Photo: Patrick Randak/NBC
Theresa Rebeck
“There was a moment where I thought, this kind of hurts my feelings to think that people who do what we [theater] do are somehow so esoteric and weird that other human beings couldn’t relate to us.”
Broadway Over Bullets
Playwright and NYPD Blue veteran Theresa Rebeck goes from the precinct to the Great White Way with NBC’s critically hailed new musical drama Smash.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

(March 16, 2012)

NBC’s new critically raved, soapy musical drama Smash is more kindred to the iconic cop drama NYPD Blue than you might think. For anyone in the TV biz, the main reason is obvious – creator and executive producer Theresa Rebeck, a WGA Award-winning writer on Blue, is running things, bringing her life in New York theater as a veteran playwright to the series. She’s the first to point out that, at their cores, both shows are simply well-written workplace dramas.

Just trade badges and holsters for face powder and show tunes.

The show, which was originally sold as a simple pitch by Steven Spielberg, stars Debra Messing, Angelica Huston, and American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee. It tells the story of the staging of a new Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, complete with original songs, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can).

Dramatically, it mines the deep veins of love, despair, viciousness, and triumph that come with these creatures of the Great White Way.

Call it Glee for grownups.

Rebeck took time out from shooting to chat with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about Smash, the richness of the Broadway milieu and why, if you can have a hit with a workplace drama set in the advertising biz or the White House, surely you can do it with pretty dancing girls and great songs.

You’ve said you want to make an entertaining hit show first and foremost, but you also wish to illuminate the world of theater.


Photo: ©2012 NBC
Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty in Smash.

Very much. I do want the show to be entertaining and to invite people in, but there’s a great kind of storytelling that’s both entertaining and heartbreaking and challenging… intellectually complex. I’ve worked on shows like NYPD Blue, which was a terrific show that reached a wide audience but also said something true and deep about what it means to be a cop. That’s my goal.

When you got this material, what did you want to make of it?

I believe that the lives of people that work in the theater are fascinating and filled with joy and desperation. These are many people who do what they do out of real love for an art form – a very ephemeral art form. There are many people who do it for wounded reasons or as a stepping stone… It’s a natural template for a great television show where you can tell big, artful, even epic stories and have pretty girls singing and cool dances too.

You obviously know the theater world well personally. Are there challenges trying to transpose that world to a mass audience?

Certainly that is something that has been said over and over again. I never really bought it, but I’m somebody who lives in this world. There was a moment where I thought, this kind of hurts my feelings to think that people who do what we do are somehow so esoteric and weird that other human beings couldn’t relate to us, because that’s certainly not my experience. My experience is that that theater people are tribal and passionate and funny and warm and hysterical. You know what I mean?

Of course. I didn’t mean to suggest…

I know, but it’s just that I’ve heard that, you know? In fact, whenever there’s the tiniest bump, people ask, “Is the world too different or not wide enough?” Mad Men is about advertising, for crying out loud, you know? And it’s a period piece. So I find that kind of thinking a little peculiar, honestly.

So no, I don’t worry about that.

I didn’t mean to say that theater was “weird” or “esoteric.” I just meant from a logistical, writing standpoint if…

You know from a logistical standpoint, here’s something that’s useful to think about. This is a workplace drama, the way The West Wing was a workplace drama, it’s just that those people worked in the White House and these people work on a Broadway musical. So the thing that brings all our characters together to interact and tell a lot of complicated stories is a musical, but you also follow all these people into their separate lives the way you would follow [them] like on NYPD Blue. It was a cop show, but you went home with Bobby Simone or Sipowitcz. That’s the very traditional structure of a workplace drama.

We really embrace that structure.

So whether it’s the precinct or Broadway, either one is just the ether in which these rich characters live?

Yes.

You have multiple degrees, including one in Victorian drama. Do you recommend the academic route to an aspiring writer?

I certainly think that a healthy education and reading a lot is important to a writer. Any writer that does not read constantly is cutting him or herself off from a great wealth of information. I still read a ton… I’m fascinated by the novel. I just started reading Doctor Zhivago because I’ve always wanted to read it, or sometimes I read stuff again, like Crime and Punishment I’ve read a bunch of times.

I read a lot of Chekhov, Shakespeare, Moliere. They show me things. It’s more the ongoing educating of the mind and being in a relationship with other people who have taken on this crazy path of storytelling. That’s absolutely necessary for writers.

[But] I actually didn’t much like being an academic. I found it a little anxiety provoking. It was better for me when I moved on.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a writer to do. It can be electrifying to the imagination, but it can also be, you know… I knew a writer one time who got himself in a real bind and stopped writing. He said, “I’ll never be as good as John Cheever so why should I bother?”

That can be something people can fall into.

What has TV taught you about writing?

Television has taught me a lot about forward motion, and also a lot about being willing to cut your own material. Too many writers cling to things that don’t work because they get attached. There’s a kind of freedom in my technique that comes from the fact that I’m pretty much willing to cut anything. So when I do come down to something where I need to say, “We’re not cutting that. That’s the heart and soul of the play!” I can really justify it.

So you do still have that place where you won’t cut.

Oh, I very much still have that place. It is something that becomes problematic sometimes dealing with networks about structure because they sort of feel like anything can come and go. I have to be the person that says anything cannot come and go. A lot of things can come and go, but not anything.