PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With "Smash" Choreographer Joshua Bergasse

By Kenneth Jones
24 Mar 2012

Joshua Bergasse
Joshua Bergasse
Photo by Lee Cherry

Joshua Bergasse, a dancer who performed in Broadway's Hairspray and The Life, is suddenly in charge of some of the most high-profile choreography in America — on TV's "Smash."

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Well, maybe it's not so sudden. Bergasse, 39, has danced, sung, acted and/or choreographed over the years on tour (West Side Story, Movin' Out), regionally, in concerts and Off-Broadway (Captain Louie). "Smash" consulting producer Michael Mayer (who helps imagine musical sequences in the TV series) saw Bergasse's choreography in a charity event at New York University and recommended him to the producers of the series. Crafting dozens of musical sequences for a TV series is a long way from his mom's dance school — Annette and Company School of Dance, where he first tap-danced at age three — in Farmington Hills, MI, a suburb of Detroit.

Shooting for the 15-episode first season of Smash — which concerns the rivalry of two actresses (played by Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty) involved in the creation of a Broadway musical about screen icon Marilyn Monroe — ended March 20. On March 22, Bergasse (pronounced "ber-gass") got the good news that NBC has OK'd a second season. We spoke to him in a cool-down period, before it all starts again.



Now that the first season of "Smash" is shot, you get to relax a little bit?
Joshua Bergasse: Yeah, I do, actually! It felt really weird at first for a couple days, but now I feel the load that's off my shoulders, which is kind of nice.

 

Katharine McPhee on "Smash."
photo by Craig Blankenhorn/NBC

Was the work constant for you?
JB: Yeah, it was pretty constant. We started pre-production in August, and shooting at the end of August. It slowly just built up. By the time we got into October, it was nonstop, all-day, every day.

I assume you were simultaneously overseeing dances that were being shot and creating work for future episodes.
JB: Exactly. Yeah. We were prepping one or even two episodes at the same time that we were shooting something.

Can you give me a sense of how far in advance you knew about planned musical numbers?
JB: You know, sometimes it was pretty far in advance. They would plan it out, they would write it, and then we would shoot it later — maybe a month, maybe six weeks later. Then, sometimes, things would happen immediately. We would get an idea, and then we'd have to shoot it in two days; so we would have to cast it, choreograph it and then shoot it — all in two days. You normally have to shoot episode-by-episode. We would have between eight and ten days per episode to shoot, so you're prepping for the week or so before that, and then once you finish that, you're onto the next episode.

What's the process of creating a number in a room with creator Theresa Rebeck, songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and Michael Mayer? Can you talk about the song "20th Century Fox Mambo," for example?
JB: They have an idea of what they want to accomplish in the episode — and then they have the idea for the [musical] number and people [involved]. Marc and Scott write the song. This is how it would work, ideally. For "Mambo," Marc and Scott wrote that song pretty early on because that was in our second episode before things got really crazy. And then, they came to me with the song, and they said they had this idea of [cast members] moving furniture, and she's being transformed from Norma Jean to Marilyn.

Then, I would get into the studio…with a skeleton crew of dancers and start coming up with this stuff. And then I would add more dancers into it, and we'd put it on video, and we'd start sending it around to Theresa and Steven Spielberg and all the executive producers, and they would kind of give notes, and then we'd go back in and re-work it some more. It can be quite a process, especially when you have a lot of time, and there are a lot of people involved. Sometimes with the quicker ones, there's no time for a lot of people to be involved. By the time they get involved we're already shooting it.

 

Megan Hilty on "Smash."
photo by Will Hart/NBC

I know, by seeing them on screen, who some of your core dancers are, and they're some of the best people in New York. How many people do you deal with in that skeleton crew when you're developing dance numbers, and how many people do you deal with in total, onscreen? Are we talking 20 kids?
JB: We have a core of ten dance ensemble for Marilyn the Musical, when we did the "workshop" [episodes]. My boss makes fun of me because I always push for more dancers, and he knows that when I come into his office, it's for me to ask for a bigger number — sometimes the numbers, like "Let's Be Bad," call for a huge ensemble. We augment the ten with another eight. And sometimes the numbers call for less people. It really depends on what the writers come up with, and then I try to throw in extra after that. [Laughs.] But I would say that we have our core ten. My skeleton crew [when creating the musical staging] is usually about half of what the number is going to be. Say there's 15 people in the musical number, my skeleton crew will usually be about seven. [On screen], we have our core ten, and we add people.

You're right: I do have the best dancers in New York, and it's awesome. The problem is: It can't look like there are only ten dancers in New York — that they do every number and every show and are everywhere! I have those ten, but my Marilyn ten can't be in [the chorus of Heaven On Earth, another fictional show in the series] so that has to be a different group of people. And those people can't be doing the Off-Broadway show [seen in the series]. That has to be a different group of people. And, those people wouldn't be cater-waitering, so that has to be a different group of dancers. The good thing about that is that I get to work with tons of different people. Literally, dozens and dozens. I would say maybe we had 100 dancers on this season.

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