Rebeck’s framing also solved a deeper aspect of the authenticity problem, one that Glee struggles with: Why are people singing? And although everyone involved with Smash has learned to say that the success of Glee “opened the door” for them, the new show runs through that door as if to escape a house on fire. Smash is not about high-schoolers but about sophisticated (if childish) theater types: people who actually do sing in hallways and live dramatic lives. Most of the music therefore arises, as Spielberg instructed, from singable situations, even if some songs eventually take on a fantasy dimension. Or vice versa. The pilot climaxes with a duet for the competing actresses called “Let Me Be Your Star,” which moves from each woman’s apartment through the streets of New York with the thrill and propulsion of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Only at the final stanza, when they arrive at an audition studio, do you realize it’s their callback song.
Of course, authenticity is relative. There is no Park Slope brownstone—not even Rebeck’s—as wide as the one Messing’s character lives in. The show within the show is naturally even less naturalistic, although Rebeck says her idea of a trio in which Miller, DiMaggio, and JFK sing about what they look for in a woman was shot down by Shaiman and Wittman. “ ‘When would those men be together?’ they asked. And I said, ‘I don’t care, it’s a musical!’ ”
Rebeck maintains that authenticity is not the same as realism, which is why the Marilyn musical sprints from conception to out-of-town tryout in the equivalent of fifteen weeks. (The original plan of one musical per season was rejiggered when Greenblatt moved to NBC, bringing Smash with him but scheduling it as a February replacement.) If the series is picked up for fall, a new, completely different musical will gradually enter the story line while Marilyn is mounted and the process begins again.
Though the pilot was shot in various real New York locations, once the series was greenlit, NBC built sets to replicate them exactly. At the main shooting stage in Long Island City, the results are arranged like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. One character’s bedroom leads to the bathroom of another; the composer’s Upper West Side hallway feeds into the foyer of the producer’s Times Square office. On that foyer wall are posters for previous musicals (Three on a Match, No Parking, Heaven on Earth) written by Messing’s and Borle’s characters. And on the posters, posing as credits, are the names of Smash crew members. Welcome to Inception, indeed—and yet even more disorienting are the simpler sets at the Smash production facility in Greenpoint, including a “rehearsal studio” that uncannily reproduces the exact weary blankness of a real one. As Rebeck leads me on a tour, I find I can’t tell the difference between rooms created for filming a show about actors and rooms used by the actors playing them. Is that bathroom functional? “Probably,” she says.
Rebeck is not known for uncertainty. She is sometimes called, behind her back, “the Queen.” (A sign on her Greenpoint office door reads LEAVE HER ALONE.) She says the job requires “a general, not a politician,” so even though she has a writing team heavy on playwrights, including executive producer (and former Brothers & Sisters showrunner) David Marshall Grant, she wrote about half of the first season’s scripts herself.
“Writers’ rooms really are not my thing,” she says, “because I can only stand being in a room with people so many hours a day. And I feel like early drafts should be speedy because everyone changes their mind, so why spend a lot of time up front parsing sentences?” In the month before filming began, they banged out the first eight episodes.
“Really, we had to. A lot of TV shows get behind the eight ball, and I knew that if this one did, it would collapse. I don’t think chaos is a fertile stew. I’ve had to keep explaining that making a musical and making TV are each crazy processes but not the same crazy process. To make this work, you’ve got to stay way ahead. With these big numbers, you’ve got three trains on three tracks: the song itself, which Marc and Scott need time to write; the staging, which has to be rehearsed for weeks; and the story they fit into. And they all have to come into the station at once.” Most under the gun is choreographer Josh Bergasse, who at all times, he says, has one number “in my ear, one in rehearsal, and one shooting.” Or, as Zadan puts it, “It’s like producing Chicago every week.”