A funny thing happened toward the end of Smash Season 1: Everything changed. Well, not everything. But Theresa Rebeck, the Broadway baby who’d birthed the NBC drama, was not invited back for an encore. Ultimately, Josh Safran — no stranger to spinning New York City-based tales, as a Gossip Girl showrunner – was handed the reins for Season 2, which with its two-hour premiere (airing tonight at 9/8c) promptly updates us on Bombshell team members Karen, Ivy (?), Derek, Tom, Julia and Eileen, while also weaving in fresh faces such as Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) and Andy Mientus (Carrie: The Musical), as the aspiring playwrights behind a show called Hit List.
How will Smash‘s second act compare to the first? TVLine sat with Safran to survey his plan to stoke the stakes, broaden the Broadway-based canvas and phase out – though not ditch completely! – a few of Season 1’s weak links. (Ellis, is that you…?)
TVLINE | Tell me about how, when and by whom you were approached about taking over at Smash.
I approached them. I put in a cold call when I heard they were looking for somebody. I had been watching the show and had sort of been obsessed with it, so I wanted to see if there was any possible chance. I got in the door first with DreamWorks, I talked to them, and I just kept moving up until I was meeting with Steven [Spielberg] and [NBC president] Bob [Greenblatt]. Every step of the way, I was like, “This isn’t going to happen. There’s just no way.” Then, really, it was a fairy tale. It was crazy.
TVLINE | OK, so you were a fan going in.
I was a huge fan. Yes, I watched every episode, and we talked about it Tuesday mornings in the Gossip Girl writing room. It was just one of those shows everyone was watching and couldn’t stop talking about.
TVLINE | The talks you had with the producers, were they about taking charge of something as is, or did they indicate a shift was desired?
Honestly, it was one of those things where it never quite came up like that. The producers were very involved in understanding what parts of the show were working and what parts of the show weren’t, and as an audience member I was as well, so I think that our sensibilities just lined up. I came in, I think ,with a pretty formed pitch, and I think that pitch hit the quadrants they were looking to hit — and it’s what we’re doing.
TVLINE | Did running another New York-based production, Gossip Girl, give you any special skill set in approaching Smash?
I grew up in New York City, I went to a private school, and I grew up on the Upper East Side so for Gossip Girl I was [familiar with the environs]. The difference is that with Smash, everything is on the East Coast, as opposed to Gossip Girl, where the writers and [post-production] were in Los Angeles. Here, it’s an incredible experience because everyone gets to know everybody, the actors actually can interface with editors in the hallway…. As far as shooting around town, I think Gossip Girl probably did more than Smash does because we were always looking for new events and spaces, whereas with this, your event is Broadway. But one of the greatest things about Smash is to be in these Broadway theaters.
TVLINE | Smash’s new show-within-a-show, Hit List – is that an element that you inherited or is it something of your own design?
The goal was to show that in every season in Broadway, and Off Broadway, there are multiple shows coming about, there’s always tons of stuff going on. When the conversation is about what you’ve seen on Broadway, sometimes that includes stuff on the fringe, so it was about, “How do we show the bigger world, that Smash isn’t just about Broadway, it’s about actually the process of creating musicals?” We knew that would mean we’d have to widen the viewpoint. As far as Hit List is concerned, it was important to showcase a show where the sound was completely different from Bombshell. There is Next to Normal, and there’s Billy Elliot, And you had, I think, Avenue Q and Wicked in the same year.
TVLINE | But the original plan to chronicle Bombshell‘s segue to Broadway in Season 2, that remained intact?
Yes; that is definitely something that I loved that last year, watching every step of the process. It was Theresa’s idea to continue the process and show the move to Broadway, which is pretty awesome, so why deviate from something so great? It’s still about the road to Broadway. It just hits a couple of snags.
TVLINE | Are Bombshell and Hit List in any way going to run afoul of each other?
I don’t know. I mean, I do know but I’m not going to answer. [Laughs] I will say that there is “a lot of overlap.”
TVLINE | How would you characterize the Karen-Ivy frenemyship right now, and how is it going to evolve moving forward?
I think that last season Ivy (played by Megan Hilty) pretty much did the most despicable thing you could do to a person short of killing them, so they are wisely staying away from each other at the beginning of the season. We will obviously continue to cross them and I think that their relationship will always be complicated but it’s not necessarily always antagonistic. You’ll still see a lot of them connecting, but no one is sleeping with anyone’s fiancé this year. So far.
TVLINE | Do you feel compelled to present them each as significant talents, regardless of who’s got the Marilyn role?
I do, and I think last season showed that as well. It showed an audience that there’s more than one person that can fit a role. If you look at Gypsy and all of the different people who have played Rose, it’s amazing. It was fun last year to show that Ivy and Karen were both equally talented in their own right, but they were different in what they brought to the role.
TVLINE | Did I read somewhere that although Karen (Katharine McPhee) has the role of Marilyn right now, she might do something to jeopardize it?
That might have been the quote…. I would say that it’s more about: Just because you have a role, it doesn’t mean that you’re not able to able to do other things at the same time. She might be putting on a little bit of a producer hat.