'Smash' Showrunner Josh Safran on Season 2 Changes: 'I Wanted to Create New Stakes for Everybody'
"It's very rare that you come into a show the second season as a showrunner and [are] able to have the hindsight that I have and ... go, 'What are some things that people liked, and what are some things that people didn't?'" he tells THR.
Josh Safran has some big shoes to fill as he prepares to launch Smash's second, rebooted season and its first without creator and Broadway veteran Theresa Rebeck at its helm. After a creatively disappointing season that spawned the creation of the dubious term "hate-watching," Rebeck parted ways with the Broadway drama she created, with former Gossip Girl showrunner Safran taking the top job.
His first order of business was to clean house and rid the series of what he calls characters with short shelf-lives, including Karen's cheating boyfriend Dev, Julia's annoying husband Frank, and Ellis, who quickly became one of the small-screen characters that audiences most loved to hate.
In their place, Safran added a long roster of high-profile guest stars, including Jennifer Hudson, Liza Minnelli and Sean Hayes (a Will and Grace reunion!) as well as Broadway standouts such as Jesse L. Martin, Jeremy Jordan and Krysta Rodriguez, among others.
His mission was to revive the Broadway drama -- a pet project of NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt, who brought the Steven Spielberg-produced drama with him from Showtime -- and reverse the missteps that earned the series the dubious title of the most hate-watched show in primetime.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Safran to discuss his Broadway cred, goals as showrunner and the many ways the sophomore season of Smash will be different, including more pop songs, a larger episode order and appealing to the Gossip Girl set.
THR: Most people wouldn't associate the Gossip Girl showrunner with Broadway and Smash. How long have you been interested in musical theater?
Safran: I was a playwriting major at NYU. I wanted to be a playwright, but it didn't happen and I became a screenwriter instead. I dated one of the leads of the original cast of Rent (Anthony Rapp) when it opened on Broadway and moving forward. Being with Anthony for six years was very instrumental, and if I hadn't done that, I don't think I'd have this job.
THR: What lessons from Gossip Girl are you bringing to Smash?
Safran: Gossip Girl was really good at doing serialized television without it feeling gimmicky -- it felt like, "OK, that's who those characters are." Serena was always in her own way; Blair would always get very close but couldn't quite seal the deal, and that bedeviled her. It's fun to be able to take those soapy, serialized television lessons and apply them to Smash while still playing in a little bit more of a rarefied universe. Gossip Girl was about rich kids, and there are a lot of rich kids in the world. Broadway is a very small universe, so it's fun to take some of those tropes and put them on the small universe.
THR: Smash creator and former showrunner Theresa Rebeck was very blunt in her comments about what happened behind the scenes to her and the show with the network's requests. Thoughts?
Safran: I have nothing but respect for Theresa. I feel so grateful for the characters that she created and for the world that she created. These characters are awesome, and I get to play with them, so I hope someday Theresa and I can have dinner.
THR: Are you getting similar notes from NBC?
Safran: I didn't create the show. When you create a show, in the first season it's very specific, and you're learning what works and what doesn't. I feel like by the time I got there, they had a very clear point of view of what the show was. As an audience member, I understood what the show was as well. There are always notes, but I believe in cooperation, and [NBC entertainment president] Bob Grenblatt is a Broadway producer; he knows what he's talking about.
THR: Have there been any mandates, like more pop songs, more music?
Safran: It doesn't work like that. It really is a conversation. We all are on the same page about what we are trying to present, and it's nothing but support. I'm the luckiest guy.
THR: What was your original pitch for Smash when you met with NBC?
Safran: It's what you're seeing. It has not shifted much from that. I don't want to give it away, but it is Bombshell, it's [new season two musicals] Hit List, Liaisons and everything you'll be seeing.
THR: There were a lot of creative changes between seasons -- notably the dismissal of four actors. What was your reasoning there?
Safran: I felt like some characters have a shorter shelf-life because the behavior that they exhibit burns the bridge too much. In the case of Dev (Raza Jaffrey), there's nothing you can possibly do to redeem him right away after he slept with Ivy (Megan Hilty). But that's not to say that the door isn't always open. Leo (Emory Cohen, the on-screen son of Debra Messing and departing cast member Brian d'Arcy James) makes an appearance this year; Ellis (exiting co-star Jamie Cepero) makes an appearance.
THR: It seems like you're turning what a lot of the critics felt like hurt the show -- Ellis specifically -- into a bonus.
Safran: I hope so. It's very rare that you come into a show the second season as a showrunner and be able to have the hindsight that I have and to be able to go, "What are some things that people liked, and what are some things that people didn't?" Usually, when you work on a show from the very beginning, you're working so hard that you're so intensely connected, so it's hard to step back and see what's there. I was lucky to be able to say, "This character has fulfilled their duties" and it was time to move on.
THR: You've added a lot of young Broadway talent, including Broadway standouts Jeremy Jordan and Andy Minentus. Is this part of an attempt to broaden the audience and appeal to more Gossip Girl viewers?
Safran: Absolutely. I loved Smash but I know a lot of up-and-coming people like Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy were really the only up-and-comers depicted. I wanted to show more of that, because the show was very represented by established people: Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) have a show on Broadway in season one, Heaven On Earth, and they might have Bombshell. Eileen (Anjelica Huston) had produced tons of shows with her husband. So to really show the people that I knew who were not just actors but actually writers -- like in the case of Jeremy and Andy's characters -- I wanted to show what it's like to really come from nothing and to try to get a foothold in the industry.
THR: How will Frank divorcing Julia impact her? Will we see her ditch the scarves and break out of the self-pity she begins the season with?
Safran: Absolutely. I wanted to create new stakes for everybody for a fresh, new season. Julia destroyed her marriage: She cheated on her husband, not for the first time, but for the second time with the same person. She's going to struggle to get out of bed [when the season starts], but by episode four, she's out and working. It would have been wrong to have her destroy her marriage and not be affected by it. I felt it was important to show that it is a big deal when you do that.
THR: How will we see other characters face the consequences of their actions in season one? Derek was a womanizer and faced little to nothing for his philandering.
Safran: It's a season-long issue. We're all interested in character traits that define them for a very long time, not just for one episode and it's over. Derek will be dealing with the ramifications of what happens in episode one for the whole season. What you see in the premiere for everyone, we've carefully arced the season. I feel like it's one full unit; it does not feel like it goes off into tangents; it's a very clean line, and when you get to the end, you will understand and think everything makes sense.
THR: There's a cover of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" early in season two. Is there a greater emphasis to do more pop songs this year?
Safran: If I could have Neil Finn songs all the time, I would. I want to do "Better Be Home Soon" and some Split Enz songs, too. This is the music that I love. We're trying very much to make sure that whatever time somebody sings a cover, it's an externalization of what they're feeling inside. Much like Pennies From Heaven, this shows exactly what they're feeling. You'll see that all year. One of my favorite covers all year is this Death Cab for Cutie cover in episode five. It's very clear that it's Karen's song, because she would listen to Death Cab for Cutie, so she would sing Death Cab for Cutie. Ivy in episode three sings a Robyn song because Ivy would listen to Robyn. Derek (Jack Davenport) has [the Eurythmics'] "Would I Lie to You" in episode two when he envisions that. I feel like we have so much Broadway music with our music that it's hard to do it, but there's a couple more.
THR: Messing has been very vocal about not sharing scenes with guest star Sean Hayes. What happened?
Safran: When you see the storyline, you will see that there was really no way to have them interact. It would have been forced, and very clear to the audience that we were just forcing a connection for them. I thought about it; there were ways to do it, but I felt like the audience would know that we were just trying to force something, and that's wrong. I think it's cool that you can watch an episode and see Sean and Debra and not see them interact.
THR: You've also got a bigger episode count this season, from 15 in season one to 17, and a new night.
Safran: I'm coming from Gossip Girl, which is 25 episodes most years. So 17 -- I'm like, "What?! Give me eight more!"
Smash's two-hour season-two premiere airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. Hit the comments with your thoughts -- will you be watching?
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