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'Smash': Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman want to make viewers hum

'Smash' song composers Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman have won a Tony and a Grammy. What they want now is for their 'Smash' songs to catch on.

March 04, 2012|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times

The great promise of "Smash" was that it offered a glossy insider's look at Broadway. The equally great challenge was to create original yet authentic show tunes for the musical about Marilyn Monroe embedded inside this NBC drama.

"Our job is to make it feel authentic to the theater," said Scott Wittman, who composed the original songs with Marc Shaiman. The Tony- and Grammy-winning duo, whose list of credits include Broadway's adaptations of "Hairspray" and "Catch Me If You Can," had months to compose songs for the pilot. By episode eight, they had a backlog.

"For a while it was like, 'Oh, yeah, we got this. It's a breeze,'" Shaiman recalled. But that didn't last. The time frame for creating musical numbers for later episodes would shrink to as much as 48 hours.

Not that "Smash" is heaped with songs like that other musical TV series, "Glee." Creator and executive producer Theresa Rebeck was intent on making it stand on its feet as a workplace drama and not just a song-fest, declaring "NYPD Blue" (another series she worked on) its natural precursor.

"Sometimes when we were working on early episodes [of "Smash"], I would say, 'OK, in the storytelling, we lavish writing and acting in the scenes,'" she said. "But every once in a while we need a car chase scene, or in the case with 'Smash,' a big musical number."

Wittman and Shaiman spent countless hours researching Monroe, culling from more than 80 books about the Hollywood icon to pen roughly 17 original songs for the series.

"We approached it as if we were actually writing a musical about Marilyn," Shaiman said. "But we also kept in mind what it had to accomplish to advance the characters in the show too." Among the original tracks are numbers on Marilyn's famous "The Seven Year Itch" and the sweeping duet battle "Let Me Be Your Star."

"This is the best number of the night, the most authentically, non-pastiche-ily Shaimanesque of the bunch," wrote New York magazine theater critic Scott Brown, noting that "Let Me" in the show's pilot episode "has energy and lift, though it struggles with a downward-gliding melody line that repeats its shape maybe one too many times: We get a bit ahead of it. But things pick up as the song gains grain and complexity."

As crucial as the drama element is to "Smash," the songs at the center of the series need to be fresh and memorable. Select numbers from each episode are made available on iTunes, and NBC signed a deal with Columbia (the same label that releases "Glee" music) to produce a soundtrack for the show. The music on "Glee" has proved to be a tremendous money-spinner for the show (soundtracks, concerts, etc.), but the same can't yet be said for "Smash."

Original and cover songs for its most recent episode didn't chart on iTunes. That's not too surprising considering the drama airs at 10 p.m. and is skewed toward adults, not music-downloading teens. By comparison, "Glee" has seen numerous covers land at No. 1 the following day — including a coupling of Adele's "Someone Like You" and "Rumour Has It," which was featured on a recent "Smash" episode.

"We're not 'Glee,'" Wittman said. "That's just a fact. We're just trying to stay as true as possible to musicals. That's all we can focus on. I mean, they gave us a sweat shirt to celebrate the first season of the show and I broke into a sweat because it said 'Season 1.' We gotta do this all over again if we get another shot? Oh boy. But it's fun and it will get done."

One of their toughest music critics is, unsurprisingly, the series' biggest cheerleader: NBC Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt. Greenblatt brought the musical drama with him when he moved from Showtime to NBC and much focus has been paid to the show's performance — four weeks in, it hasn't lived up to its name. Its most recent episode delivered 6.7 million viewers, down nearly 42% from its premiere.

"We call [Greenblatt] Mr. Freed," Wittman said, referring to Arthur Freed, a famous MGM producer behind big musicals such as "Singin' in the Rain" and "Meet Me in St. Louis." "This show is his baby and there's not one minute where we forget that. He gave us notes [on 'Let Me Be Your Star'] saying 'this has to be more universal in its story. It has to be about people who want something and fight for it.'"

Rebeck, for one, insists that producing chart-toppers isn't a top priority: "If people want to buy the music or want a theater production out of it, I think that would be fantastic. But our main concern is putting on a good TV show."

For the composers, it's more simple.

"We just want to write songs that people find themselves humming along to," Wittman said. "A shimmy or a shake would be fun too."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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