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Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have been making musicals together for almost 20 years. They're the team behind movie musicals like Hairspray, Chicago and Annie, and the TV musicals Gypsy and The Music Man.
Now Meron and Zadan have teamed up once again on the new NBC series Smash, a drama that goes behind the scenes as a motley crew of creative types put together a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.
Smash comes from an idea by director Steven Spielberg, who asked Meron and Zadan to meet him one day at his production office.
"We said, without checking our schedules, 'Yes, we can make it,' " Meron tells Fresh Air's David Bianculli. "We sort of had no idea what he wanted at that point. We were just thrilled because it was a call you dream of getting one day."
The two producers drove to DreamWorks the following Monday, where they listened to Spielberg's pitch.
"He said, 'Are you guys on board? Do you want to do this with me?' " says Meron. "And we looked at each other like, 'Did we just get offered the job?' And we said, 'Yeah.' And we got back in the car to drive back to our office and said, 'Did he just offer us that show?' "
"That show" premieres Monday after The Voice -- though the pilot is available to watch for free on streaming video now — and it stars American Idol's Katharine McPhee and Wicked's Megan Hilty. They play two actresses, one a newcomer and one a veteran chorus gypsy, vying for the lead role in a new musical being developed by Will and Grace's Debra Messing.
Both McPhee and Hilty got their roles, says Zadan, after "perfect auditions."
"We have a particular philosophy in the casting room that we don't really tell the actors — the actors tell us," he says. "And it was undeniable in terms of Kat McPhee and Megan Hilty that they ... should be playing the part. It was completely the right decision on both parts."
The decision to center Smash on the making of a Monroe musical, says Zadan, also came from their initial production meeting with Spielberg.
"We all felt that it's best to go in with a subject matter that's somewhat familiar already," says Zadan. "And it's an iconic, huge story that just lends itself to be musicalized in a very big, glamorous sort of way. There's a lot of tragedy, a lot of joy, a lot of splash to it. ... And we acknowledged, in the show, the risky nature of it, too."
Meron says he and Zadan turned to the NBC political drama The West Wing for tips on how to make sure each episode was authentic but not too insider-y.
"It was very important to us that half of the piece was authentic to American musical theater, and that the rest be truly universal for an audience," he says. "So you have a lot of elements where you're dealing with [all sorts of relationships], and we used West Wing as an example where you didn't have to be obsessed with politics to really enjoy West Wing. You could have had the politics float over you, but you got into the personal stories of their lives.
"And we want an audience that says, 'I'm not really interested in Broadway.' [The characters'] day jobs are that they do musicals. But their lives are not musicals; they're dealing with issues that everybody deals with, no matter what your job is."
On the differences between the FOX series "Glee" and "Smash"
"Glee is a comedy and Smash is a drama, so that's one big difference. And also, tonally, they're completely different shows. They're not even remotely the same. We owe a debt of gratitude to Glee. If Glee had not gone on the air and had the degree of success it did, we would have never had the door open for all of us to do Smash. So we're really grateful to Ryan Murphy. Otherwise we wouldn't be here today."
On transitioning the show from TV to stage
"One of the things Stephen Spielberg said when he pitched it to us is that we may get a Broadway musical out of it. And of course ... we watched the filming of the musical numbers and we fantasize about wanting to see this on stage. But the reality is everyone is so focused on wanting to do the TV series, and it's kind of all-consuming. If we were to go forward and do this on stage, it would require a lot of work."
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