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.