Getting an original musical onto Broadway is an epic undertaking. Getting a scripted network TV series depicting the travails of getting an original musical onto Broadway magnifies that epic undertaking into what some might consider realms of sanity-challenging difficulty. However, NBC and executive producer Steven Spielberg are bringing forth SMASH, which premieres tonight, Monday, at 10 PM.

SMASH is about the creation of a new musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Debra Messing and Christian Borle play the songwriting duo who launch the project. Anjelica Huston plays their hard-nosed producer and Jack Davenport plays the temperamental director. Megan Hilty and AMERICAN IDOL veteran Katherine McPhee are the two actresses vying for the leading role.

Behind the scenes on SMASH, Theresa Rebeck created the series, with fellow writer/executive producer sharing reins in the writers’ room. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of HAIRSPRAY) are writing the original songs, and Broadway/movie musical veteran producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are also on board as executive producers.

Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank are executive producers who also run DreamWorks Television. In an exclusive interview, they explain the complex inner workings of putting SMASH on the screen.

ASSIGNMENT X: You’ve said SMASH will contain a mixture of original songs written specifically for the series by Marc Shaiman and Neil Meron, and then cover versions of songs we already know. It’s understandable that the characters who are actors would sing well-known songs during the audition scenes, but once those sequences are ended on the show, how will the cover songs be worked in?

JUSTIN FALVEY: Creatively? In the second episode, there are three songs. There’s one original Shaiman and Meron song that’s a MARILYN musical song, there is a contemporary song that could come from anywhere. It could be a karaoke song, it could be an audition song, it could be something that is sung in an apartment, it can be somebody on the subway, and as long as it’s organic to the story that we’re telling and is personal to that story, be it Megan or Kat or Debra or Christian or whoever it might be, it just has to be organic to the character story that we’re telling that week.

AX: So most of the characters sing, even when they’re not performing within the story?

FALVEY: Exactly. The characters will often sing. Nobody as a general rule will just suddenly burst into song. The reality is, any time somebody is singing, it’s motivated by an audition, by a personal moment that they may have, or they’re listening to their iPod, or Debra and Christian’s characters are writing a song. So it’s usually coming from a genuine real organic story/character place.

AX: Now Debra Messing obviously has a big musical background. Does Anjelica Huston ever sing?

FALVEY: Anjelica Huston does not sing. She’s our producer [character]. Christian Borle is a remarkable singer and performer. Brian D’Arcy James was Shrek on Broadway, so not surprisingly, there are a lot of people in the cast who aren’t in the cast of MARILYN, but who are very skilled singers. We want to maintain the reality of who is singing and who is not. Jack Davenport as Derek is most likely not going to be singing, Anjelica’s not going to be singing, but that seems like something that would not be truly organic to the storytelling.

AX: Is the way that SMASH depicts writers and actors and directors true to your experience of writers and actors and directors?

FALVEY: [laughs] We try to remain as authentic as possible. You know, it’s funny – the truth is stranger than fiction. To me, that’s been proven over and over and over again.

AX: Would you as DreamWorks producers put up with a director who behaves like Jack Davenport’s character Derek does on SMASH?

FALVEY: You know what? There would certainly be a conversation. We don’t tolerate people who would behave in that way. There would certainly be a conversation. In our company, we would not tolerate that, nor certainly would my boss, would Steven Spielberg tolerate that.

AX: Well, he has a reputation for being very calm and professional …

FALVEY: Even-keeled, yeah. That’s important. [The Derek character’s] attitude would not be tolerated in any DreamWorks production and certainly would not be tolerated behind the scenes of the real SMASH show. We’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of really wonderful people, wonderfully talented people and good people who are thrilled to be part of this collaborative spirit.

AX: SMASH has a lot of producers. Can you explain which people do what?

FALVEY: It’s interesting. It’s a large group of people, but it’s a large enterprise. My producing partner Darryl Frank and I run the TV company at DreamWorks. We’re non-writing producers, and we’ve been involved from the beginning. This is an idea that our boss Steven Spielberg came to us with seven years ago and we’re part of that conversation bringing it to Bob [Greenblatt] and getting all these folks on board and we’re part of the day to day production in terms of every key hire, from production designer, director of photography, approving outlines, reading scripts, giving notes on scripts, a lot of the day in and day out stuff, casting …

DARRYL FRANK: The studio, the network, the[record]  label, it’s really compartmentalized. It seems like there are tons of producers, but it’s funny, because there are different teams. Justin and I have worked together for sixteen years, [Marc] Shaiman and [Scott] Wittman have worked together for over a decade, [Craig] Zadan and [Neil] Meron have worked together for over a decade. So it’s incredibly functional for that, because all of us know how to work well with other people, but everyone has their own sort of fiefdom in terms of who’s doing what.

FALVEY: And there are a lot of conference calls where we all get together and kind of delegate who’s going to go off and do what and then come back together. We fortunately also had incredible lead time to be ahead of it and certainly for Theresa [Rebeck] and David [Marshall Grant], in terms of the writing, so they could [work elements] back into the creative [aspect of the show]. We needed more songs in time to inform the creative, what those stories would be down the road.

AX: What does David Marshall Grant do as a producer?

FALVEY: David’s a writer, so he’s really partnered with Theresa. We all work with Theresa, with our work, the executive producers make a lot of these decisions together. We may have more experience with choosing a director of photography or a production designer or what have you, but I’d say [Grant’s] expertise is certainly writing. We are [supervising] more of the producorial obligations. And Shaiman and Meron are doing the music stuff. And Craig and Neil are walking between all those different worlds.

AX: Had any of your previous experiences at DreamWorks prepared you for the way this particular piece works?

FALVEY: [laughs] We talk about that all the time. We have produced half-hour comedies, non-scripted stuff, we have an alien invasion show [FALLING SKIES] on TNT right now and THE BORGIAS on Showtime, and no, there’s nothing that’s prepared us, and that’s what’s exciting. Part of the challenge of this is the musical element and it’s been an incredible education for us, but I think we’ve certainly brought our expertise as producers of scripted fare. [We] have also been part of large productions, whether it’s TERRA NOVA or FALLING SKIES or whatever it is, where you’re really managing many different enterprises that have been delegated to many people and making sure that comes together. How do you bring that together into one cohesive creative vision for the show? That’s the challenge. I think it’s something we’ve actually done well [with] a lot of collaborative people that have the right attitude to work together and play together.

AX: Where are you getting your SMASH directors from – musical theatre, dramatic television …?

FALVEY: Michael Mayer, who directed our pilot, has been largely a theatre guy. He directed a few features [and the Broadway hit musicals] SPRING AWAKENING and AMERICAN IDIOT. He’s more of a theatre guy. And then we have people like Adam Bernstein, who we had a relationship with off of THE JOB and RESCUE ME, Mimi Leder, who did one of the first DreamWorks features [DEEP IMPACT], Paul McGuigan, who’s a British director – people from all walks of life. Paris Barclay has done some musical stuff. So there are a few people that kind of have a foot in both worlds, be it musicals or music videos or whatever.

AX: Broadway is a fairly gay-friendly universe. Are we going to be seeing this as part of the fabric of SMASH?

FALVEY: Christian’s character is gay and there’s a relationship that’s treated in a very real, authentic way, like every story we’re telling and that’s part of that world, and without question, that’s something we portray on the show proudly.

AX: Is there anything else that we should know about SMASH at this time?

FALVEY: We’re incredibly excited about the day finally arriving and we really hope that the audience responds as much as we hope they will.

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Related Link: TV Review – SMASH Series Premiere

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Article: Exclusive Interview with SMASH executive producers Justin Falvey & Darryl Frank

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