The NBC drama Smash, returning for its second season early next year, offered a backstage look at a fictional Broadway production. Much of the show’s dramatic tension involved the musical’s writers’ effort to tell an honest story in the face of intense market pressure.
Creator Theresa Rebeck didn’t realize it at the time, but she was also writing her own epitaph as the program’s showrunner.
Like the Broadway musical at its center, Smash was also subject to intense commercial forces. The first season’s finale, in which the newly minted star belts a tune called “Don’t Forget Me,” turned out to be Ms. Rebeck’s last episode. Her departure was announced in March.
She rebounded quickly. By June, Ms. Rebeck, a prominent playwright—her Mauritius ran on Broadway in 2007 and her Seminar in 2011—was headed back to the Great White Way with a new play, Dead Accounts, which opens Thursday at the Music Box Theatre. The story of a Cincinnati family dealing with the ghosts of the past, its production boasts a rather Smash-ian twist: it’s the second Broadway production starring Katie Holmes.
Ms. Holmes is in the midst of a comeback of her own, having just survived the biggest and most contentious celebrity divorce of the past decade. That she’s chosen a serious turn on Broadway as her next chapter is particularly interesting, in that she is largely playing a supporting role.
“They just have to be able to act,” Ms. Rebeck said of casting celebrities. “I understand why it’s important to theaters to have actors of some visibility. I do. They just have to be really careful that it’s somebody that can do the part.”
Ms. Holmes’s character, Lorna, is quiet, small and very Midwestern, a compulsive dieter who receives a visit by her brother (played by two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz), back in town after a mysteriously lucrative time in New York.
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.”
Growing up, she said, she never quite fit in. “I was not really ‘of that place,’” she explained. “Then I came to New York, and I don’t really feel of this place either, though there’s certainly much more here that suits my temperament.”
Her temperament also lands her between two poles artistically—more pragmatic than most Pulitzer-nominated playwrights, yet artsier than many TV showrunners. “In the theater, it’s a kind of clubby environment,” she noted. “I didn’t go to an Ivy League. There’s a thing in New York: ‘Did you go to an Ivy?’ ‘Did you go to Yale?’ “Oh, you’re from the Midwest.’ ‘Oh, you’re a girl.’” With advanced degrees from Brandeis and limited interest in postmodernism and other dramaturgical trends, Ms. Rebeck felt out of place in the city, where she’d arrived with her then-boyfriend, now-husband in tow (he’s from Kansas).
“There were a lot of obstacles to overcome,” she went on, “but people seemed to respond to my plays. There was a place for them, but not really a place for me.”
Did it hurt her prospects, this outsider status?
“No,” she said. “It hurt my feelings. It didn’t hurt my career.”
Ms. Rebeck is very conscious of Eastern snobbery. Her family, her characters and her star (Ms. Holmes is from Toledo, a jaunt up I-75) all come in for mockery from pretentious city slickers.
“[Midwesterners] see the culture—and I have to say I don’t think they’re wrong about this aspect of it—as kind of degrading,” she said. “The way sexuality is portrayed, so much violence, the carelessness. I respect their impatience with that aspect of the culture. At one point I said to my husband, the networks would put kiddie porn on if they were allowed.” (Ah, for those halcyon days when a glimpse of Det. Andy Sipowicz’s butt was deemed risqué …)
Smash is hardly kiddie porn, but it did represent Midwesterners as rubes and New Yorkers as savvy: when the show’s protagonist of sorts, Karen Cartwright—who’s utterly blind to the dynamics of power that run the theater world and New York in general—returns home to Iowa, she’s greeted by parents who ever-so-gently try to crush her dreams. While Ms. Rebeck noted that the show was never intended to focus so heavily on Karen (played by Katharine McPhee), she added, “People found her to be a very attractive character, so they asked me to write that. I was okay with it. I was like, I’ve got that in my back pocket.”