PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With "Smash" Choreographer Joshua Bergasse

By Kenneth Jones
24 Mar 2012

Megan Hilty and Debra Messing
photo by Patrick Harbron/NBC

In musicals on film and television, editing is so much a part of the excitement of musical numbers. I assume that you build an entire number and then it's broken down by editors. You're not just staging bits and pieces of a song.
JB: That's correct. My assignment is — especially for the Marilyn the Musical stuff — that it needs to play for a proscenium stage. So I choreograph a number that we can put on stage, and then they shoot it from wide angles, close angles, Steadicam, and I'm involved in helping them find which shots I think are great. And then, it goes to the editors, and the editors kind of pick what they like, with the director. I like to get into the editing room and put my two cents in. And then, it goes to the network, and they have their ideas. But, yes. I do a stage version of the number. With shooting it and editing it, it has a whole new dimension. A lot of people ask me, "Do you think that [editing] takes away from the number?" I don't think so because our editors and everybody is committed to using wider shots, longer shots — not having it be real "cut-y." As long as we stick to that, it's only adding another dimension. It makes it more rich because you don't have to experience it from one angle in the house — from your seat. You can experience it from so many different seats of the theatre.

I think some of the most exciting shots in "Smash" are when we see dancers in the rehearsal room: the parts of the whole — foot, ankle, calf.
JB: It's cool, isn't it? Yeah. It tells a whole different story because you don't pay attention to that when you see it live. You're seeing the whole picture.

Do you choreograph differently for Katharine McPhee than you do for Megan Hilty? Megan has said that she is not a dancer and that she was terrified to take the "Smash" job.
JB: You know what?, Megan is amazing. And, I know she likes to say that she's not a dancer, but nobody can tell that when you watch her. The thing about Kat is that she studied dance as a kid, so it was kind of like riding a bike for her. She was pretty scared a bit at first, but now she loves it. As we got toward the end of the season, she couldn't wait to get into the next dance number. Megan, because she didn't take [dance] as a kid, she was scared, but it's really in her blood. It's what she does. She just owns the stage no matter what she's doing. And there's nothing that I can do to stop that. She is a force of nature.



 

Katharine McPhee
Photo by Patrick Harbron/NBC

Ultimately you're not creating choreography for an actress, you're creating for a character.
JB: That's right. For Marilyn. It's telling the story.

The series includes disciplined "show numbers" for Marilyn the Musical and pop numbers performed more loosely — at a karaoke bar, in a dance club, at a bar mitzvah. Plus dream/hallucination numbers. Are you allowed to be more casual with movement in the non-Marilyn numbers?
JB: When we do these fantasies, I think you're a little more free. The situation doesn't necessarily always have to make sense when it's in somebody's head — when it's not really happening, I guess.

Did you have a voice in the writing process? Did Theresa Rebeck seek your advice and say, "What do you want dance-wise?" Or do Marc and Scott create the ultimate template?
JB: We all have a great collaborative energy, and anyone of us can go to the other and say, "Hey, I have an idea…" or, "What if we try something like this?" I'm very grateful that they all value my input as much as they do. I'm able to have conversations with Theresa or with Marc and Scott, and we go in and — sometimes with the director of the episode — we'll sit down and have lunch together on lunch break in between shoots and come up with a new idea for a number, and, by the time lunch is over, somebody pulled the trigger on it and there we go! It makes it such a wonderful process.

I love that the Marilyn songs are not all up-tempo brass week after week. I mean, no one does a Big Show Tune like Shaiman and Wittman, but there is variety in the show's original score — I'm thinking of the simpler ballads, softer energy, like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
JB: We want to knock their socks off every week, but it can't be with the same number. They all have to be different. It's just like when you go to a Broadway show: If every number is the same — even if they're fantastic — you're going to get bored. I think that having "National Pastime" one week and then "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" the next week is a great contrast. It also lets people in about what Broadway is really about. It's not going to be all big giant production numbers every time. You're going to have ballads — sweet, simple ballads [like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"] that mean just as much — and are as meticulously choreographed and staged and shot as big production numbers.

View a clip from "Smash" showing the Bergasse-choreographed musical number "Let's Be Bad":

When you shot the pilot last spring, did you know that you would appear in the series as assistant choreographer "Josh"?
JB: No, I didn't. It was kind of a last-minute thing. I think Theresa called me one day and just asked if I wanted to play the assistant, and I said, "Sure." The assistant wasn't in the script prior to that. I don't know this for sure, but I think it may have been born from when they would come in and watch rehearsals — they would watch my dance rehearsals and what was happening in the room and what the energy was. I think that that's what they're trying to capture for the show — the real thing. I'm so excited about being in the show. [Laughs.] It's so fun, and it's really cool for me.

Well, it's important to show the bones and the structure and process of what the finished product will be.
JB: Right.

Is there more "Josh" to be seen? Is there a story? Do we learn anything about your past with director-choreographer Derek?
JB: No. There's no story. I'm just a very utilitarian character that counts really well and really loud. [Laughs.]

You demonstrate steps, as well.
JB: Yes, that's right.

But nobody does "a 5, 6, 7, 8" like you!
JB: [Laughs.] Thanks! I'm pretty proud of it, I have to say. At one point, when we were shooting, I yelled "5, 6, 7, 8" so loud that the cameraman thought I yelled, "Cut!" [Laughs.] Everything stopped. They stopped the shot. Everybody got a big laugh out of that.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. He pens the weekly "Smash" Report, an episode-by-episode insider's guide to the series. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

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