Songwriters say stars, songs, surprises mark show’s return
Jennifer Hudson, as Broadway veteran Veronica Moore, appears in tonight’s season-two premiere of “SMASH” on NBC.
Nanuet native Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman know that fans of NBC’s “SMASH” have endured a long wait since last season. So the writers of “Hairspray,” who wrote the original songs for “SMASH,” begin the singing soap opera’s sophomore season by acknowledging the fact that it has been nearly nine months since a new episode aired.
When season 2 kicks off tonight with a two-hour double episode (NBC, 9 p.m.), it begins with star Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) singing:
“I know I’ve kept you’ve waiting;
I know I’ve made you mad…”
“We’re kind of speaking, as the show, to the audience,” Shaiman says.
The lyric continues:
“But this time we spent creating
Was the best time I ever had.”
“SMASH” tells the story of “Bombshell,” a Broadway-bound musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The first season saw the musical take shape and head to Boston for its out-of-town tryout, where all hell broke loose. The season ended — way back on May 14 — with Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) stepping in for star Rebecca Duvall (Uma Thurman), when Duvall had an allergic reaction to nuts that were slipped into her smoothie. The show’s writers, composer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) and lyricist and book writer Julia Houston (Debra Messing) scribbled a song furiously and handed it to the star with minutes to spare before the curtains part. “We do that all the time,” quips Wittman from the Brooklyn soundstage where filming of season 2 is well under way.
A constellation of new celebrities joins the starry “SMASH” cast for the second season: Liza Minnelli (“Cabaret”), Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”), Nikki Blonsky (“Hairspray”), Jesse L. Martin (“Rent”) and Krysta Rodriguez (“The Addams Family”).
Oscar-winner Hudson appears in tonight’s season premiere, as established Broadway star Veronica Moore. She advises Karen to guard her career fiercely. Hudson’s breakout moment is when she sings a sassy Shaiman-Wittman song: “Mama Makes Three,” with the lyric “One and one is two, but baby, mama makes three.” Speaking of Mamas, Bernadette Peters returns as the Broadway-veteran mother of Megan Hilty’s character, Ivy Lynn. At the end of season one, Ivy had been passed over for the starring role in “Bombshell.”
Having seen most of the season as it was shot, Wittman peppers the conversation with tantalizing details, mentioning new songs for big names, divulging that “Bombshell” doesn’t open on Broadway till episode 12 of the 17-show season.
Wittman and Shaiman, who are also executive producers on the show, have nearly completed their work on the season, which includes non-Marilyn songs.
“We wrote two songs for a musical version of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ that pops up in the middle of the season,” Wittman says. “We wrote two songs for Jennifer Hudson, a song for Liza Minnelli and two for Bernadette Peters. That’s been really thrilling this year.”
Another thrilling development for “SMASH” fans — one they won’t have to wait too long for — arrives Feb. 12 when NBC and Sony release a “Bombshell” cast recording, a compilation of 22 Shaiman-Wittman songs that make up the fictional musical. The disc, complete with liner notes, includes songs from seasons one and two, giving viewers a sneak peek at what lies ahead on the show.
(Spoiler alert: Included on the disc are two new songs sung by Peters: “Hang the Moon” and “At Your Feet.” Does this mean Ivy’s mom will be in the cast?)
Says Shaiman: “We explain in the liner notes what was needed in each episode. Sometimes they’d tell us, ‘It’d be great if this character on “SMASH” sang a song at a party. Can you think of a song that might have been cut from the musical that they could sing?’ There are more than a few songs like that that were written with the need of the episode being a priority.”
In show business, those songs — cut from the production during devlopment — are called “orphans.”
For example, says Wittman, one of the songs was written for the character of playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe’s third husband, “but Debra Messing sang it in the show and she sings in on the recording.”
Shaiman says pulling together the cast recording showed the songwriters what they had.
“When we sat with all the songs and created a synopsis,” he says, “it’s quite linear and makes sense. That’s not to say that Scott and I sat down to write a musical of the Marilyn Monroe story.”
Season 2 sees a parallel musical in the works, written by Jeremy Jordan’s character, Jimmy Collins, who is introduced in tonight’s premiere as an angry, songwriting bartender with Broadway dreams. His musical, called “Hit List,” is written by Joe Iconis, with contributions by up-and-coming composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, giving it a different sound than “Bombshell.” For the season-opener, Iconis wrote “Broadway, Here I Come!” sung by Jordan.
“Joe’s one of our favorite kids,” Wittman says.
Even sharing the writing chores with other writers, the Tony-winning team behind “Hairspray” had to work quickly this season, as they are needed this winter in London, where their new musical of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is taking shape and is set to open June 25. “We had to hit the ground running, because we started in June,” Wittman says. “We just got back from London where we did a workshop for a week. We start rehearsals Feb. 18, start previews in May and ‘Charlie’ opens June 25.”
“Charlie” tells the story of a young Londoner who wins a trip to tour the famous Wonka Chocolate Factory. Once there, he encounters Willy Wonka, Oompa Loompas, and a host of nasty children: Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teevee, each of whom is more spoiled than the next.
Adds Shaiman: “Luckily, our work on the show is peaking just as we’re getting ready to leave. I’ll have some more nuts-and-bolts music things to take care of. After Scott and I write a song, I have that whole other side of arranging and recording and mixing and editing. Some of that, I’ll have to be doing late at night in London, but our writing is really finished.”
Wittman is a huge fan of Dahl, whose book “Matilda” has been adapted into this spring’s most-anticipated Broadway show. “When you start to enter into his world you realize how prophetic he was about the future,” Wittman says. “Everything he wrote 30 years ago still applies tenfold now.”
Adds Shaiman: “Of all the characters, we have so much more now in his songs, for Mike Teevee to talk about in the modern world. And even Violet Beauregarde, who becomes famous for chewing gum. The idea of somebody becoming a celebrity for no reason is so much more prevalent than ever.”
The writers waxed rhapsodic about their diner of choice when they’re at their weekend home upstate: Johnny D’s Diner in Newburgh.
“We have been literally flying first-class from England, staying in four-star hotels and then the next morning, we’re at Johnny D’s in Newburgh for breakfast,” Shaiman says. “We couldn’t be happier. We have written more material — or have been just about to write — more things for “SMASH” and “Charlie” when we eat breakfast at Johnny D’s. I can’t praise Johnny D’s enough.”
What’s their breakfast of choice?
“Their menu is so varied,” Shaiman gushes. “I guess I’m just hoping they’ll pick up our check when we’re there.”
“There’s always a pancake involved,” Wittman adds, laughing.
“SMASH” returns to NBC at 9 p.m. Feb. 5 Tuesday 2/5 with a two-hour double episode.
“Bombshell: The New Marilyn Musical from ‘SMASH’” will be available on iTunes on Feb. 12. $15.99