When it comes to contemporary writers, Theresa Rebeck is a quadruple threat and a creative hurricane. In the last three decades, she’s penned scripts for movies(Harriet the Spy), a dozen TV series (such asNYPD Blue), some 20 plays ( including the current Broadway comedySeminar) as well as novels (Twelve Rooms with a View). Now she’s combining two of her strengths—playwright and TV show runner—as the creator of NBC’s new series,Smash, a behind-the-scenes look at the mounting of a Broadway musical (in this case, one focused on the life of Marilyn Monroe). Just beforeSmash debuted, Rebeck talked toMore about her new show and the continuing challenges confronting women in the arts.
MORE: Stephen Spielberg is the executive producer of Smash. Was it his idea?
Theresa Rebeck: A lot of people have had this idea over the years, a show about theater people. I had always been pitching it, but there was a lot of nervousness about the concept. Spielberg separately had the idea out and sold it. Then when Glee was such a success, he added the musical element, which was a moment of genius. Spielberg called the guys who wrote Hairspray to write the songs, then he started reading plays. He found one of mine, The Understudy, which was set backstage at a Broadway play. He really liked it and offered me the Smash job.
More:I love Smash, but I feel sort of overwhelmed. Now I have another show I have to keep up with! All the TV shows I like are series you have to follow.
T.R.: It’s easier now that you can watch on DVD and On Demand. For a long time, no one wanted a serial show on TV.
More: Was there ever a Marilyn Monroe musical on Broadway?
T.R: I’m told there was, but I never saw it or read it. I heard it was a colossal mess with a lot of composers.
More: Have you seen the movie, My Week With Marilyn?
T.R.: I’ve not seen it yet. I’ve been so busy. But I’m obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and read the book the movie is based on.
More: You’ve always been obsessed with Marilyn, or since working on the show?
T.R: Just since this show. I knew a little about her, then read a lot, a lot of academic stuff, too. There’s a constant urge to find her and she keeps escaping definition. There’s so much speculation about her death and her mental collapses, so many stories, a lot of apocryphal stories. Then there’s the story that it was an act. She’d say, “Want to see me do her?” She’d walk down the street and nobody would notice her until she did the Marilyn Monroe act.
I also looked at a lot of photos of her, especially Eve Arnold’s photos, because Angelica [Huston, who plays Smash producer Eileen Rand] knew Eve very well; she took the stills on John Huston’s movies, so she was a family friend. Eve took a lot of pictures of Marilyn in private, and it was clear that Marilyn was very clever at manipulating that image. It was both a powerful thing and a trap for her.
More: The auditions in the first episode of Smash are pretty brutal. Have you ever auditioned?
T.R.: You bet. I acted a lot in high school and college. I contemplated being an actress, but I felt too much anxiety around having to go through the crazy process of what those people were thinking and unless you were chosen you didn’t get to make your own art. As a writer, you make your own opportunities.
More: Is there any chance you’ll actually bring the Marilyn musical to Broadway?
T.R.: I’ve heard that bandied about, that they might mount it on Broadway. I think they should. It’s an awfully good musical. But we’re living in the moment right now—it’s a huge enterprise to put a TV show on the air and this is vastly more complicated than most. You need to know the episodes earlier, work with the songwriters on the songs, go into pre-recordings and demos, bring it to the choreographer—there are like eight things going on at once, a 3D chess set. You never know if one thing falls out what will happen. And it all has to come together in one day on the set.
More: In Smash, the Debra Messing character, songwriter Julia Houston, is trying to adopt a child—is that from your life?
T.R.: Of course. I have a Chinese daughter and a 16-year-old son, so there’s a lot of stuff about that family that I just pull from my own life—which they don’t always like.
More: You’re from Cincinnati, where I also grew up. Are the character Karen Cartwright’s Midwestern parents based on yours?
T.R.: No. However, when we show Karen’s background, I wanted her to be from the Midwest. I wanted that sense of being an alien in New York: There’s a slight hostility toward her, a patronizing, because she’s from Iowa. Also, when you’re in the Midwest, there’s a sense of “my child is doing something dangerous that I don’t understand.” So that scene with her parents in the first episode—I’ve lived through that scene.
More: Did you have Debra Messing in mind to play Julia?
T.R.:I wrote it with nobody in mind for any part. But I have powerful collaborators, so there was a lot of discussion about casting. Debra had read the pilot and had her agent call. Katharine McPhee is great—she auditioned. We were so excited because she was really good. Megan Hilty [McPhee’s Marilyn rival] we all knew, so she was an easy call.
More: As a playwright, how do you feel about the blogging phenomenon? There really aren’t opening nights on Broadway now because people write what they think on the web the minute they see a preview.
T.R.: I think it’s become more democratic. There were a lot of years when everybody was writing about the power of one or two critics. Now the discussion is wider. There is good and bad in that, but it’s a democratization of culture.
More: You have been very outspoken about the lack of opportunities for female playwrights. Has anything changed?
T.R.: The change is that people are willing to talk about it. It was [playwright] Julia Jordan who ran the numbers and started the discussion, and Julia and [playwright] Marsha Norman and I started the Lilly Awards.
There was one season that was a spectacular season for work by women. We felt like for a minute we made progress. Then everyone was shut out of the awards season to an embarrassing degree. So we started the Lillys, named after Lillian Hellman, to honor women in all aspects of theater.
We’ve done it twice now and it turns out everyone’s sick of this crazy imbalance that falls on women, because in the power structure of women writers and directors, the numbers for women just aren’t there. Also, awards become economic events, they up your price, bring more people to your work. It’s also a moment to celebrate the work. So those two aspects are denied to women.
Women in culture—what is the problem? One study found that whenever men are asked to be nominators, they only nominate men. Women nominate half women and half men. Men don’t perceive women as worthy, accomplished. There’s something almost tribal about it that we have to get over as a culture.
More: Do you think [director] Julie Taymor would have gotten as much flack for all the pre-opening problems with Broadway’s Spiderman if she’d been a man?
T.R.: I don’t know. There is still that thing that’s out there that when a man screws up, it’s “someone screwed up.” When a woman screws up, it’s “women’s films don’t do well.” I took my daughter to Spiderman. She liked it, and I thought it was kind of fun. Of course, I didn’t like that they were maiming actors.
More: In your comedy Seminar, the Alan Rickman character has
some pretty strong anti-feminist dialogue.
T.R.: Alan says, “Why is he so cruel about women?” and I’m like, “Why are they? I don’t know. Eventually they feel comfortable around you and this stuff comes out.”
More: Are you working on another play?
T.R: I have one opening at the Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati, Dead Accounts. It’s about a guy who goes back to Cincinnati from New York. He had been working in the financial industry and became corrupted, so he goes back to find his moral compass—and eat [Cincinnati specialties] Skyline chili and Graeter’s ice cream
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