With so much riding on Smash for fourth-place NBC—the pilot alone cost a reported $7.5 million—it’s amazing no trains have crashed. Still, there is tension. Greenblatt, nervous that the show “could be considered a little rarefied,” has doubled down by premiering it the day after the Super Bowl, with major promotions throughout the game, and giving it just about the only strong lead-in available: last season’s hit singing contest The Voice. Meanwhile, Spielberg, even while filming the movie Lincoln in Virginia, sometimes watches live shoots by video feed and makes suggestions. The New York team feels it’s being monitored by God—or, as Greenblatt puts it, “like Michelangelo is painting your family room.”
“Look,” says Rebeck. “I’m well aware of NBC’s desperate need for a hit, and I’m not afraid of it. I’m perfectly capable of delivering that. Where I do get scared is when they ask me to do things they don’t understand, like constantly shoving the story toward big cathartic, climactic moments. Now, sometimes that’s not a bad idea; I’m interested in that in my plays. And sometimes it is a bad idea, and we come to blows. But the bottom line is they have tremendous respect for us: I mean, they put a whole bunch of theater artists at the top of this show for a reason.” In particular, they gambled on Mayer, who had zero TV experience but produced a pilot that left the producers jubilant.
“I’m sure they think we’re nuts,” Rebeck adds. “But I think that, too. We are nuts. Theater people are different. They have a passionate and gracious volatility. That’s why we’re writing about them! I think of how much love there is in the musical theater: The best musicals open our heart with joy. So you focus on that.”
She seems momentarily to have forgotten Michael Riedel, the theater gossip described in the pilot as “a Napoleonic little Nazi who works for the Post.” Perhaps as an inoculation, she wrote a scene for him in episode nine. (“I was brilliant,” he says.) Rebeck seems to be good at finessing, or rationalizing, the small stuff. When NBC asked for a fifteen-second change she didn’t like, she actually lay in bed and calculated what percentage of fifteen episodes, each running 43:15, the change would represent. “And do you know what it was?” she exclaims. “It’s .0004 percent! Why are we getting bent out of shape about this? Who gives a shit?”
Actually, it’s .04 percent, but point taken. Compared with the potential rewards, the annoyances are negligible. Greenblatt says the show’s ad-time is already sold out for its first quarter. It’s also a promising sign that “everyone in the world,” as Zadan puts it, wanted to be on the series; upcoming guest stars include Uma Thurman, Nick Jonas, Norbert Leo Butz, and Bernadette Peters. And though agents usually warn clients off pilots, the Smash team had no trouble casting theirs. Messing, a lifelong theater geek who played Annie in high school, says she jumped at the chance. “A script like this,” she says, “doesn’t come around, well, ever.”
But cynics—or are they realists?—have for decades maintained that the musical theater is no longer capable of bridging the divide between popular and serious culture and that the reason is the audience. For Zadan and Meron, the problem isn’t the audience but the delivery system. “It’s so old school to think that musical theater is not a popular form of art,” says Meron. “What are Cats and Phantom and Wicked and Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys? I say it’s the other way around: Theater isn’t as rarefied as it used to be. It’s more popular. It’s just that people in glass towers are not seeing how deeply theater has penetrated the culture.”
Rebeck agrees. “I grew up in the Midwest, and we all did plays in high school. Anything Goes, and everybody went. Theater is more a natural part of people’s lives than is generally acknowledged. We’ve already seen on reality TV and Glee that girls bursting into song is something people want to hear. It’s just that the theater has gotten too precious. And there’s a certain sort of culture that fell in love with irrelevant theater. It didn’t matter whether it reached its audience or not: It had an internal poetry. That’s nice, but theater at its best invites people in. And this show tries to do that too.”
The biggest musicals today recycle existing elements of the culture that audiences are already familiar with: stories they’ve heard in other forms, songs they know backward before the curtain goes up. Individual works may be entertaining and even succeed, but overall the theatrical culture gets stale, craft declines, and artists with higher aspirations lose hope. Perhaps the road out is like the one Megan Hilty describes. Like Ivy, she came to New York with one thing on her mind: to succeed in musicals. Now, at 30, she can’t even count how many times she’s been told after readings and workshops of Broadway-bound shows: We love you, you’re perfect, but we have to find a star to play this. “Which is devastating,” she says. “So I finally told myself, if people are looking for TV stars, I can sit around and cry about it or I can go develop a career in that field and then come back and do what I want.”
Smash, if it succeeds as no such show has previously managed, may test the same proposition. Put high-quality, original musicals on TV, let people learn to love them, and then bring them—the musicals and the audience—back to Broadway. Spielberg may have inadvertently (or advertently; who knows with God?) come up with something that’s more than a way to entertain and make money. He may have stumbled on a way out of Broadway’s lowest-common-denominator business model.
I test this idea on Mayer two days after his serious-minded revisal of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever opens to gleefully vicious reviews. “Sing it, sister!” he says. If only it were that easy.