It’s a little like Ms. Rebeck’s own experience, in fact—a quick return to the theater after her no doubt well-compensated, if creatively bruising, brush with prime-time television.
Smash, it should be noted, wasn’t just any show. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, who had been developing the idea for years, it came with a reality-TV twist: if the musical within a series was deemed worthy, it would actually be produced on Broadway (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). The pilot, which is said to have cost NBC $7.5 million to produce, was heavily promoted during the Super Bowl. It was an event.
Reviews and ratings were solid, at first. But both began to take a negative turn as the weeks went on.
The problems on Smash, Ms. Rebeck said, stemmed from producers’ demands that the characters behave in ways their creator thought incoherent.
“One of the points of contention last year was that the network thinks they have the right to say to the writer of the show, ‘We don’t want her to do this. We want her to do this,’” Ms. Rebeck recalled. “And I would sometimes say back to them, ‘She would never do that.’ And they’d look at me like I was crazy, and I’d be like, ‘Nope, it’s not crazy, it’s just who the character is.’ You have to respect who the character is. It has its own internal truth and you can’t betray that. And if you don’t betray that, it will not betray you. There is this sort of sense that if you don’t fuck with the muse—if you don’t fuck with the muse, the muse will stand by you.”
Ms. Rebeck compared her function on Smash to that of an architect, but noted that NBC viewed her more as a general contractor. “If they say, ‘Take the wall out,’ and you say, ‘I can’t take the wall out, the building will fall down’—but they don’t want to hear that! It turns into bigger questions about power and art, power and storytelling. Is power itself bigger than storytelling? And I would say no.”
Hardly an innocent when it comes to negotiating the tricky terrain of art and commerce, Ms. Rebeck was an Emmy nominee as a producer of NYPD Blue, and has plenty of experience balancing the dictates of the muse with the demands of network suits. “The better executives understand that there’s supposed to be tension and respect, but a lot of them are just like ‘Do it. You don’t own it. Just do it.’ That’s not a level playing field; you can’t have a true discussion. You just get a lot of money. Everybody has to make those choices. Absolutely everybody. Sometimes I see movies and go, ‘Oh. Ew. Did Julia Roberts need another $20 million? Because it’s the only reason she would be doing that.’ Why did that person do that? It must be for the money.”
Dead Accounts, which is set in Ms. Rebeck’s hometown of Cincinnati and was first produced in that city’s Playhouse in the Park, is about people rather like Ms. Rebeck’s family—or even herself, had she not made an early escape (she compared herself to Ms. Holmes’s character, who is less brilliant than hard-working). Both siblings deal with an ailing father, perpetually vacillating in health offstage, a meddling, overbearing mother who just wants everyone to be happy (played by Jayne Houdyshell), and shared memories that mean far more to sister than to brother. He’s left the region behind and would prefer not to be back at all.
Though Ms. Rebeck has a fondness for certain aspects of the Midwest, she came to the East Coast for college, attending Brandeis, and soon wound up in New York: “I really was the person who was desperate to get out of Ohio on some level,” she said.
The politics seem to have been especially grating—the abortion issue, for instance. “Somehow people got sold this bill of goods that as long as you are pro-life and other people are pro-choice, that gives you a sort of moral superiority,” she said. “You don’t have to think of anything else.”