How Marilyn’s Memoir Inspired ‘SMASH’

Ten years after its NBC debut, Alexander Kacala looks back on the cult TV series Smash, in an article for TODAY.

“The pilot was really nothing broadcast television had ever seen before. Sure, there was the Fox hit Glee — but Smash profiled the nitty gritty behind-the-scenes making of Bombshell, a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Chock-full of incredible original music, the series quickly went viral for its glitz, glamour and garish cheesiness during a time when social media wasn’t quite up and running like it is today.

Real life behind-the-scenes drama ended up plaguing the series and led to a directionless season two. After NBC pulled the plug, though, the show’s legacy continued …

The idea of Smash originated with the brilliant Steven Spielberg, whose name maybe carries more weight in Hollywood than anyone else still living … Spielberg bought a book called Smash that was about the making of Funny Girl — but his intentions were only to use the title, which he thought was fantastic. He started working with Robert Greenblatt, an established television executive at Showtime, on developing this idea.”

“‘There were various thoughts about maybe it should be something like The Three Musketeers because the juxtaposition of the costumes and the contemporary could have led to more comedy … blah, blah, blah,’ [lyricist] Scott Wittman told TODAY via Zoom. “I was the one who said, ‘Well, what if it’s about Marilyn?’ Steven loved that idea and we also were able to write songs about Marilyn that also had to deal with the lives of the two characters who were trying to compete for the part.’

This was really a unique ‘aha moment’ in the creative process.

[Composer] Marc Shaiman added, ‘When Scott said, “How about the life of Marilyn Monroe?” — everyone just kind of went yeah. It was the last time everyone who worked on the show agreed on anything.’

From there, the creative team began pouring themselves into the life of Monroe, especially Wittman.

What was the most interesting thing they learned about her?

‘She was actually a very deep thinker. People don’t think of her that way and we tried to bring that out,’ Wittman explained. ‘But the best story was in one of the books she wrote with someone about her life. One of the stories was about a baby grand piano that she had as a child, and that she associated with her mother. She tried to find that piano again and eventually did. Then by coincidence, Marc was working with Mariah Carey, and she actually owns the actual piano that once belonged to Marilyn. That’s a real “aha” moment, too!’

That story inspired the song ‘Second Hand White Baby Grand,’ a heartwrenching ballad featuring the emotional lyrics: ‘Something secondhand and broken/ Still can make a pretty sound/ Even if it doesn’t have a place to live.’

‘When we found that story in the Marilyn Monroe autobiography, we just latched on to it,’ Shaiman added. ‘Her mother was mentally ill and they would come and get her and put her away and then she would still be let out for just a few weeks or months. Marilyn said she associated the only time she ever thought her mother was happy was when she was playing the piano. So when they drag your mom away, then they drag the piano away, too. Finding that piano was a great metaphor of finding a moment of happiness within her very unhappy childhood.'”

“Joshua Safran [showrunner for the second season] brought in competing musicals that represented other genres that Bombshell did not. But also — with so much original music already created for a full musical — it created an opportunity for more original work to be produced.

‘That also came in because of Marc and Scott, who wrote the incredible music for Bombshell, at that point had written so many songs that it was hard to think of more material to mine,” he said. ‘Bombshell already had 14 songs. So they themselves were a little bit like where do we go from here? That also added to this idea of diversification.’

‘I think the show was ahead of its time,’ Safran said. ‘It probably it should have been a binge-model. It would have done amazingly on Amazon, all episodes dropping at once because it was such a highly serialized story and you wanted to get in the world and stay there.’

Over the years, the show has stayed in the zeitgeist. This could be because the best part of the show — the music — has been able to live on the most with YouTube or streaming platforms like Spotify. Those sweeping melodies and brassy belts continue to be experienced the most by fans, informing them to remember the series in better terms than what it actually was on screen.

The music and the fandom is what led creators to produce a one-night only charity event of the musical-within-a-musical [Bombshell] for the Actors Fund in 2015 that was sold out in minutes. They also remounted it for a virtual production amid the pandemic in 2020.

After the success of that charity staging, Robert Greenblatt and company imagined another life for Smash on stage, revisiting Spielberg’s initial vision for the project in the first place.

‘Is there a new incarnation of the show and can we bring it back? We thought about that as a TV show and we’ve kicked that around but at the moment, there’s nothing happening there,’ he said. ‘But to try to do it as a Broadway musical is something that we’re excited about because it will be largely that score that Mark and Scott wrote for Bombshell. I think there is a new life ahead for it in a slightly different form and tone.’

Aiming for a 2024 Broadway opening, Tony-winner Bob Martin and Tony-nominated Rick Elice are writing the book, and the show is slated to workshop this summer. The show will not be a restaging of Bombshell, but a behind the scenes look at its creation — similar to the series but different in many ways, according to Greenblatt and series producer Neil Meron.”