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

By Kenneth Jones
21 Jan 2013

Safran discusses the show at a January press event.
Photo by Ben Cohen/NBC

When you followed the first season of "Smash," did you watch it as it aired?
JS: I did.

Did you view it as a fan or did you view it with a writer's mind, or can you separate that?
JS: I can't turn it off, it's true. It's hard for me to really let go and luxuriate in exactly what's happening, which is a standard problem in my life — not just watching art. But I was able to enjoy it because I thought it was so incredibly well made, and I thought Theresa [Rebeck] had created these characters that were so clear, which has been so incredible for me to be working [on now]…to have these characters that are so clearly defined. They very much tell you what they want to do as opposed to you're sort of rooting around and hoping that you're going to find it.

So, as a fan, I was very drawn to the characters, and, of course, I was drawn to the music and the musical sequences. [Choreographer] Josh Bergasse is a genius. Everything that he does is just a complete honor to be in his presence and to work with him. And, Marc and Scott, who I was a huge fan of from well before even Hairspray. I mean, my memories of Marc's scores…! I remember — again, me as a slightly-on-the-theatre-geek side, the Harry Connick, Jr. first album that he had written a song for, and I always loved that song, called "Drifting." I try to bring it up with him, and he doesn't really want to talk about it. [Laughs.] Anyway, to watch their work last year, and to get put up for this job, and get this job and to be able to work with them has been crazy.

Of course, there were pieces [of the first season] that I felt like, "Okay, maybe this is more for personal-life story than for a theatre story," and I wanted to see more of the theatre story. I was kind of hoping…I'd be waiting for the focus to shift back to what's actually happening backstage or the creative process of working together. So when I got the job, my goal was to sort of take the light, maybe, and shine it a little bit more on the process and a little bit less on home life. But, that's not to say that personal life is not still very important. There's a line in the premiere where Julia says, "Shows are like families. Everybody knows everything." And, that's what it really is like. They're like these small microcosms where everyone is just together — every day, all day. So, if you're still going to tell personal stories, just make sure that they're personal stories that orbit that world or impact that world. And, I felt like last year, as the season progressed, there was a melding of those two, much better.

One of the things I loved about the first season was the depth of histories of characters — the interlocking histories of the show people, and certainly the history of composer Tom and…
JS: Tom and Julia! We go into that more this year, too. I mean, we very much are aware that they've been together 11 years by this season — ten years from last year. You'll hear about what they did before they met. You'll hear a little bit more about their career. One of the lines that got cut from the premiere — unfortunately, for time — was the notion that they actually have never won a Tony; they've just been nominated. It sort of percolates throughout the season, but I think that's also part of hearing more of their drive. [Their show] Heaven on Earth, which we saw pieces of last year, was sort of a very commercial success for them, but maybe wasn't the critical success that they've always wanted, and that Bombshell is their chance to have both. [That'] pretty much their drive at the beginning of this season.

How much are you pulled in the two directions of "We have to speak to a general audience" and "We have to speak to a theatre-fan audience"? How accurate do you need to be about how the world of shows works?
JS: Well, that's the other great thing: The "world" is so crazy-dramatic on its own in the best ways, because you have deadlines and you have live audience reacting to what you're doing and you have auditions. Everything is such high-pressure and such high-stakes that there actually isn't much liberty that needs to be taken. All you really need to do is just make sure that you're looking at those things appropriately. We really do try to do everything we choose to do with as much accuracy as possible. Of course, it's television, so certain liberties have to be taken, just like last year with the acceleration of the storyline — how the show went from workshop to production so quickly. That's a liberty you have to take. It's not a reality show — even then, they take liberties, but it's not like a documentary.

Even in the real world of theatre, there are unlikely realities. There's the famous story of Wonderful Town being written in six months...
JS: Right…and that's what you sort of draw upon. Tte other thing, too, which is very important, is that [NBC president] Bob Greenblatt is a Broadway producer. So, not only do you have Craig and Neil and Marc and Scott, you have Bob. It's pretty much a team of people who make musicals. So if the writers are like, "We really wish that we could put these two things together and make this story," somebody will catch it and be very helpful with: "Okay, that kind of can happen, but it has to actually kind of happen in this way for it to be realistic."