The Producers Behind NBC's Musical 'Smash'

Feb 2, 2012
Originally published on February 2, 2012 11:30 am

Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have been making musicals together for almost 20 years. They're the team behind movie musicals like Hairspray, Chicago and Annie, and the TV musicals Gypsy and The Music Man.

Now Meron and Zadan have teamed up once again on the new NBC series Smash, a drama that goes behind the scenes as a motley crew of creative types put together a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.

Smash comes from an idea by director Steven Spielberg, who asked Meron and Zadan to meet him one day at his production office.

"We said, without checking our schedules, 'Yes, we can make it,' " Meron tells Fresh Air's David Bianculli. "We sort of had no idea what he wanted at that point. We were just thrilled because it was a call you dream of getting one day."

The two producers drove to DreamWorks the following Monday, where they listened to Spielberg's pitch.

"He said, 'Are you guys on board? Do you want to do this with me?' " says Meron. "And we looked at each other like, 'Did we just get offered the job?' And we said, 'Yeah.' And we got back in the car to drive back to our office and said, 'Did he just offer us that show?' "

"That show" premieres Monday after The Voice -- though the pilot is available to watch for free on streaming video now — and it stars American Idol's Katharine McPhee and Wicked's Megan Hilty. They play two actresses, one a newcomer and one a veteran chorus gypsy, vying for the lead role in a new musical being developed by Will and Grace's Debra Messing.

Both McPhee and Hilty got their roles, says Zadan, after "perfect auditions."

"We have a particular philosophy in the casting room that we don't really tell the actors — the actors tell us," he says. "And it was undeniable in terms of Kat McPhee and Megan Hilty that they ... should be playing the part. It was completely the right decision on both parts."

The decision to center Smash on the making of a Monroe musical, says Zadan, also came from their initial production meeting with Spielberg.

"We all felt that it's best to go in with a subject matter that's somewhat familiar already," says Zadan. "And it's an iconic, huge story that just lends itself to be musicalized in a very big, glamorous sort of way. There's a lot of tragedy, a lot of joy, a lot of splash to it. ... And we acknowledged, in the show, the risky nature of it, too."

Meron says he and Zadan turned to the NBC political drama The West Wing for tips on how to make sure each episode was authentic but not too insider-y.

"It was very important to us that half of the piece was authentic to American musical theater, and that the rest be truly universal for an audience," he says. "So you have a lot of elements where you're dealing with [all sorts of relationships], and we used West Wing as an example where you didn't have to be obsessed with politics to really enjoy West Wing. You could have had the politics float over you, but you got into the personal stories of their lives.

"And we want an audience that says, 'I'm not really interested in Broadway.' [The characters'] day jobs are that they do musicals. But their lives are not musicals; they're dealing with issues that everybody deals with, no matter what your job is."

Interview Highlights

On the differences between the FOX series "Glee" and "Smash"

"Glee is a comedy and Smash is a drama, so that's one big difference. And also, tonally, they're completely different shows. They're not even remotely the same. We owe a debt of gratitude to Glee. If Glee had not gone on the air and had the degree of success it did, we would have never had the door open for all of us to do Smash. So we're really grateful to Ryan Murphy. Otherwise we wouldn't be here today."

On transitioning the show from TV to stage

"One of the things Stephen Spielberg said when he pitched it to us is that we may get a Broadway musical out of it. And of course ... we watched the filming of the musical numbers and we fantasize about wanting to see this on stage. But the reality is everyone is so focused on wanting to do the TV series, and it's kind of all-consuming. If we were to go forward and do this on stage, it would require a lot of work."

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This Monday, NBC broadcast the premiere episode of its most aggressively promoted TV series of the season. The program is called "Smash" and it's a drama about the efforts of composers, directors, choreographers, singers, dancers and producers to put on a new Broadway musical, a musical about Marilyn Monroe.


DEBRA MESSING: (as Julia Houston) I can see it in my head.

JACK DAVENPORT: (as Derek Wills) You don't think it's the act break?

MESSING: (as Julia Houston) No. No. It's like this.


MESSING: (as Julia Houston) The stage is black. She stands alone in a pool of light. She's just Norma Jean. Behind her, figures and shadow emerge.

GROSS: The stars of "Smash" include Debra Messing, Angelica Houston and "American Idol" finalist Katharine McPhee.

The original idea for "Smash," the TV series, which started at Showtime before moving to NBC, came from Steven Spielberg who brought it to today's guests, two of the show's executive producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

Zadan and Meron have been a producing team for decades and their credits include the TV adaptations of "Gypsy" and "Annie," the Oscar-winning film version of the Broadway musical "Chicago," and the current Broadway revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." They spoke, yesterday, with our TV critic David Bianculli.

Here's one of the original songs from the series about Marilyn's time with Joe DiMaggio. It's performed by Megan Hilty, star of Broadway's "9 To 5: The Musical."


MEGAN HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Fellas.


HILTY: (Singing) Fellas.


HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) Hey, team.

CHORUS: Off the benches, it's Marilyn.

HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) I just got a date...

CHORUS: (Singing) She's just got a date.

HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) ...with baseball's Jolting Joe.

CHORUS: (Singing) The lucky so-and-so...

HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) So run me round the bases, put me through my paces and teach me all the things a slugger's lover should know. What's that there?

CHORUS: (Singing) That's the pitcher's mound.

HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Have ever seen a shape that is so perfectly round?

CHORUS: (Singing) Batter up.

HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Play ball.

CHORUS: (Singing) You better give it your all, 'cause a man likes to play at...

HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) The national past time.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

CRAIG ZADAN: Thank you.

NEIL MERON: Thank you. We're happy to be here.

BIANCULLI: Why Marilyn?

ZADAN: Well, that's interesting, because the fact is, when you're introducing a musical to the American public, especially in a TV series, we all felt it's best to go in with a subject matter that was somewhat familiar already. And it's an iconic huge story that just lends itself to be musicalized, I mean in a very big glamorous sort of way. And there's a lot of tragedy. There's a lot of joy. There's a lot of splash to it. And we also acknowledged very much so that there were attempts of doing Marilyn onstage before and they all failed. So we acknowledged the risky nature of it within the show too.


MERON: The other thing was, that what was the concept for going into each script? And that's really crucial, I think because what we did was when the show was originating at Showtime, it could have been more of a niche show, like "Entourage." And when it moved to NBC and became a more universal show it was very important that half of the piece really was authentic to the American musical theater, but the rest was that it be truly universal for an audience where you have a divorce happening, you have an adoption happening, you have parents coming from the Midwest doubting their child's going into the show business. And we used "West Wing" as an example, where you didn't have to be obsessed with politics to really enjoy "West Wing." You got into the personal stories of their lives - those character's lives. Their job - their day job - is that they do musicals. But their lives are not musicals. Their lives are dealing with issues that everybody deals with every day, no matter what your job is.

BIANCULLI: If "Smash" succeeds it could change TV a little bit, I think. And you guys have already changed film a little, by mounting an Oscar-winning version of the Broadway musical "Chicago," which sort of said it was OK to have film musicals again. And I have a few questions about "Chicago." Let's play the opening from "Chicago." This is Catherine Zeta-Jones singing the opening song, or a part of it. What do you want to say about this opening number or what did you want it to establish?

ZADAN: It's interesting. It was the first stuff we shot in the film. We started shooting with "All That Jazz" and so we have that image of Catherine to lead us into the rest of the filming. And when we saw the dailies we looked at Catherine and said this is really special because she, kind of, like just attacks and grabs that camera and just is ferocious. It's a ferocious performance and we knew that she set the tone and she set the bar for the rest of the film.

BIANCULLI: All right. Here we go. Catherine Zeta-Jones in the opening to "Chicago."


BIANCULLI: That was Catherine Zeta-Jones in "All That Jazz," the opening number from "Chicago." So are there any lessons from that that translated to "Smash?"

ZADAN: Oh, yeah.

BIANCULLI: In terms of grabbing people quickly?

ZADAN: Oh yeah. I mean, and it was also dealing with numbers that exist in fantasy. We have a great musical sequence in episode five of "Smash" called "Let's Be Bad," and it probably is the closest to "Chicago" that I think any of us have ever experienced. The whole back-and-forth between reality and fantasy is so "Chicago" - like. I mean "Chicago" kind of set the bar in terms of how we approach musicals and tone is one of the key elements.

MERON: And also, you know, when we did the movie of "Hairspray," that was particularly a challenge, because the tone of that piece had to be really defined because the tone that's on stage is ultra campy and are hairdos six-feet-high, and the makeup is very strong. And, you know, the vision and the concept for the movie of "Hairspray," we decided along with our director/choreographer...

ZADAN: ...very strong and, you know, the vision and the concept for the movie of "Hairspray" we decided, along with our director/choreographer Adam Shankman, that we were going to, first, recreate the exact look and style of 1962 Baltimore, but then we were going to add a couple of inches to it to make it heightened reality.

So that, you know, Adam actually had a very funny description of what we were doing, which is he said you to the authentic hairstyle and then you take a bicycle pump and give it two extra pumps.


ZADAN: And I thought that that was really clever because we were not going to the extreme and doing a campy, you know, over-the-top version of it, which worked brilliantly onstage but would not work on film. And we found that happy medium, the right exact tone for "Hairspray" and we created a world where it was OK for John Travolta to be the mother.

BIANCULLI: Well, it's another really interesting casting choice. I mean, you had (technical difficulties) as the mother in "Hairspray," you have Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway in "How to Succeed in Business." And the thing that first drew me to you guys, as producers, was the TV version of "Gypsy" in 1993.

MERON: Mm-hmm. I remember.


BIANCULLI: When Bette Midler was the star.

ZADAN: Mm-hmm.


MERON: That's - yeah.

BIANCULLI: So, I mean, that's a long time ago. It was such an important production.

MERON: Well, you know something? We always looked to Bette to be the person that we have to be the most grateful to, because of the enormous success of what happened with "Gypsy" because of Bette's agreeing to do it and because of her brilliant performance.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's hear a piece of that brilliant performance. This is just a taste of Rose's Turn. So here we go. This is a CBS production from 1993 of Bette Midler in "Gypsy."


BIANCULLI: That's Bette Midler as Rose in "Gypsy." Hearing that, I guess it's 18 years later, what do you think? What do you hear?

MERON: You know, whenever I see a clip or I hear a sound, I remember exactly where I was while it was being filmed. And so I just go back to me standing in that theater in downtown Los Angeles watching this onstage and knowing that it was our first movie musical. It was one of those could it get any better moments.

ZADAN: We also – we did something on that one that was a little bit risky, and at first Bette and Neil and I, you know, a major disagreement about it, actually. We pre-recorded everything in advance as we always do for a movie musical, but we insisted that Bette do a couple of takes live. We didn't want that speed bump that happens when you finish dialogue and then go into a song.

So we didn't want it to go from saying a line and then turning it into the recording studio. And Bette, at first, resisted it. She didn't want to do it live. And we talked about it endlessly, and then she said, OK, I'll do it once. And she did it once and then she saw, and we saw, that she did it live, brilliantly. And then she said all right, I'll do one more.

And then, OK, let's try it again. And we were able to, in the studio, mix it in such a way where a lot of pieces of the songs that Bette did were live recordings and some of them were mixed with studio recordings. And you couldn't tell the difference once they were blended, but the truth was that we had a much more naturalistic entrance into the musical numbers in that show than we would've normally had.

BIANCULLI: Why, whether it's on Broadway or on television, or in the movies, why do musicals still matter?

MERON: You know, there is a reason, you know, that was given for why people sing in musicals. And that reason is when emotions get so great you can no longer talk, you sing. So I think it is about that heightened emotion that is translated, and it is just that joy of the release of a song. And music heals. Music does a lot of things to people. And when it's done in the context of a dramatic story, it's even better.

BIANCULLI: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, thanks for being back on FRESH AIR.

MERON: Thank you, David.

ZADAN: Thank you. Thanks so much.

MERON: Any time.

GROSS: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron spoke with FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli. They're producers of the series "Smash" which premiers on NBC Monday. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews several books about unemployment. This is FRESH AIR.

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