On January 31, 2012, GEMA LA held a sold-out, special, “sneak preview” screening of the new NBC musical drama series Smash at ICM for members and their guests. After the screening, Executive Producer and DreamWorks Television Co-President Justin Falvey (C ’90), talked about the making of Smash, the TV show about life on Broadway.
The highly anticipated series was heavily promoted during the Super Bowl. It settled into Monday nights at 10:00 PM on February 6th, after lead-in The Voice, the reality singing competition. Smash has already received raves from critics and earned the spot as the highest rated 10 PM show of the season. Based on the upbeat response from the packed audience, it is evident that Smash hit all the right notes.
Smash represents an “anatomy of Broadway” according to Falvey, “bringing together the business, the producers, the writers, the songs.” It’s a compelling story of the making of an original play about Marilyn Monroe and the people who put it together. While Smash gives an up close and personal look at the inner workings of Broadway, it is also very much about the intimate lives of the players in it. It touches on many topics that are relatable to viewers, even if they are not Broadway devotees.
Behind the Scenes with Executive Producer Justin Falvey, (C ’90)
After the screening, audience members were treated to the fascinating back story of Smash and participated in a Q & A with Executive Producer Justin Falvey. Rich Battista (B ’86), Founder and Chairman of GEMA, served as the evening’s moderator. When Battista launched GEMA over a decade ago, Falvey was one of the first people he approached to be on the Advisory Board.
Raquel Braun (L ’10), Co-Director of GEMA LA, organized the screening event and introduced the two Georgetown alums. She spoke about how GEMA, now 3,500-members strong, played a significant role in getting Georgetown’s new Film and Media Studies minor off the ground last spring. At DreamWorks, Falvey oversees TV series development and long-form programming in his role as Co-President.
In his impressive 16-year history with the studio, Falvey has been attached to a number of important projects as executive producer. His works include among the best on TV: Las Vegas (NBC), Rescue Me (FX), epic miniseries Into the West (TNT), The Borgias (Showtime), Falling Skies (TNT), The United States of Tara (Showtime), Terra Nova (FOX), and new thriller The River (ABC). In his previous position as television development and programming executive at DreamWorks, he supervised Freaks and Geeks (NBC), The Job (ABC), and Undeclared (FOX).
After Georgetown, Falvey landed his first job far removed from the streets of his hometown of Boston and the TV biz, teaching English in both Tokyo and Barcelona. He always aspired for a career in media and entertainment, and from early on was set on working in the TV business. He got his first break in the industry from Eddy Yablans (C ’88) at International Creative Management, as an assistant in the Television Literary Department. In terms of his work on Smash, Falvey feels privileged to have incredible talent both in front of and behind the camera, with the synergy of TV and Broadway coming together.
The fact that he is working on a TV musical genre is obviously not lost on him. Falvey credits Glee for paving the way for bringing music back into television. Though they represent different shows, he believes that Smash will join Glee in encouraging viewers to embrace music and television again. Because the series has the potential to change perceptions of musical TV, this has been one of Falvey’s most important projects to date. Compared to other TV shows, there is a big challenge in producing musical drama with original scores. Falvey maintains that it takes significant lead time to orchestrate the music composed by Shaiman and Whittman for the series.
He spoke candidly about Steven Spielberg’s role as Executive Producer. “He takes his name on the show very seriously,” Falvey pointed out. “He is involved in every facet of the series from reading scripts to making decisions on key hires; he reads and watches everything, from story outlines to scripts.” Spielberg is passionate about the series, and has been extremely present even while on the set of other projects such as War Horse. Falvey teased about Spielberg’s “two-way camera” that enables him to simultaneously work on different projects. Battista questioned Falvey about the marketing of Smash, particularly in the digital media space where sampling of shows is becoming more common.
They addressed the trend that viewers now have the ability to preview many shows such as FOX’s New Girl on various platforms before they officially air on the networks. Smash was available for sampling on Hulu, iTunes, and American Airlines In-Flight weeks before it ever aired on NBC. Falvey firmly believes that “sampling outweighs the downside in terms of the impact on ratings.” Though care must be taken about overexposure, “it doesn’t cannibalize the show, it helps the cause.”
In terms of the music that is so integral to the TV series, Falvey talked about episodes having a “three-song template.” This includes one original Marilyn score, a contemporary cover, and a “Wild Card” song. Falvey contends that the singing that happens in Smash is not gratuitous or out-of-place, and “when the show breaks into song, it’s earned.” With the model that Glee has established with iTunes, the music that could emanate from Smash could add to its overall success. While the focus and intent of the producers is first and foremost on the series, there is the possibility down the road that the series’ play about Marilyn could hit the real Broadway stage.
In subsequent seasons, there’s also the potential that the characters in Smash may launch additional plays. According to Falvey, the producers and network are betting on the success of the show; in fact, he states, they are “betting the house, the farm, everything.” They have worked tirelessly to put together a top-notch show and crew. He believes the timing is right for Smash, explaining, “In tough economic times, musicals, fantasies and horror appear to work very well. It’s cyclical.”
He believes that retention of eyeballs is critical as the series airs from week to week; they are targeting an 18-49 demographic, and counting on drawing younger audiences 18-34. With a myriad of successful projects under his belt, Falvey offered excellent advice to recent Georgetown graduates starting out in the entertainment industry. Recognizing the competitive and tough nature of the business, he stressed that, “If you persevere and put in the time, you will get noticed.” He equated the intense work as an assistant or PA with attending grad school. Falvey also is a big supporter of participation in internships and the GEMA externship program during school.
It was a very well-attended event with a spirited reception to follow. The 130 or so attendees left the evening with a song in their heart and hopes for a smash hit for Falvey and his team.
Cast and Crew of SMASH
Audiences will delight in the many familiar faces of TV, film and Broadway fame that inhabit the world of Smash. Its impressive all-star cast includes: Acclaimed TV actress Debra Messing (Will & Grace); Tony award nominee Christian Borle (Legally Blonde: The Musical); former American Idol finalist Katherine McPhee; Broadway veteran Megan Hilty (9 to 5: The Musical); iconic film actress Angelica Houston (Prizzi’s Honor); British actor Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean); and Broadway’s Brian d’Arcy James (Shrek the Musical). There are also several anticipated guest stars in upcoming episodes, including Bernadette Peters and Uma Thurman.
Smash has assembled an equally remarkable team of A-list producers, writers, and directors. The original idea for Smash came from Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, who may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of Broadway. Theresa Rebeck, creator and writer of the series, has penned several TV series including NYPD Blue as well as Broadway’s Seminar. Composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray; Catch Me If You Can) provide original music for the show. Tony award winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening; American Idiot) directs.
Oscar winners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Hairspray; Chicago) are among the series’ nine executive producers. Spielberg brought the series concept several years ago to Bob Greenblatt, who at the time was at Showtime. When Greenblatt moved over to NBC as Chairman, Smash became a priority and labor of love for him to get on the air. NBC is fully behind the ambitious series with a large promotion budget. Ads have appeared in almost every possible space and there has been significant buzz about Smash; ostensibly, you would need to live on some remote island to have missed hearing about the series.
The SMASH Screening
In this show-within-a-show, successful Broadway song-writing team of Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) set out to make another hit with Marilyn the Musical. Julia is torn between the demands of launching a Broadway play and adopting a child with husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James). Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee) is the naïve Midwestern girl-next-door, with big dreams of making it on Broadway. She is vying for the Marilyn lead role with stage veteran Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), who herself wants to step out of the chorus line and get her big break. Broadway producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Houston) remains determined to mount the Marilyn play despite a messy divorce that puts her finances in jeopardy. Womanizer Derek Willis (Jack Davenport) is the brilliant and difficult director who clashes with Tom and has an ego the size of Broadway.
Smash brings together a cast of characters whose desire to create a hit show leads to many conflicts. The seamless production we experience when the curtain rises on Broadway is in sharp contrast to the behind-the-scenes fighting, competition, nastiness, heartbreaks and egos depicted in the series. Still, dreams of becoming a Broadway star take center stage; Smash is very much grounded in the American Dream, where against all odds you can still make it big.
In his talk, Falvey acknowledged later that New York City is integral to the fabric of the series. Smash exquisitely captures the energy and colorful aspects of Broadway and life in New York. It’s fast-paced; the editing flawlessly shifts between auditions to Broadway stage and characters dash around the sets. The actors step in and out of taxis, walk through Times Square and sing in the streets of Manhattan with the greatest ease. The camera depicts a bustling and vibrant New York, and the magnificent city backdrop often steals the show.
It is evident that the producers of Smash seek a broad demographic audience.
The characters and themes should resonate well with a wide cross-section of viewers, and the music is both contemporary and older style. Everyone can relate to having a dream, even if it’s not about the lights of Broadway. Experiencing rejection is not unique to theatre, nor does Broadway have a monopoly on oversized egos. For the younger tech-savvy crowd, there are references to apps and blogs and a subplot dealing with an online leak about the Marilyn project.
For the Midwest sensibility, there’s palpable tension between newly transplanted Karen and her parents, who want her to give up on her dreams and return home to Iowa. There’s even a baseball number that will please older viewers who yearn for more nostalgic themes. It is a song reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s former husband, with Megan Hilty belting out lyrics about “peanuts, hotdogs, and cracker jacks.” Comparisons will naturally be drawn to Glee due to the musical theme.
However, Smash is a very different program in terms of production values and writing; it feels more authentic, has intriguing storylines, and will likely appeal to wider audiences. For a series whose tagline is “Stars aren’t born, they’re made,” it is fitting that the premiere episode closes with the original score “Make Me a Star.” Smash is filled with the promise of becoming a star itself; it is a stand out in the usual network fare. And it may very well become TV’s new guilty pleasure, where viewers are privy to conversations that are only supposed to happen behind closed stage doors.