Theresa Rebeck’s career in both television and the theater has been an immense success. On the small screen, she’s been a writer or producer behind many of TV’s best, quirkiest shows, from Brooklyn Bridge to Maximum Bob to NYPD Blue, for which she won both an Edgar and a WGA award for episodic drama writing. Her stage work has earned her a Pulitzer nomination for her play Omnium Gatherum (written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros), as well as acclaim for The Scene, The Understudy, and Mauritius. Her new play, Seminar, is currently playing on Broadway with Alan Rickman in the lead role. But her latest project may be the one that teaches most TV fans who she is. She’s the creator and one of the executive producers behind NBC’s new drama Smash, which goes behind the scenes of a Broadway show in development. Rebeck talked to The A.V. Club about what playwrights bring to television, turning the creation a Broadway show into a drama with episodic chunks, and making the world of theater accessible to a larger audience.
The A.V. Club: You and so many others who write on television are playwrights. What sort of advantages do you think that background brings to writing for TV?
Theresa Rebeck: I think that, because television is shot on a really fast schedule and it gets piped into your home on a smaller screen, it’s much more about character and dialogue in a lot of cases than the movies are. [Laughs.] It’s sort of that simple. The movies are all about visual, and television is all about character and dialogue.
AVC: Have you encountered any disadvantages or things that don’t mesh so well?
TR: In the theater, there’s an emphasis on the singular voice. You know, it’s your play. And in television, there’s so much institutional involvement. So you end up having to negotiate with a lot of people, and that provides a kind of wear and tear on the spirit. There’s the proverbial “lot of cooks,” and so you have to know how to maneuver that and still tell a strong story.
AVC: Speaking of “lots of cooks,” originally, Smash was developed for Showtime. Were you involved with the show at that time?
TR: Yes, I’ve always been the writer of the pilot.
AVC: Were there things that had to change when the show was developed for NBC instead?
TR: Yeah, obviously. I mean, obviously, the language changed, and the explicitness of some of the situations changed. It was a “Showtime show” for Showtime, and so you had to take all that stuff out. But the biggest change was we lost, like, 20 minutes off our running time, and so a lot of material that was written for the pilot got bumped into episodes two and three.
AVC: Outside of explicitness, were you able to move all of that to later episodes?
TR: There was a lot of different material. Yeah, most of it got included. Sure.
AVC: When you were coming up with a show about the theatrical world, was there anything you had to streamline or lose for a larger audience? For example Jack Davenport’s character, Derek, is both the choreographer and the director, instead of having two separate people play those parts.
TR: Honestly, we did some of that. Julia [Debra Messing] is the book writer-lyricist, and Derek is the director-choreographer; those people actually do exist. Rob Ashford is a director-choreographer. There’s a lot of people who do those kind of hyphenates. So we didn’t make anything up, but we did make those choices, to keep the creative team from sprawling too much.
AVC: Were there other things from the world of theater that you had to mainstream a little bit?
TR: I don’t think we did have to mainstream anything. Everybody seems curious around questions of “Will you have to mainstream it? Will you have to do something to make it more accessible?” I actually think that I’ve never really had a question about the accessibility issue. I think that people have dreams. I think that’s the part that becomes truly recognizable is that everybody in America, on the planet Earth, has a dream for themselves. That’s a universal human experience. Watching people toss all caution to the wind, who are ready to put their lives on the line for a dream, is something that is accessible.
AVC: How did you approach breaking the story down into episode-by-episode chunks? This is not something that’s been done on TV before, really.
TR: There’s a kind of forward motion that’s just built into the development of a Broadway musical, where you start with the idea, then you work on the idea, and then get a director, then you put a production team together, and then you do a workshop. And then after the workshop, you either go back to work on it, and maybe you do another workshop, or you take it out of town. There’s a sort of forward motion that’s just innately part of the building of a musical.
I let the simple facts of development be the guideposts as to how you moved it forward. We did have to move it forward more quickly than many musicals go forward, because some musicals can take five, six, seven years to develop and get into New York. I don’t think that that’s a dynamic storytelling timeline. There are other musicals that move more quickly than that, so that’s how that dictated those choices. Then, we actually had a situation with a producer—the character Anjelica Huston plays—who really needs to have a great project and keep it moving forward. And so she kind of pushes the train a little harder than many producers would, but she has personal reasons to do that.
AVC: Was there a point where you sat down and said, “Okay, this is episode one, this is episode eight, this is episode 56”?
TR: Of course, yeah. We knew we had 15 episodes, and it’s a serialized show, so we had to know what the end of the season was. That was all planned out last summer. But things change along the way, sure.
AVC: Was there something you’d maybe hoped to work in that you had to push to season two, or anything like that?
TR: I don’t know if they’re gonna come in in season two. I’d hate to say I bumped… and because I don’t know if I’ve got a season two. So I have to live in this kind of strange… I have to say, with this kind of thing, I finally went, “I am Schrödinger’s cat.” When you’ve written a pilot, your future is, the show is going, and it’s not going at the same time, for a long time. And then somebody eventually opens the box, and you’re going or you’re not going. So, I was like, “Oh, I’m the cat inside the box.” And now, I’m still the cat inside the box until I find out about season two. [Laughs.] I’m Schrödinger’s cat. So, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things about the life of season two that exist, but they also don’t exist, because we don’t know if there is a season two.
AVC: There have been so many Marilyn Monroe stories in the last couple of years. Was there ever a point where you got a little nervous about the center of the show being the Marilyn Monroe story?
AVC: What did the Marilyn Monroe story add to the show?
TR: I really like how fascinated the culture is by her over time. There’s something about her purity and vulnerability within the fact that she was a complete sexual icon, and that that was the central struggle of her soul, was the yearning to be a full self, and constantly being tossed back into the kind of sexual package that she relied on and despised. Her yearning for love is so pure; you see it so much. I spent a lot of time watching her, reading about her, and hearing about the crazy moments of her life, and I think that there are powerful questions about gender and performing gender that rise out of that and are fun for a writer like me to write about. It’s fun to find ways to drop her spirit into this world in both concrete ways and more elusive ways.
AVC: What’s it been like working with a composer and a lyricist on this show? Who comes up with the ideas for songs initially, as far as their placement in the story?
TR: That’s a sort of constantly mutating process. Some of the song ideas were my ideas and some of them were the guys’ [composers/executive producers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman]. There was one point in the middle of summer where we sat down and went, “If we had a whole musical, this is what it would look like,” and we laid out the songs. Naturally, when you want to present pieces of Marilyn: The Musical, it’s more fun to see the songs and dances than to see people working on scenes, because the show isn’t about Marilyn. It’s about all the people who are trying to make a musical about Marilyn.
So we did that, and then, every now and then, something nutty happens. Like, at the last minute, some studio exec goes, “Well, I don’t like that song.” You go, “Huh? You guys, we cleared that song!” There was one song—I won’t tell you which one it is—that the boys wrote virtually overnight. They’re really so gifted, and their muscle to be able to write a song that fast is actually born of the Broadway theater. During previews, suddenly, you’ll need a song, and you realize, “What if we put this song there?” And then, you have to write it really fast and drop it in during previews. So sometimes that happens, and that’s pretty exciting when they do that. It’s pretty impressive.
AVC: There are a lot of characters in this show. Is there one that you feel is particularly close to your own sensibilities?
TR: The character of Julia is a female writer. My avatar. I have Deb Messing out there being me.
AVC: If Smash goes forward five, six, seven years, what would you hope would be the arc of the show?
TR: The arc of the show, that’s an interesting question. I don’t have an answer to that.
I have to say, I worked for David Milch on NYPD Blue in the second, third, and fourth seasons, and he talked about it, and I actually think that’s when, naturally, you start thinking about those bigger arcs, is when you know if you have a second season. I know what our thoughts are about pursuing how the world would continue. Obviously, Marilyn is our focus right now, but eventually, you kind of go, “We don’t know what other musicals would fold in, but it would be fun to do that again.”
There was one point when we were talking about it, and we just did a big number from Heaven On Earth, the musical that Julia and Tom [Christian Borle] have written that’s on Broadway [in the series], and it was hilarious. It was like, “I wonder if we should write Heaven On Earth, guys.” [Laughs.] We spend more time talking about the logistics of it, rather than what the arc of the series, in terms of the characters, would be. Those questions, I think, come up when you know if you’ve got a second season, and it might have a life beyond this one year.