By Yvonne Villarreal
8:00 AM EST, February 1, 2013
An Upper East Side vet is making his way to the Great White Way.
Josh Safran, who had served as a writer and executive producer of the now-concluded "Gossip Girl," is gearing up for his curtain call as the new showrunner for NBC's behind-the-scenes Broadway drama "Smash."
He replaces creator Theresa Rebeck, who departed the series last May. And Safran has quite an undertaking for the newish drama. The show went into its first season as one viewers and critics loved but morphed into one they loved to hate-watch by the time its short season wrapped.
The series returns Feb. 5 with a two-hour premiere at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Before it enters Act 2, Show Tracker spoke to Safran. Read on to learn where he thinks "Smash" went off-path, what changes he hopes viewers notice and how a bout with mono stood between him and Kevin Kline.-------------------------------
Well, let’s start with the more pressing matter: Dan Humphrey is “Gossip Girl” … have you come to terms with that?
Safran: Ha! Yes, yes, I know, I know. I’m so sad I missed the last 10 episodes. I’ve done 111 and I missed the last 10! I mean, I knew about it and I thought it was great. It makes total sense to me. And over the years, we all had different opinions, but I think it was the right way to go. And I’m also proud of them for being able to keep it a secret.
OK, now the next pressing matter: “Smash.” You had been a viewer prior to getting the gig as showrunner, right? Did you re-watch the first season and start really analyzing what that season was — 'cause I think some people are still trying to process it?
Safran: Yeah, I watched it when it was on because I’ve always loved musicals, and I was excited about it. In the “Gossip Girl” writers room, we would all talk about it all the time. There were only about four or five shows that everybody was watching and everybody was talking about, and “Smash” was one of them. Every Tuesday morning, people would be talking about what happened on the show the night before. But, yeah, I watched it all in real time, and like when I watch anything, I’m analytical, so I saw things that I loved and other things where I understood why they went a certain way but maybe didn’t like it as much.
When I heard they were looking for a new person, I fought to get in because I was an underdog. My joke is always I’m the Karen (Katherine McPhee), not the Ivy (Megan Hilty) in the situation.
Let’s backtrack a bit: What were those discussions like on those Tuesday mornings? Were you guys like — ”What the heck was that bowling alley scene about?” or “Was I high or did they do a Bollywood scene?”
Safran: Well, yes, we talked about the good and the bad because we’re a bunch of writers and, of course, we’re going to find fault with anything or be jealous or be totally enamored. So talks ranged — it depended on the episode. There were some episodes more than others where there was more to harp on. But I think, also, we just really loved what this show was trying to do. It was fun, they were fun conversations.
Come on. You say you’re an analytical viewer: Where do you think the show got off track? Viewers grew frustrated at times as the season progressed. Did you share that frustration?
Safran: I never actually thought it went off track — it just took detours. The thru-line was very strong — showing a show from its inception and the attempt to launch it — so that I always loved and you always felt that drive. There were little detours, though, little character storylines that maybe I felt when they weren’t related to the making of the show I was kind of like, ‘Eh, can we get back to the show?’ And I mean, we still now see the character’s having personal stories, it’s just that those personal stories always impact their work. I sort of felt last year, the parts of the show that maybe I wasn’t as closed to, were the ones that strayed away from “Bombshell.”
Like the assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero)?
Safran: Yes, like the assistant. Look, I totally understand the desire to create this “All About Eve”-type of character that’s in everything. But I do think that he went so far, that we couldn’t keep him around. Once you poison somebody, there’s really not more you can do. Just like Dev (Raza Jaffrey), once you sleep with the main rival of your fiance, I mean, what more is there to say?
Serena got plenty of chances on “Gossip Girl”! But let’s move on. What were the discussions like with you and NBC? Did they say, ‘OK, we want to avoid doing this and this in Season 2” or was it more you pitching how you envision the season playing out?
Safran: It was more I had to pitch a take. I had a very strong point of view, for better or for worse, and I just kind of stuck to it. It wasn’t so much anyone telling anybody ‘Let’s avoid doing this” as it was “Here’s where I think the show could go.” We’re all aware of the criticisms, and we’re all aware of what the people loved about the show. When we all sat down together, it was more of a focus on how to keep the momentum going on what people loved. I have the rare luxury of coming into a show in its second season so I can actually be objective in saying what worked and what didn’t — I’m not so emotionally tied to it.
Was there’s any discussion between you and Theresa [Rebeck]?
Safran: Uh, there was not.
You’re a fan of musical theater, but do you have any direct involvement with that world other than as a viewer — and do you think its important in maintaining what the show had set out to capture?
Safran: I’m a fan and I went to Tisch and majored in playwriting, but then I got an agent while I was still in college and I started writing movies. But I wanted to be a playwright growing up — that was my goal — and I was taught by amazing playwright like John Guare and other great people. And I dated an actor who was one of the original leads in “Rent” for six years so I was around for that whole process when it first started. I think on this show, for sure, it’s good to have at least some passion for it. It’s not like I was this big hound when I was working on “Gossip Girl.” I grew up on the Upper East Side, and I went to a private school, so I had that experience and it helped me there. I love theater so much. I’ve seen Megan perform, I’ve seen Christian perform. I know [“Smash” song composers] Scott Wittman and Marc Shaimanare musicals very well. More than my first kiss or the time I broke my wrist, I remember my first musical, which was “The Pirates of Penzance” with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline. I missed it because I had mono and then my whole family went without me and I was really mad and then my mother found a way to take me a month later.
Talk about the differences of running a show like “Gossip Girl” and running a show like “Smash.”
Safran: It’s funny, it all happened so fast so nothing could really be jarring. I think only now am I really processing it all. I think the biggest difference is that “Smash” has many different things in production at one time. Whereas with “Gossip Girl,” it was just the episode you were working on and the next episode coming up. But “Smash” has all the music, it has to be choreographed, costumes have to be designed — and that’s just one pocket. Then there’s building musicals with plots to them that are not just an episode-by-episode basis — you have to actually know the entire plot 'cause it’s not told in a linear way all the time. All of the pieces on “Smash” … there’s just definitely more of them than there were on “Gossip Girl.” But in a weird way, “Gossip Girl” was a very heightened situation because we did 24 or 25 episodes a year, and it’s a lot of information so that marathon sort of taught me the marathon aspect of what to expect. There are times where, because everything is such a puzzle, if one piece — if a song comes in a day late or an actor gets sick — it’s not just the shooting that gets pushed back, it’s all the rehearsing, all the recording that gets pushed back. It’s an amazing system.
Let’s talk about the music a little more. The way it was incorporated at times often felt odd when it wasn’t related to scenes directly tied to the musical. Was that one of your major concerns in taking it on?
Safran: I had very strongly — well, everyone involved felt this way — that we needed to fix that. None of the music is out of nowhere, at least I hope it doesn’t come across that way. When I took the job, on my first day, I took all the writers to a screening room and we got prints of “All that Jazz” and "Carousel” and we also watched “Pennies from Heaven,” and the goal was to study these movies who use music in a different way — especially “All That Jazz” and “Pennies From Heaven,” where it’s more like dream sequences and it’s sort of like people’s inner emotions, much like “Chicago.” Inner emotions being acted. We try to approach all of the covers that way. So whenever there’s a cover, it’s when a person is feeling it, not when somebody standing up and singing in a bar or at a bowling alley. It’s always going to be born from emotions they are feeling that they can’t express, which is what the great good musicals do. In regards to the musical numbers within “Bombshell,” that will remain the same as the first season approach.
Another area I wanted to tackle was I felt that the characters had burned through their stakes quickly. Julia had an affair and jeopardized her family, Eileen had gotten her divorce — all these things happened, and I just felt an infusion of new stakes were very important. I think, in some ways, “Smash” will play out a little slower. The thing is, when you work on a show from the beginning the pilot takes so many months and then you’re told you’ve been picked up, now “go” and it’s like a fire is lit. I had the luxury of time and I knew it was returning midseason and even though we start shooting in July, I still had a little more time to arc out the year with my team.
What do you say to those who are worried how the show will progress under your care? “Gossip Girl” is a different kind of show, and it’s one that went wayward story-wise more than a few times.
Safran: I get it. But the goal is everything that people loved about “Smash” last year, we’re trying to stay true to that. And stuff that maybe wasn’t as strong, we’re trying to tweak. I think it remains true to the characters and the world that Theresa created, and I wanted to honor that. It is her playground that I am on. What I’m bringing to it from “Gossip Girl” is sort of plotting that is a little bit more season-long focused. All I can say is watch. I think everyone here made a very strong push to keep the show what it was. I hope people find that it’s the show they had wanted to see last year.
The opening number in the Season 2 opener seems very fitting to what’s happening behind the scenes. Do you see it as metephorical and symbolic to everything that is going on?
Safran: It’s funny, I think it’s definitely a commentary on where we’re at. [“Smash” song composers] Scott Wittman and Marc Shaimanare brilliant that they saw that as an opporunity. But while it’s a comment on moving on, it’s also still a part of “Bombshell.”