Can Marc Shaiman Save A Struggling NBC

Wall Street Journal
Struggling NBC Hopes ”˜Smash’ Makes A Splash
JANUARY 7, 2012

The coming NBC series “Smash” got a warm reception Friday at the winter installment of the Television Critics Association conference. At the semiannual gathering, networks introduce new shows and the talent behind them to members of the press who lob questions at them that range in tone from frosty to fawning. Representing “Smash,” which dramatizes the development of a musical about Marilyn Monroe, was no less than 16 producers and actors arrayed on a stage, including Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty, who in show vie for the role of Marilyn.

But it was two behind-the scenes players, composer Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman, who got much of the attention from the critics. After fielding questions about writing for TV and hammily namedropping past accomplishments (including Tony-winning musical “Hairspray”), Shaiman blurted, “I can’t believe you’re asking us questions. I mean, here’s Anjelica Huston!” Sitting a few feet away, the actress, who plays a crafty Broadway producer on the show, smiled and cocked an eyebrow.

Struggling NBC has high hopes for “Smash.” The heavily promoted pilot premieres Feb. 6 but will be seeded early via screenings on American Airlines flights, download platforms such as iTunes (starting Jan. 16), and streaming sites including and Hulu (starting Jan. 23). Also, revealed Friday is that the first season’s 15-episode arc will focus on a trial run of the Marilyn show outside New York, and that season two”“if there is a season two”“will center on the musical’s Broadway debut.

Shaiman and Wittman have been a couple for 32 years. (YouTube their celebratory kiss at the Tony Awards in 2003.) Shaimain got his start as a vocal arranger for Bette Midler and went on to score dozens of films including “When Harry Met Sally” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” Wittman has directed stars on Broadway including Patti Lupone and Martin Short. “Smash” marks their first TV musical and landed in their laps at a fortunate time”“between next year’s West End opening of their musical version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and last year’s abrupt close of their Broadway adaptation of the film “Catch Me If You Can.” Wittman said, “There was no time for mourning.”

Part of what makes writing for “Smash” unique is that some songs have to not only work in the fictional Marilyn musical, but also connect to the characters’ lives within the TV show. For instance, in the series Debra Messing plays a Broadway writer who is also attempting to adopt a child. “The adoption story and the fact that Marilyn was a foster child and went from home to home, those two things end up in a song that speaks as much to one as the other,” Wittman said.

The “Smash” pilot features three original songs and later episodes include at least one original each, as well as covers. The duo had to get used to the rapid pace of writing for TV. “There’s no trial, and hopefully no error,” Shaiman said. Another adjustment: the copious notes and requests for tweaks coming from the show’s producers and network executives. Compared to the typical theater production, “There are so many more [notes] to juggle,” Shaiman said. “Though I have looked down at a lobby in a theater and seen a lot of people come at me with yellow pads,” Wittman added.

Key to the process was finding a common language with people whose backgrounds are in television, not musical theater. For one of the show’s opening numbers, the pair had written a “very Marilyn-centric song” with lyrics that mostly dealt with her tumultuous personal history. NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, who developed “Smash” with producer Steven Spielberg and playwright and TV writer Theresa Rebeck, asked for a rewrite. “He said, ”˜It’s got be like ”˜Don’t Rain on My Parade,’ or ”˜Everything’s Coming Up Roses,’ where anyone can sing it and it has more universal appeal,” Wittman said, “And that’s a note we understand.”

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