Pulitzer Prize nominee Theresa Rebeck is calling New York City out. "Good god, the level of superiority in this city!" she says, laughing. "You step out of a cab and people immediately start lobbing bullsh*t at you."
Rebeck's dig mimics a dozen similar anti-New York jabs made throughout the playwright's new Broadway dramedy Dead Accounts, all delivered by a troubled family in Ohio. Starring Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Hollywood A-lister Katie Holmes (Batman Begins) as Midwestern siblings grappling with stolen money, the show is the latest in a string of celebrity-headed Rebeck projects--Seminar, with Alan Rickman, closed in 2012, preceded by 2010's comedy The Understudy, starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Julie White. And then there's her hit TV series Smash, about behind-the-scenes drama on Broadway, which casts screen stars and Tony Award winners almost exclusively. The show made headlines last spring when Rebeck, the creator and head writer, unexpectedly departed after its debut season. In a bullsh*t-free interview, Rebeck talks to TheaterMania about her Smash comedown, Norbert Leo Butz's secret nickname, why theater needs to stop nickel and diming its playwrights, and hating (and loving) New York.
So. A play about Ohio. Why?
I was commissioned to write a Cincinnati-centric play for the city's Playhouse in the Park. [laughs] I thought a historical approach would work—then got into it and realized, "Oh no. No, no, God no, don't do that!" So I started writing about the world I grew up in--I'm from there--and how when you're raised in the Midwest, but live on the coast [as Rebeck does], you are a creature of two places, but dweller of neither.
What's the difference between those places?
I've been watching the news. I see how the Midwest distrusts the east coast. The Midwest sees itself as morally superior. The coast sees itself as intellectually superior. And the two are actually the same thing.
Did you want to leave the Midwest?
New York was the Promised Land growing up. Writers were gods! The great gods of American culture...I thought. I don't know what's happened—that's not the world I live in now. That feeling helped form Dead Accounts, and then I ripped off facts off my life specifically. My mom's religious. I have four siblings--
You've embezzled $20 million dollars…
Exactly. Well, not yet.
You're tough on NYC in this show. Is the New York ripping done with love, or is this a vent session?
It's a vent. If there's any affection in this play it's affection for a simpler place. Certainly I'm capable of ripping on Ohio—God, I was so worried about the election! Though, for the record, Ohio has come out twice [during election season] and done the right thing—I think of that as a personal accomplishment. Look, I have tremendous affection for New York and my life, but I'm a satirist at heart. And it's easy to satirize New York. People are so full of sh*t.
In the play you describe an epic meal in a secret room in NYC with an opera singer. Did that really happen?
Yes, it was an actual meal, in a room below 21 [the restaurant]. The opera singer is a friend of mine. If you get him a little toasted he'll sing, and he's amazing. There's affection for NYC there. That kind of thing happening is what you come to love.
What kind of thing, exactly?
For example: I love [the restaurant] Babbo. The first time I went there was on a terrible day for me—work problems. I truly thought my career was over. When I checked in, the maître d' said, "Theresa? Your name…did you write The Butterfly Collection?" It was not a joke. His theater enthusiasm seemed, I don't know, impossible. So I said, "Maybe you know my name from TV?" And he said, "No, it was The Butterfly Collection!" He had seen it and loved it and was so kind. It turned my whole day around. That's only something that would happen here. So yeah, Babbo. God I adore them.
Did you write Dead Accounts with Norbert Leo Butz in mind, because it seems like it.
No, but it is extraordinary what he does. I don't often write for specific actors. [Director] Jack O'Brien came to me when we were casting a reading last April and said, "Let's have Norbert read." And he did, as a favor. I was blown away. All I could think after was that he had to play this part, had to, and he did, thankfully. The audience loves him. He's such animal. "Norbie," as Jack calls him.
Yes, "Norbie." That's Jack's name for him.
This is obviously a show with a big tabloid star in Katie Holmes. Is the risk of a star's profile overshadowing your production ever a concern?
It's always a concern. But I don't feel I've ever had it happen. Honestly, the thing we think is so beautiful about this show is how Katie and Norbert fit together. Katie is fantastic, and perfect for the part. But she and Norbert make it clear from the start that this is a brother-sister play, not a "star" play. You see it so clearly. You wouldn't see it clearly if the brother role was played by visible celebrity "star." It would upset the balance, which is interesting. But it so works with Katie.
There's a big discussion now about playwrights needing to make a living wage. At what point did you cross from starving artist to career writer?
Only recently. The economics of theater are painful. I still think that the theater community should be looking much more rigorously at how to let the playwright keep the money they make. If [playwrights] can sustain themselves, they can sustain theater by producing new work. I'm always stunned by what agents take, what lawyers take, how many people go chipping away [at a playwright's pay]. When you finally put your hand up and say "STOP," everyone goes into a rage.
There's a tornado of expectation that everyone should get a piece of what a playwright creates. I talked to a producer who felt producers should get big percentages of new plays, because if a new show's a hit he made it happen. They do not understand. Reality? You write six plays and one's a hit. You get money for the hit. That money they want a percentage of is for the hit—not the five other shows you wrote over six years. So for six years you were flat broke, you finally got paid, you divide that payday amount by six years, and discover it's no money at all…The "big percentage" isn't that big. I always think, 'Why do you want playwriting money?'
So what's the solution?
I've heard people say if playwrights are unhappy with their pay they should write for TV. There's something icky about that logic. What if we don't want to? What if there aren't jobs? Do people really think there's a huge demand for TV writers? My bottom line is that playwrights, from the Guild all the way down, should fight to keep more of the money they make, and fight to keep their intellectual property rights their own. If we can do that, we'll be more respected by the community. If we're more respected, it won't be such a fight.
Since we're talking industry politics, can I ask about Smash now?
Okay, I am officially asking about Smash….now.
I can say I really would have loved to stay with the show. I had a great time working on it, and was so proud of it. The actors, the talent! I regret I'm not there. I do feel there were a lot of voices that couldn't finally—look, when you're a writer in that world you are a writer for hire. I was not as interested in continuing in that field.
Not entirely. But anyone who has done enough television work [Rebeck's credits include NYPD Blue and Law & Order] will explain they're paying you for whatever that show is. You write for "it." That is what you offer. It's why you go crazy working to be a playwright over being a writer for hire, why you fight to be and own your own copyright. Because if you remove the issue of money and just look at it structurally, as a playwright you actually have more stature and stability as a creator. That's significant.
Having lived in both worlds, do you consider Smash to be a love letter to theater, or TV's exploitation of it?
There was a lot of love in it for me—I can't speak for anyone else involved. For me, and a lot of people telling the stories in [it], what was important to us from the beginning was that the world [of theater] be depicted with love. It had to have great love of theater and of that theater soul. Yes, there are clashes between deadly, dangerous ambition and the dream of great beauty in there. I was interested in that. But that wasn't all of it, for me. Mostly, I have to say, it is a love letter. I have love for what it was.
Smash is all about finding the right star. Help us discover playwriting's new star right now.
Kate Gersten. Look her up. I predict big things for that young writer. She's at Julliard now. Fresh voice, and she's funny as sh*t. There's a crazy sound in her that's remarkable. Definitely keep your eyes on her.