STAGE TO SCREENS: Joshua Safran, the New Storyteller of "Smash," Talks About Season Two

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21 Jan 2013

"Smash" showrunner Josh Safran.
Photo by Patrick Randak/NBC

The TV musical soap opera "Smash" returns for a second season Feb. 5 with a two-hour episode that features new characters and twists, under the guidance of new "showrunner" and executive producer Joshua Safran.


Broadway playwright Theresa Rebeck, who created the NBC series, was let go after the first season, replaced by Safran, who oversaw the New York City-set (and shot) "Gossip Girl" on another network (that soapy series concluded in late 2012).

As ratings dipped in the February-to-May 2012 first season of "Smash," fans and critics grumbled that the show — which promised backstage intrigue surrounding the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe — was focusing too much on the homelife of its playwright-lyricist character, Julia, played by Debra Messing. And too much on the worklife of mayoral press agent Dev (played by Raza Jaffrey), the boyfriend of rising star Karen, played by Katharine McPhee. (Julia's husband and Karen's boyfriend will be shed early in Season Two.) That was just the beginning of the criticism.

Others complained that characters behaved inconsistently from episode to episode, or that the musical numbers, while often gorgeous to look at and ambitiously shot and choreographed (with knockout songs by Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), were sometimes not convincingly linked to story (a Bollywood sequence was arresting, but what was its point of view?). And theatre practitioners often rolled their eyes at the implausible professional behavior of the "Smash" showfolk — Megan Hilty's chorus-girl character, Ivy, wandering through Times Square in her show costume, for example.

But the buzz, negative and otherwise, seemed to prove that "Smash" was on to something, that a wide audience still believes that there's no people like show people — and that their stories are worth dramatic exploitation. Shedding hope that "Smash" is something dramatically sophisticated may be the secret to enjoying it. It wants to be a soap, not "The Jewel in the Crown."

On a break from shooting Season Two in New York, Safran gave us a few minutes to talk about his passion for musicals and his approach to "Smash."


Megan Hilty in Season Two of "Smash."
photo by Will Hart/NBC

I can't wait to see what you do with Season Two of "Smash." The season premiere is a two-hour episode?
Joshua Safran: It is. You know, it was not initially produced that way. We didn't know it was going to be a two-hour premiere when we shot them. We just thought it was Episode One and Two. If we'd known, we'd probably have made it like a continuous timeline. Several weeks span over the course of two episodes.

Where are we at the top of the new season? Does it pick up right after the Boston tryout of Bombshell?
JS: The first hour of the premiere opens with closing night of Bombshell in Boston, and then we quickly follow our characters as they return to New York City, and the rest of the two-hour premiere kind of takes place the day they return through, like, a week — pretty much a week, week-and-a-half.

One of the things that was so accurate about the first season is that putting together a show does not happen overnight. There are obstacles.
JS: Right. Although I know a lot of people were upset about how accelerated it was last season, which I understand, but it's television. You don't have the luxury of following a show from its initial concept all the way through a workshop through production, which really could be five years. Here, in sort of "Smash" show-time, we kind of take it like a year-and-a-half, when you look back at it all — maybe a little bit under. This year, our goal was: we knew that the audience had already been on this journey of watching this show get to its out-of-town tryout, so we thought it might be fun to broaden the view and show more shows than just one this season, so that we could see the different stages of their process, and not feel like we were racing to get to Broadway.


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