After two seasons, the curtain has closed on NBC’s ambitious musical Smash. The series climaxed with Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell winning big at the Tonys, including awards for Ivy (Megan Hilty) and composers Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing). It also marked the end of an attempt to reboot the series under new executive producer Joshua Safran (Gossip Girl), who replaced series creator Theresa Rebeck. EW talked to Safran about the surprising finale, what season 3 would have looked like, and Rebeck’s criticism of his Smash.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you know this would be the series finale and not the season finale?
JOSHUA SAFRAN: It was like day two of episode 15 when the premiere aired. So 16 and 17 are the two-hour finale – 17 had already been broken and not broken as a series finale. Then after the ratings came through from the première, it was like maybe it would be, maybe it wouldn’t be. Then, as the next airing happened two weeks later, it was clear. The plot actually didn’t change — it was always the Tonys and the people who win and lose were the same people whether it was season finale or a series finale. We had to cut for time because the finale ended up being 15 minutes over, and those scenes will be on the DVD. But after Karen is at Table 46 at the end of the episode, before Jimmy comes to talk to her, an agent played by Nadja Dajani comes over to her and says, “I know you didn’t win tonight, but I want to tell you I think you’re incredible and I don’t just think you’re a stage star — I think you’re a movie star.” It would have paved the way for what the plan for season 3 was.
The plan for season 3 in my mind was a Hollywood movie musical. It would shoot in New York. I felt like after two seasons of watching two shows full trajectories, I didn’t want to repeat the story again so I thought I would take the season off and do a movie musical still using Broadway actors, still using Broadway stages, maybe it would have even been set in the world of Broadway. Who knows because we didn’t even get that far but it would have given audiences a season to [see] a different way of musicals being put together and then you could come back to Broadway in season 4. You see the seeds that are in the finale.
Like with Luke McFarlane’s character Patrick.
Yeah, and it was going to be maybe Derek was going to direct it or maybe he wouldn’t direct it or Tom would direct it? And they’d need a new composer so Jimmy would compose with Julia. It’s all there. So that’s the Smash that would have been.
So the long answer is we knew after it was broken [that it would be the final episode] but while I was writing it, I was reshaping it to be a series finale.
Is it hard to have to continue to work on something when you know it’s ending?
The problem is we didn’t even know we were moving to Saturdays until after we wrapped. So I think there was still a hope that maybe the audience would return. So we didn’t even know it was a series finale until well after we wrapped. I started reading the tea leaves so I started constructing it that way. But I still left enough open – like not everyone gets their fully happy ending.
There were certain choices I made. The neon sign was initially going to say “Big Finish” for their song and I decided you know what, it’s the end. A little Meta moment.
We all were getting the sense but no one wanted it to end. I think the thing I will be saddest about is this crew and cast was so incredible and so invested. They still are. That team will never come together again — it just doesn’t work that way. No one stopped giving their all or checked out, from the writers to the editors to the crew and the cast. The only thing that happened was budgetarily the Tonys weren’t to the level that previous episodes like opening night of Bombshell. But I still think we made it work. The stage was our stage in Greenpoint and the house was the Marquis.
The opening scene of the last hour where the whole cast sings “Under Pressure” feels a little like a curtain call. Was that the only time they’ve ever all been together?
That was the only time they’ve ever had a song together. They were all together at Table 46 in episode 15. But yeah, “Under Pressure” was an interesting moment because I thought singing “This is our last dance” is pretty cool.
The final number, “Big Finish,” with Karen and Ivy, reminded me of the finale of Chicago with Velma and Roxie.
That’s exactly what Marc and Scott and all of us were going for. It was actually going to be a much more bittersweet song. The initial plot which was shot but cut out of the episode is that Tom and Julia are not writing their speech, the song that’s going to be performed at the Tonys is what they were writing and they couldn’t figure out what to write about. Jimmy was going to come in and give them the idea to write “Big Finish” and that was going to show you the seeds of Julia and Jimmy and Tom working together. But we cut that storyline out because we needed the time and the relevant story for Jimmy is moving on from his past and the same for Julia. So initially, the writing of the song was going to be a little bit more bittersweet and summing up the year. It was going to be more of a valedictory song where now it’s more of a Chicago-y song. It’s great and it was so great to end on the girls together.
I’m still surprised that Ivy came out the winner in all of this because season one she was basically the villain. I know you put her through major character rehab.
We always knew that the real love stories of the season were Derek and Ivy, Jimmy and Karen, and Julia and Tom. In the very beginning of the year when the writers all got together and we had to make the big pitch to the network and the producers, that was always in it. But who was going to win was a closely guarded secret. Only I knew who was going to win the Tonys for a really long time. Then at a certain point I told the writers. We always knew that Bombshell was going to win.The question of whether it was Ivy or Karen, I actually made the decision very early on that Karen wouldn’t win. The question was going to be whether neither of them won or whether Ivy won. For a while, it was going to be maybe Ivy wins supporting and neither of them would win actress, so we went back and forth on it. About halfway through the season, because Ivy had gone through so much in season one and season two, was all about the phoenix from the ashes for her and for everybody. We just knew halfway through it has to be Ivy. She’s just been through too much and that role is so iconic and you’ve seen her deliver it so well.
The only thing that was a last-minute addition was that Derek wasn’t going to win choreography — he was going to win nothing. Then we all talked about it and we all realized it was more realistic that he would win and that people wouldn’t necessarily embrace that but the work would still be respected. Derek’s private demons are what he really needs to deal with, not being snubbed. So that was pretty much the last change that was made before we shot the finale.
I’m still shocked that Julia ended up with Michael Swift.
That was a seed for season 3. That was a season 3 Easter egg. Our goal was to bring him back and do image rehab for his character. That actually wasn’t a series finale decision. She was always going to see Michael Swift and we were going to wonder whether she was going to be with him next year. But the way in which that happened changed. Initially she was going to bump into him at the Tonys and they were going to have an interaction in which she was very happy to see him and he wasn’t happy to see her. So it was going to be a reversal of season one and for season 3 she was going to find out that she had to work with him but he didn’t want anything to do with her and she was still in love with him. But in the end, when we knew it was most likely a series finale, we just kept it to the scene at the door.
So was Patrick (Luke MacFarlane) also going to be in season 3?
Yes. I mean, we obviously didn’t get that far to make a deal with Luke, but our goal was to create a relationship for Tom that was real and lasting and not filled with the baggage of all he had gone through with Sam.
So was Patrick really gay?!
Yes. That makes me nervous because that was my big fear. In the script he said “I’m not gay” and then they kissed. But the actors very much loved the [other way]. But I worry that it reads for the audience that Tom takes advantage of Patrick. No, Patrick is really gay.
I didn’t think he took advantage of him. I just thought maybe that was a cliffhanger for a season 3 story.
We were interested in a season 3 idea of Tom working with this man who he was in love with and [who] was in love with him but who wasn’t out. So he finally found the relationship that worked but there was this huge stumbling block.
What would Eileen’s storyline have been for season 3?
We realized that Ivy would have still been in Bombshell so she would not have been able to do the movie and she would have been pregnant. The idea would have been to still have been following Broadway with Eileen, sort of like a B-story while following the movie on the A-side and watching how Eileen made the jump like some theatrical producers have done into film. But Eileen was going to be our way to still stay in the theater. One of the things we talked about was creating a powerful film producer who was going to be her love interest, sort of a Harvey Weinstein.
Was there any thought that Jennifer Hudson’s Ronnie would come back?
Jennifer’s always doing so many things. The Daisy story would have been Ronnie without the sexual harassment angle. We always knew that Derek’s demons would come back to haunt him but before we broke that story, we talked somewhere around episode 6 or 8 about Ronnie being the one that took over for Anna and won the Tony. If we had done that then we would have made the Diva in lead opposite Karen and Ivy. It would have been Karen and Ivy sort of having this person that they respected and they were close to being the person that was their biggest rival. But we couldn’t get Jennifer back because of scheduling.
And it was always the plan for Kyle to die?
Yes from the pitch that got me the job.
What was the last scene you shot for the finale?
Our last two days of production were in the Marquis for the house of the Tonys. So one by one everybody had their last scenes of either winning their awards or their reaction from the audience. So Anjelica’s last scene was her scene with Karen outside. I think Kat was the last one who wrapped, so I’m pretty sure the last thing we shot was when Jack comes down and gets Kat and Krysta out of their seats to go get Daisy. Megan’s last scene was at the back of the house right before that when Derek goes to get Anna and Karen.
Was it emotional?
Oh yeah. As I said, these people loved this show and loved working on it so much. The whole two days was a cavalcade of tears and hugs and crew pictures and applause every time someone wrapped. Megan even came back after she wrapped for Kat’s wrap.
One of my favorite days of the whole year was the night of “Under Pressure” because we shot in [an] empty Times Square from 9pm to 5am. Everybody was in that sequence. We were just hanging out in the lobby of the Marquis. It was also one of the coldest nights of the year. We had recently cut together the production numbers for 15 so I remember showing the cast “Grin and Bare It,” “I’m Not Sorry,” and “The Right Regrets.” It was just lovely. It was like a party that lasted well into the night.
There were so many songs we wanted to do and the DVD will have some numbers. There was a number that was actually cut from the first hour [of the finale], which will be online that night on NBC.com, a cut number of Eileen actually singing an Edith Piaf song in French. Another full version of “I’m Not Sorry” will be on the DVD with Anna and Karen from the downtown production. It was cut from episode 11 for time.
Did you get to tell the Smash vision that you wanted? Are you happy with this?
Yes. I really am. I’m really proud of it. It is very close to the pitch that I came in with. Of course it was a very steep learning curve. I was learning up until the last day, as was everybody. There’s definitely stuff that we would have worked through in season 3 but I’m very proud of the show and I always will be and I’m glad it exists so I got to be a part of it.
Theresa Rebeck was critical of the season. I’m not sure if you read what she wrote.
I did. I saw it. The emails on Buzzfeed? I have the utmost respect for Theresa. She created an incredible world and incredible characters and I’m so honored that I got to play in her sandbox for this whole season. Obviously, any viewer is allowed their opinion and if that’s her opinion. She’s allowed to have it. I disagree with it because I’m very proud of the show, but I’m not gonna say that she can’t have her opinion and I hope one day she and I get together and have a cocktail and a couple laughs.
So what’s next for you?
I’m gonna develop. Gossip Girl was 5 years of my life and we didn’t really get a hiatus because it was so many episodes a year. And Smash was so high-octane, high-energy, and high-stress. So I’m developing. I’m writing a couple features. The remake I wrote of Endless Love for Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage [is] shooting now. My goal is to just keep going. I love TV and I love movies.