Web Exclusive! Behind the Scenes of NBC's 'Smash'

Show creator Theresa Rebeck talks about Marilyn Monroe, mounting a TV musical—and the continuing struggles of women in the arts

by Susan Toepfer • More Features Editor/Entertainment
Theresa Rebeck image
Making a "Smash": Theresa Rebeck
Photograph: Patrick Randak/NBC

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.

First Published February 28, 2012

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