title) to be an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world. Yet he wanted it to be universal, says Zadan, not a niche show like Entourage or one you’d “only watch if you already loved Broadway.” To create it, Zadan and Meron suggested Rebeck, a much-­produced playwright (her comedy Seminar is currently doing well on Broadway) and a writer-producer on such series as NYPD Blue and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

“The first job,” Rebeck says, “was to choose the subject of the musical within the show. I wanted something with feathers and swords, but Scott and Marc said no.” (“We don’t do feathers,” Wittman explains.) Wittman came up with the idea of a sweeping bio-musical about Monroe, from Norma Jeane to tabloid tragedienne. “She stands for so many things that people in showbiz go through,” he says, “and she’s so iconic that you can just drop her into a situation and the audience will already know what’s going on. You don’t have to do a lot of explaining about who Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller are.” Shaiman demurs: “I’m not sure that 15-year-old girls know who Arthur Miller is.”

It soon became clear that in order to write Smash, the musical within it would have to be more than a notion. In a micro-development process one day in June, Shaiman and Wittman sat down with Mayer and Rebeck and hashed out a template for the Marilyn show on a dry-erase board, including the placement of eighteen songs (not all of which will necessarily get sung on Smash). There’s no script, but Mayer, who directed the pilot and two other episodes so far, and whose job includes conceptualizing the musical within the musical, says that with the songs and the staging partly in hand, as well as the tone and approach, they are well on their way toward a producible work.

Meanwhile, Smash itself was progressing. Early on, Rebeck figured out how to resolve Spielberg’s potentially contradictory para­meters: How could a story be both authentic to the theater world and yet universal? Her solution was to make one of the Marilyn wannabes a novice from the Midwest, through whose eyes the audience would experience the Broadway story. (That character is played by Katharine McPhee, the 2006 American Idol runner-up; the other, played by Hilty, is a Broadway veteran itching to break through.) This choice established the show’s rhythm of alternating making-of-a-musical scenes with offstage domestic dramas. The pilot includes three original numbers as well as a cover of the Christina Aguilera hit “Beautiful”—part of a strategy to extend the show’s brand to iTunes. (Glee also covered “Beautiful” in its first season.) In between, it unwraps the story of the songwriting team played by Messing and Christian Borle (she’s trying to adopt; he’s trying to get laid), the producer played by Anjelica Huston (a messy divorce has put her revival of My Fair Lady in escrow), and the two actresses (who face a lecherous director).