Diehard fans of the NBC drama “Smash” — the behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway-bound Marilyn Monroe musical — likely know a thing or two about musical theater.
They likely know, for example, that the musical drama’s original songs are penned by Marc Shaiman and Nanuet native Scott Wittman (left to right in photo above, by NBC’s Patrick Harbron), the team behind Tony-winner “Hairspray” and last season’s “Catch Me If You Can.”
(They were the pair who so famously smooched to celebrate their best-score “Hairspray” win on the 2003 Tonys telecast.)
Ardent fans might recognize Broadway vets who make cameo appearances — certainly Bernadette Peters, but also, perhaps, Armonk’s Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and Irvington native Maddie Corman (“Next Fall”), who played the adoption agent in the first two episodes.
But it might come as a surprise to learn that Cole Porter and Jerome Kern have played a role in “Smash,” too.
The songs run the gamut, from the baseball number “National Pastime,” which feels so very period, to the big Hollywood production number “20th Century Fox Mambo” to a swingy, torchy “History Is Made at Night” to a simple and sweet “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” in which Monroe (Megan Hilty) and Joe DiMaggio (Will Chase) share their picket-fence dreams.
“Mr. & Mrs. Smith was our Jerome Kern phase,” Wittman says.
Asked to pick their favorite songs, the songwriters demur.
“To me, our favorite song is whichever one is up,” Wittman says. “I loved the production values in Megan’s performance of ‘Let’s Be Bad.’”
That’s the song that includes the lyric:
“If you need some more enticing,
Here’s a girl with twice the spicing.
We’re the cake but she’s the icing.
Let’s be bad.”
Porter and Kern and Shaiman and Wittman at work on “Smash.”
The medium guarantees a much larger audience for the Broadway veterans.
If every seat had been sold at the Neil Simon Theatre for every one of the 2,642 performances of “Hairspray” — from Aug. 15, 2002 to Jan. 4, 2009 — it would have been seen by 3,772,776 people. Monday’s telecast of ‘Smash’ was seen by an estimated 7.14 million viewers. In a single night.
Is it hard for the writers to get their heads around that?
“You don’t really think about that,” Shaiman says. “I’ve written for Billy Crystal at the Oscars and they always say a billion people are watching. If you really think about that, I think your head would explode. You just think of the audience that’s there that night, or when you’re writing, you just try to please yourself and do what’s right for the story.”
“In either case, the process is the same,” he says. “We still write exactly as we would. I never think ‘Oh, there are 7 million people hearing our songs.’ I mean, I’m glad they are, but what makes it so rewarding is the cast. They’re kind of like muses. They’re so extraordinarily gifted and so much fun to write for.”
Shaiman says the early episodes of “Smash” — in which a number is tried in the rehearsal hall and then depicted as it would be in a full production on stage — demonstrate how their creative process works, picturing scenes in their heads as they write them.
“You always are,” Shaiman says. “I think of the guys who wrote for ‘I Love Lucy.’ They would always act it out in their office before they handed it to her. You have to really imagine it and kind of really see it.”
“That became sort of the template for the rehearsal studio numbers,” Wittman says. “You’re seeing it through the eyes of the director, Derek, or some other character. I think all theater people do that in the rehearsal studio. The room becomes something else to you. We worked with Josh Bergasse, who’s the choreographer, and we mapped it out and visualize it and the feel of it, and the staging. We’re fiercely territorial about our songs, so we have a lot of input into what happens with them.”
Wittman — who has had a lifelong love of theater — has deep roots in Rockland.
His parents fed his love of theater and of New York. As a boy, he made regular trips to Radio City Music Hall with his mother, and his dad once took him to Toots Shor’s — the Midtown watering hole frequented by DiMaggio that is referenced in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”
He recalls that when he was 9, he directed the Tennessee Williams play “This Property is Condemned” in his backyard in Nanuet and had the presence of mind to invite The Journal News critic to see it.
“I think her name was Maryruth Campbell and she came a wrote a review that said ‘Williams well-done on Beech Street,’” he says with a soft laugh.
If Wittman has been away from Rockland — only passing through on his way to the weekend home he and Shaiman own in Orange County — “Smash” has brought him back, as a couple of episodes have been shot in Nyack.
When Karen Cartright — played by the amazing Katharine McPhee — went home to Iowa to see her parents, Nyack substituted for Iowa.
And Olive’s bar and restaurant was used to shoot a nighttime bar scene.
“In a later episode, I think it’s nine or ten,” Wittman says, “Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) go to see a production of one of their earlier musicals, that Marc and I wrote.
“We shot it at (the old) Nyack High School,” Wittman says. “It was strange because I had worked at the Elmwood Playhouse when I was younger and that was the holding area for the extras. And Nyack High School, I was often on that stage, too. I did a summer acting program there once, while apprenticing at the Tappan Zee Playhouse.”
He has fond memories of the cozy Elmwood.
“This was back in the ’70s,” he says, prompting the gregarious Shaiman to chime in with a deadpan “the 1870s.”
“Smash” is chock full of drama, from personality conflicts to affairs to infighting and a whole lot of egos.
Were there any parallels with Shaiman’s and Wittman’s experiences working on “Hairspray”?
“More about ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ because it had more drama because it took so long from page to stage and it had gone through so much,” Wittman says. “Some of those experiences are in the story.”
The writing experience is the same, Shaiman says.
“Our job is to musicalize ‘Smash,’” Wittman says. “Often, after (creator) Theresa (Rebeck) has written the episode, we read it and then find out what it’s really about. For example, when everyone was behaving very badly, we had the idea that there should be a Marilyn number called ‘Let’s Be Bad,’ so that there are two lives going on in the songs.”
Likewise, “History is Made at Night,” a song sung by Monroe and DiMaggio, mirroring a backstage affair between Messing’s lyricist Julia and Chase’s actor Michael Smith.
Moving from writing for Broadway to visiting the remote-location sets of a television show has taken some adjustment, Shaiman says.
“Those days on the set are so long that you definitely bring your computer and know that hours can go by where you want to make sure you have something else to read or something to do,” he says.
The writers say shooting the final episodes of this first season — when the action moves into the theater for an out-of-town Boston tryout — has felt more familiar, “like a never-ending tech week,” Wittman says.
If they stand in for Porter and Kern, the St. George Theatre on Staten Island stands in for Boston.
“It’s a gorgeous, beautiful, old, old, old theater,” Wittman says. “Like a Broadway house.”
Shaiman and Wittman have been working on “Smash” for more than a year.
“We’ve been lucky with most of the songs, but there are occasion where you do have to please a lot of people, so it’s case by case in terms of rewriting,” Wittman says.
Before shooting began, the writers wrote at their own pace and stockpiled songs, Shaiman says.
“We had around seven episodes ready and then I started scoring the episodes,” he says. “Then all of a sudden, we were at a table read where they were referring to a song we hadn’t written yet — and that was when it all suddenly became like being out of town with a musical and ‘Let’s go back to the hotel room and write a song.’ But that was fun, also.”
The ride for the writers has sometimes felt like a yearlong out-of-town tryout.
There was talk of bringing the Marilyn musical — the one Shaiman and Wittman are writing for “Smash” — to Broadway. The writers hedged when asked if a marquee might someday announce its arrival.
“Just making the TV show really took over, as it should have” Shaiman says. “No one really thinks about that or talks about that, but there’s no doubt that there’s a full score. By the end of the 15th episode, there’s about 19 songs. Whatever happens, it’s nice that they’re all on iTunes and hopefully there’ll be one CD made of all the songs and at least there’ll be a concept album. But you don’t know.”
For now, the tryout is over. Season one is in the can and they can focus on their next project: a West End musical based on Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” directed by Sam Mendes.
“That’s about to take over our lives,” Wittman says.
“Smash” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Top photo by NBC’s Patrick Harbron; second photo by NBC’s Patrick Randak; third photo courtesy NBC.