Thursday, February 2, 2012
Guest: Juliet Eilperin
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Juliet Eilperin, is the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post. In the current edition of Wired magazine, she has an article about why the clean tech boom went bust. She describes how just a few years ago, venture capitalists were investing in clean energy like solar power, wind energy, electric cars and thinking that the Silicon Valley could become the Saudi Arabia of clean energy.
When President Obama took office, he made a commitment to using federal dollars to stimulate what his administration described as the clean energy economy. Eilperin says the billions of dollars the Obama administration gave to the clean energy industry through loans, tax credits and subsidies helped make clean energy look like a good bet to the venture capital world, but it doesn't seem so safe anymore, especially in the wake of the bankruptcy of the solar energy company Solyndra, which was the first recipient of the Obama administration's loan guarantees.
Eilperin describes how Solyndra's failure was, in part, a symptom of the larger problems facing clean tech in the U.S.
Juliet Eilperin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, there are several reasons why the clean energy boom didn't last, and you say one of them is the natural gas boom, and this is, you know, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking of shale rock, which is very controversial for various environmental reasons.
But how did the natural gas boom, the boom in, like, cheap gas affect clean energy development?
JULIET EILPERIN: It's had a real impact, because what you've seen is that one of the big drivers, initially, for the move to clean energy was the idea that energy was costly, and whether you were talking about natural gas or oil that these prices were high. And therefore, if you could come up with an alternative - whether it was solar or wind or something else - that they could come in and potentially, while you'd have to pay a lot of money up front, over time you'd have a, you know, the sun shines, and you don't have to pay for it.
And the wind blows and, again, that also is free. And so you could take advantage of that and, over time, deliver a stable source of electricity or energy at a decent price.
Now, what happened is natural gas has fallen so precipitously since 2008, it's really, you know, a quarter of what it used to cost and appears to at least be stable at roughly that price for the next few years, given what we've seen in terms of shale gas supplies, that this provided a huge competition for renewable energy.
If people could shift over - particularly in terms of electricity - and get cheaper natural gas, which has roughly half the carbon emissions of, say, coal, it was worthwhile for them to do it, and it lowered the incentive to make investments in some of these renewable energies.
GROSS: Now, another reason you give for the clean tech boom going bust is the glut of processed silicon. How is silicon used in solar power?
EILPERIN: Silicon is incredibly important. It's basically the raw material that's processed to make these silicon wafers, and they create boles, kind of almost ingots, and then slice them and process them into the solar wafers on panels that are essential for essentially converting sunlight into electricity, which needs to be converted in terms of its supply to then transmit to homes and companies.
But what's fascinating about this is, again, initially, when you look at silicon and where - what it was used for, silicon was important for the semiconductor industry, and that's where the supply was going, and essentially the solar industry was getting the leftovers.
And then, at a point, that flipped. And as the solar industry took off, they got the silicon, but silicon was - there wasn't enough supply to really, you know, address adequately what the solar industry needed. And at that point, when silicon was so expensive and going upwards, you know, to something like $350 per kilogram, people thought: We've got to come up with an alternative source of solar energy. We've got to figure out another way that's not reliant on silicon in order to make a price.
And that's when you saw entrepreneurs like Chris Gronet - who's the engineer behind Solyndra - look for a very different model in order to kind of move away from what had been the rock, the basis of the solar industry in this country for several decades.
GROSS: So Solyndra's goal was to build a solar panel without using - without relying on expensive silicon.
EILPERIN: Exactly. His conclusion - again, with kind of the mindset of almost a venture capitalist - is: Let's think completely out of the box, and instead of relying on the same technology that's been operating since the 1950s and '60s, let's try to come up with something totally different and see if that's a way that we can kind of break out of the box and not get trapped by these high silicon prices.
GROSS: But instead what happens is that silicon becomes very cheap. How does that happen?
EILPERIN: What's really interesting you saw an explosion in manufacturing. And as we're seeing in many of these instances, it's things like the Chinese getting in. And once they were willing to put in the investment to put up a plant that would manufacture silicon, it was pretty cheap, and they could undercut these prices.
And we've see, for example, again the price of silicon - which was above 350, at some points $400 per kilogram - drop below $30 per kilogram. So, again, think of how that explodes your model if you've gone to something that was extraordinarily expensive, which then becomes widely available, very cheap and therefore allows the conventional technology that's been around for a while to dominate, while those who were thinking of kind of a very different model are left outside in the cold.
GROSS: So China is really dominating now when it comes to solar power cells. How did they get the edge over the U.S.?
EILPERIN: Well, it was a combination of things. One is that they have a coherent industrial policy that encouraged the manufacture of solar panels. So what you've seen is everything from providing relatively inexpensive land for people who are interested in solar panel manufacturing, lines of credit from the national bank, which has made it cheap for them to borrow money.
And, obviously, they do have relatively inexpensive labor and some other factors. And as a result of that, you know, you've seen an incredible reversal, where, for example, you know, in the mid-'90s, you had - the U.S. supplied roughly 40 percent of the world's solar panels. That's now down to 6 percent. And by contrast, China, at this point, is providing roughly half of the world's solar panels.
GROSS: You know, in talking about how the clean-tech boom went bust, you also have to include the whole financial meltdown from 2008. That must have come into play, too.
EILPERIN: Absolutely. That was huge. And so what you really saw is, again, this venture capital money which, you know, expanded dramatically between, say, 2005 and 2008, and you saw significant drop-off after the recession hit, in the fall of 2008. And really, it was the Obama administration's influx of money, which started coming out in 2009 with the stimulus package that they passed. That's what, in fact, prevented the clean-tech industry from cratering in the U.S., because you saw such a retrenchment within the venture capital community that it was the federal government that came in and really saved the day, to some extent.
GROSS: Was the federal government trying to compensate for the venture capitalists who pulled out?
EILPERIN: They were, to some extent. And also, the administration was trying to deliver on, for example, many of its pledges, including the fact that it was going to address the issue of climate change. And they found that it was easier to direct federal dollars to renewable energy projects than it was to, say, pass national limits on greenhouse gases, which could have been another way that would have made the clean-tech industry competitive.
And so - but they were also, obviously, closely in contact with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and saw what was happening and saw that, basically, you just had, you know, a collapse of the financial markets, that you just didn't have the investments that you had before they went into office, just because, clearly, everyone was suffering from a lack of cash.
GROSS: Now, earlier you mentioned that Solyndra's goal was to find an alternative to silicon when it came to manufacturing solar panels, because silicon, at the time, was very expensive, but then silicon became very cheap. How did that change the whole goal of Solyndra?
EILPERIN: It had a huge impact. So because, basically, when Solyndra was getting started, they had this idea, as you mentioned, that instead of relying on crystalline silicon, they would take a mix of copper, indium, gallium and selenium - which is shorthand, is called CIGS in the solar industry.
And they would use that cover, which actually could perform better under cloud cover and (technical difficulties). Also, they would apply it to these cylindrical panels rather than flat panels. And if positioned on white roofs, they not only would be cheaper to install, but they could pick up some reflected light, and therefore would be able to generate, ultimately, more electricity than standard panels.
That was the technology bet that they made, and ultimately, it turned out to be a bad bet, given that silicon prices dropped so precipitously and folks had much more of an incentive just to go with conventional solar panels rather than these more revolutionary ones.
GROSS: So at what point during that arc of seemed like a good idea, ended up being way more relatively expensive than they expected, at what point does the Obama administration give a loan to Solyndra and offer Solyndra as an example of the future?
EILPERIN: This was a loan application that had been pending at the time that the Obama administration took over, and so right in the beginning of - you know, in January of 2009, they were looking at it, but made the determination that they had to do a little more analysis.
And so they looked at it, and basically, in March, had come up with the tentative deal, where they were going to give the guarantee. And ultimately, it took some time. So it was in September when they finalized it, but - so they were going through.
But it was their signature deal. It was the first deal that they struck under the federal loan guarantee program. And that's why it became so important, both politically, as well as later, you know, just psychologically. It was a defining technology bet for the administration, not just for Chris Gronet and his colleagues.
GROSS: So was Solyndra already at the point where the company realized that its financial model wasn't going to work and that their alternative solar panel was actually a dud?
EILPERIN: People didn't seem to realize it at that point, all those...
GROSS: You used the word a dud, so I used it, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
EILPERIN: There you go. So they didn't seem, at that point, you know, right when they were doing the groundbreaking and things like that - you know, at that point, they weren't worried that things were doomed. But they did become concerned by, say, for example, the fall of 2010.
By that point, they had to abandon plans for a $300 million initial public offering. They had another loan application to the federal government in the pipeline, which ultimately was withdrawn.
And so they became very concerned, and particularly they became concerned because they had a very expensive machine that was responsible for basically producing these cylinders and, you know, doing them in record time. And the machine just - as, you know, as one of the former employees told me, just - it wasn't pulling its weight. It wasn't working. And at that point, they were very concerned about the viability of the company, even though publicly and in their meetings - say, with lawmakers on Capitol Hill - they continued to exude confidence.
GROSS: So the Washington Post got hold of a memo that you refer to in your article, and the memo's from August 2011, which was the month that Solyndra went bankrupt. But I think the memo was written shortly before, like, a few days before it went bankrupt.
So it's an internal White House memo saying that Solyndra has had zero percent sales growth since the fall of 2009. What's the significance of that memo?
EILPERIN: It's really significant in two ways. One is that the company was giving a very different message to lawmakers who have input on how federal dollars are spent, and so for example, literally a month before, in July, the CEO at the time, Brian Harrison, was going and was meeting with top Republicans and top Democrats on, for example, the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And he was boasting about their sales, talking about how they'd risen from $6 million in 2008 to $100 million in 2009 and to $140 million in 2010.
And so they were getting the message that Solyndra was a worthwhile investment for the federal government. But clearly, as you can see, even some people within the White House were scrutinizing these numbers. And, you know, up until when, for example, President Obama visited in May 2010, it really was only in the weeks leading up to that presidential visit that the White House began to hear both from, for example, some outside advisors who warned that Solyndra might be in trouble, as well as from, for example, some Office of Management and Budget officials that were looking about it and were looking at this deal and wondering whether it was going to be a political liability for the president if he went there.
So even in May of 2010, at that point, they had begun to hear concerns. And then what happened is you continued to see examples that congressional investigators have unearthed of warning signs that the administration had, but it was also in a difficult position because, for example, energy officials were trying to figure out what to do in early 2011 when they did have some warnings that Solyndra was cash-strapped, that this would be a problem.
But ultimately, they agreed to restructure their original loan, and in a very significant move, agreed that taxpayers - who usually are always paid back first in the case of bankruptcy - would take a backseat to private investors because if they didn't agree to that, some of the private backers of Solyndra were threatening at that point to walk away, and the company would have failed earlier than it did.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Juliet Eilperin. She's an environmental reporter for the Washington Post, and she's written an article called "Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust." That's published in Wired magazine. Juliet, let's take a short break, here. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Juliet Eilperin. She's the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post. And in Wired magazine, she has an article called "Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust."
You've talked about some of the reasons why the clean-tech boom collapsed, and you talked a little bit about why the Obama administration decided to give loans to the clean-tech industry. So now Solyndra is being used as a talking point in the Republican presidential race.
The conservative group Crossroads GPS - which was co-founded by Karl Rove - has a new ad slamming President Obama for having the federal government invest in Solyndra and promising a green economy and more jobs, and it calls the Solyndra loan an insider deal.
And Crossroads' president, Steven Law, wrote a memo calling the Solyndra case, quote, "a powerful cautionary tale about big-government hubris and the cronyism it invariably invites." Is there evidence that the Solyndra loan was an insider deal, or that there was cronyism involved?
EILPERIN: I think that that's a complicated question, and that there is certainly not the clear evidence of cronyism that some might suggest in the sense that while, for example, there are initial investors in Solyndra such as David Prend, who has his venture capitalist firm RockPort Capital, who had access to the White House, certainly did meet with top advisers and did talk up Solyndra.
But there hasn't been the kind of smoking-gun memo to imply that the Obama administration was interested in backing Solyndra because of, for example, to repay campaign contributors.
That said, there's no question that the White House put pressure on the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the Department of Energy, to push this loan through quickly, and they did ignore some of the advice.
And there's no question that there were people like, for example, George Kaiser - a major contributor and fundraiser for Obama - who had a financial stake in Solyndra. So, you know, whether those connections can be spelled out as clearly as Obama's opponents want them to be, that's something that we're going see in the months to come. It's a question of the congressional investigations.
GROSS: Do you think - based on, you know, having covered Congress in the past and now covering environmental issues - do you think that the Solyndra bankruptcy has basically killed the ability of the federal government to invest in the clean energy industry and to help the clean energy industry?
EILPERIN: I think it's made things much more difficult. There's no question about that. There's very little appetite for the kind of direct federal support that we've seen. For example, this loan guarantee program has been exhausted. The money ran out. And no one even talks about the idea of reviving this federal fund to support renewable energy.
One of the really critical questions that's going to come up by the end of the year is the wind industry gets a production tax credit, which is very important for its viability. This is something that actually bipartisan support. There are some Republicans in Iowa and in Kansas who think it's important, as well as, obviously, some liberals, whether you're talking about in Oregon or Washington state or California.
And, you know, this is something which, in another year, might be a slam dunk that it would be renewed. But I think there are real questions about what's going to happen, just because Solyndra has become such a toxic political term, as you've pointed out.
GROSS: What are some of the federal subsidies or tax breaks that the fossil fuel industry has gotten over the years, or the nuclear industry?
EILPERIN: It all depends on who you're talking about, but all of them have gotten significant advantages. There are production tax credits they have that, for example, are permanent, that aren't subject to renewal the way the wind industry has and the solar industry has.
Their transmission infrastructure has been around for decades, and so that's something that, you know, has already been paid for, as opposed to when the Obama administration fights for modernizing the electrical grid to allow renewable energy to come online.
In terms of the nuclear industry, there have been tons of subsidies for it. You know, just a few years ago, we offered more than a billion dollars in loan guarantees to nuclear power plants. And so there's no question that, up until a few years ago, fossil fuel industries were getting subsidies on a ratio of four to one compared to renewable energies.
That's been decreased somewhat with some of the renewable energy programs that have been adopted under the Obama administration. But there's still no question that when it comes to federal support, traditional fossil fuel energy gets more support than the renewable energy industry.
GROSS: Are there areas within the clean technology industry that haven't gone bust and that are doing well and that seem very promising now?
EILPERIN: There are still some signs of possibility. When you look at, for example, the solar industry, specifically, I think there are two areas where you could really see expansion. One is in terms of just the panels that people put up on their individual homes or that companies put up. It's called distributed generation. And you're seeing a real expansion there, actually, due to a business innovation.
They're using the conventional solar panels, often from China. But what they figured out is that instead of asking a homeowner or company to foot the bill up front for putting solar panels on their roofs, you would lease it to them over a period of, say, 15 to 20 years. And that made it affordable and competitive.
Then you have things like, actually, utility-scale solar plants - so, basically, enough solar panels that are put in the middle of the desert that they could actually supply the equivalent of a power plant.
And so you are seeing an expansion. That's something where, basically, the federal government gave a helping hand initially, and now you're seeing that those projects are viable on their own.
And then, you know, there are other areas, such as electric vehicles may have possibility in the next few years, and then advanced biofuels could make it over time. But - so those are a few of the areas where I think you're seeing real possibility.
GROSS: Well, Juliet Eilperin, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
EILPERIN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post and the author of "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks." Her article on the clean energy bust is in the February edition of Wired. You'll find a link on our website: freshair.npr.org.
Though the Obama administration's clean energy initiative suffered a blow from the failure of Solyndra, today the Department of the Interior announced a new plan to expedite the development of wind energy off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO DIE")
LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Don't make me sad, don't make me cry. Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough. I don't know why. Keep making me laugh. Let's go get high. The road is long, we carry on. Try to have fun in the meantime. Come and take a walk on the wild side. Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain. You like your girl's insane. Choose your last words. This is the last time. 'Cause you and I, we were born to die. We were born to die. We were born to die. We born to die. We born to die. Come and take a walk on the wild side. Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain. You like your...
GROSS: Lana Del Rey has just released a new album titled "Born to Die." It's not her first. In 2010 and she put out a collection of songs issued as Lana Del Rey a.k.a., Lizzy Grant, the latter is her real name.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says that questions of identity and authenticity have come to dominate discussions of the singer-songwriter's music. Here's his review of "Born to Die."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIDEO GAMES")
REY: (Singing) Swinging in the backyard. Pull up in your fast car. Whistling my name. Open up a beer. And you say get over here. And play a video game.
KEN TUCKER: Lana Del Rey appeared on "Saturday Night Live" recently, giving two rather tentative performances that, depending on your point of view, were awkward and amateurish or shrewdly restrained and vulnerable. Del Rey, in her mid-20s, attracts polarizing opinions.
Her appearance on "SNL" was only the most high-profile example of the extreme reaction Del Rey provokes. She's been labeled a phony for - what? Changing her name? Tell it to Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. For perhaps, surgically enhancing her lips? Yes, this actually comes up on music blogs and in profiles of her. I think an awful lot of Hollywood wouldn't withstand that, if that qualifies as condemnation. There's something weirdly mean about all the negative press Del Rey has received before this album was even released. It's like high-school level meanness, directed at someone who wants to be a star and is really going for it. It's like being punished for ambition.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE JEANS")
REY: (Singing) Blue jeans, white shirt. Walked into the room. You know you make my eyes burn. It was like James Dean for sure. You're so fresh to death and sick as ca-cancer. You were full of punk rock. I grew up on hip-hop. You fit me better than my favorite sweater. And I know that love is mean, and love hurts. But I still remember that day we met in December Oh baby. I will love you till the end of time. I would wait a million years. Promise that you'll remember that you're mine. Baby can't you see through the tears? Love you more than those bitches before. Say you'll remember, say you'll remember. Oh baby who? I will love you till the end of time. Big...
TUCKER: Of course, ambition is helpful, primarily when you've got the talent to make it pay off. In this, I'd say the jury is still out when it comes to the material on "Born To Die." Del Rey has a voice and a way of phrasing that I find intriguing. Most of the time, she pitches her voice into a low register and pushes her words out as though she's moaning her blues.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO DIE")
REY: (Singing) Feet don't fail me now. Take me to the finish line. All my heart, it breaks every step that I take. But I'm hoping that the gates, they'll tell me that you're mine. Walking through the city streets. Is it by mistake or design? I feel so alone on a Friday night. Can you make it feel like home, if I tell you you're mine. It's like I told you honey...
TUCKER: That tune, "Born to Die," is the album's title song for a reason - it features Del Rey's most typical vocal, a sort of moody croon that increases to a supplicating intensity. The lyric actually contradicts the eye-grabbing title: The phrase born to die may imply pessimism or moroseness, but Del Rey is actually pitching a message that's something more like live life to the fullest. Del Rey does make a few false steps on this album, most notably the bad rapping - stilted and affected - that she does on "National Anthem."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATIONAL ANTHEM")
REY: (Rapping) Money is the anthem of success so before we go out what's your address? I'm your national anthem. God, you're so handsome take me to the Hamptons, Bacardi fare on. He loves to romance them, reckless abandon. Holding me for ransom. Upper echelon. He says to 'be cool' but I don't know how yet. Wind in my hair. Hand on the back of my neck. I said, 'can we party later on? He said, yes, yes, yes.
(Singing) Tell me I'm your national anthem. Ooh, yeah, baby, bow down. Making me so wow, wow. Tell me I'm your national anthem. Sugar, sugar, how now. Take your body down town. Red...
TUCKER: What it comes down to, ultimately, is that for all the charges that Lana Del Rey is a manufactured pop star, she's actually squarely in the tradition of young performers with an assertive naivetÃ© about how much of a rebel she wants to be. She's referred to her music as Hollywood sadcore and herself as a gangsta Nancy Sinatra. Oh dear: wasn't Nancy Sinatra, with her flat affect and boots made for walkin' pretty gangsta herself? Lana Del Rey sings about her quote-unquote "tar-black soul" but I think that at her best, she's got a red, romantic heart.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed Lana Del Rey's new album "Born to Die."
Coming up, we hear from the producers of the new NBC series "Smash," a drama about the making of a Broadway musical. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This Monday, NBC broadcast the premiere episode of its most aggressively promoted TV series of the season. The program is called "Smash" and it's a drama about the efforts of composers, directors, choreographers, singers, dancers and producers to put on a new Broadway musical, a musical about Marilyn Monroe.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMASH")
DEBRA MESSING: (as Julia Houston) I can see it in my head.
JACK DAVENPORT: (as Derek Wills) You don't think it's the act break?
MESSING: (as Julia Houston) No. No. It's like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MESSING: (as Julia Houston) The stage is black. She stands alone in a pool of light. She's just Norma Jean. Behind her, figures and shadow emerge.
GROSS: The stars of "Smash" include Debra Messing, Angelica Houston and "American Idol" finalist Katharine McPhee.
The original idea for "Smash," the TV series, which started at Showtime before moving to NBC, came from Steven Spielberg who brought it to today's guests, two of the show's executive producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.
Zadan and Meron have been a producing team for decades and their credits include the TV adaptations of "Gypsy" and "Annie," the Oscar-winning film version of the Broadway musical "Chicago," and the current Broadway revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." They spoke, yesterday, with our TV critic David Bianculli.
Here's one of the original songs from the series about Marilyn's time with Joe DiMaggio. It's performed by Megan Hilty, star of Broadway's "9 To 5: The Musical."
(SOUNDBITE OF "SMASH" MUSICAL NUMBER)
MEGAN HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Fellas.
HILTY: (Singing) Fellas.
HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) Hey, team.
CHORUS: Off the benches, it's Marilyn.
HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) I just got a date...
CHORUS: (Singing) She's just got a date.
HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) ...with baseball's Jolting Joe.
CHORUS: (Singing) The lucky so-and-so...
HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) So run me round the bases, put me through my paces and teach me all the things a slugger's lover should know. What's that there?
CHORUS: (Singing) That's the pitcher's mound.
HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Have ever seen a shape that is so perfectly round?
CHORUS: (Singing) Batter up.
HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Play ball.
CHORUS: (Singing) You better give it your all, 'cause a man likes to play at...
HILTY: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) The national past time.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
CRAIG ZADAN: Thank you.
NEIL MERON: Thank you. We're happy to be here.
BIANCULLI: Why Marilyn?
ZADAN: Well, that's interesting, because the fact is, when you're introducing a musical to the American public, especially in a TV series, we all felt it's best to go in with a subject matter that was somewhat familiar already. And it's an iconic huge story that just lends itself to be musicalized, I mean in a very big glamorous sort of way. And there's a lot of tragedy. There's a lot of joy. There's a lot of splash to it. And we also acknowledged very much so that there were attempts of doing Marilyn onstage before and they all failed. So we acknowledged the risky nature of it within the show too.
MERON: The other thing was, that what was the concept for going into each script? And that's really crucial, I think because what we did was when the show was originating at Showtime, it could have been more of a niche show, like "Entourage." And when it moved to NBC and became a more universal show it was very important that half of the piece really was authentic to the American musical theater, but the rest was that it be truly universal for an audience where you have a divorce happening, you have an adoption happening, you have parents coming from the Midwest doubting their child's going into the show business. And we used "West Wing" as an example, where you didn't have to be obsessed with politics to really enjoy "West Wing." You got into the personal stories of their lives - those character's lives. Their job - their day job - is that they do musicals. But their lives are not musicals. Their lives are dealing with issues that everybody deals with every day, no matter what your job is.
BIANCULLI: If "Smash" succeeds it could change TV a little bit, I think. And you guys have already changed film a little, by mounting an Oscar-winning version of the Broadway musical "Chicago," which sort of said it was OK to have film musicals again. And I have a few questions about "Chicago." Let's play the opening from "Chicago." This is Catherine Zeta-Jones singing the opening song, or a part of it. What do you want to say about this opening number or what did you want it to establish?
ZADAN: It's interesting. It was the first stuff we shot in the film. We started shooting with "All That Jazz" and so we have that image of Catherine to lead us into the rest of the filming. And when we saw the dailies we looked at Catherine and said this is really special because she, kind of, like just attacks and grabs that camera and just is ferocious. It's a ferocious performance and we knew that she set the tone and she set the bar for the rest of the film.
BIANCULLI: All right. Here we go. Catherine Zeta-Jones in the opening to "Chicago."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THAT JAZZ")
CATHERINE ZETA-JONES: (Singing) Come on babe, why don't we paint the town? And all that jazz. I'm gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down. And all that jazz. Start the car. I know a whoopee spot where the gin is cold but the piano's hot. It's just a noisy hall where there's a nightly brawl. And all, that, jazz. Skidoo.
BIANCULLI: That was Catherine Zeta-Jones in "All That Jazz," the opening number from "Chicago." So are there any lessons from that that translated to "Smash?"
ZADAN: Oh, yeah.
BIANCULLI: In terms of grabbing people quickly?
ZADAN: Oh yeah. I mean, and it was also dealing with numbers that exist in fantasy. We have a great musical sequence in episode five of "Smash" called "Let's Be Bad," and it probably is the closest to "Chicago" that I think any of us have ever experienced. The whole back-and-forth between reality and fantasy is so "Chicago" - like. I mean "Chicago" kind of set the bar in terms of how we approach musicals and tone is one of the key elements.
MERON: And also, you know, when we did the movie of "Hairspray," that was particularly a challenge, because the tone of that piece had to be really defined because the tone that's on stage is ultra campy and are hairdos six-feet-high, and the makeup is very strong. And, you know, the vision and the concept for the movie of "Hairspray," we decided along with our director/choreographer...
ZADAN: ...very strong and, you know, the vision and the concept for the movie of "Hairspray" we decided, along with our director/choreographer Adam Shankman, that we were going to, first, recreate the exact look and style of 1962 Baltimore, but then we were going to add a couple of inches to it to make it heightened reality.
So that, you know, Adam actually had a very funny description of what we were doing, which is he said you to the authentic hairstyle and then you take a bicycle pump and give it two extra pumps.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ZADAN: And I thought that that was really clever because we were not going to the extreme and doing a campy, you know, over-the-top version of it, which worked brilliantly onstage but would not work on film. And we found that happy medium, the right exact tone for "Hairspray" and we created a world where it was OK for John Travolta to be the mother.
BIANCULLI: Well, it's another really interesting casting choice. I mean, you had (technical difficulties) as the mother in "Hairspray," you have Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway in "How to Succeed in Business." And the thing that first drew me to you guys, as producers, was the TV version of "Gypsy" in 1993.
MERON: Mm-hmm. I remember.
BIANCULLI: When Bette Midler was the star.
BIANCULLI: And -
MERON: That's - yeah.
BIANCULLI: So, I mean, that's a long time ago. It was such an important production.
MERON: Well, you know something? We always looked to Bette to be the person that we have to be the most grateful to, because of the enormous success of what happened with "Gypsy" because of Bette's agreeing to do it and because of her brilliant performance.
BIANCULLI: Well, let's hear a piece of that brilliant performance. This is just a taste of Rose's Turn. So here we go. This is a CBS production from 1993 of Bette Midler in "Gypsy."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV MOVIE "GYPSY")
BETTE MIDLER: (As Mama Rose) (Singing) Mama. Mama's got the stuff. Mama's got a move. Mama's got a â oh. Mama. Ma. Mama's got to let go. Why did I do it? Why did it get me? Scrapbooks full of me in the background. Give them love and what does it get you? What does it get you? One quick look as each of them leaves you. All your life and what does it get you? Thanks a lot and out with the garbage.
(As Mama Rose) (Singing) They take bows and you're back to zero. I had a dream. I dreamed it for you, June. It wasn't for me, Herbie. And if it wasn't me then where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee? Well, someone tell me when is it my turn. Don't I get a dream for myself? Starting now it's going to be my turn. Gangway, world, get off of my runway. Starting now I bat a thousand.
(As Mama Rose) (Singing) This time boys I'm taking the bow and everything's coming up Rose. Everything's coming up roses.
BIANCULLI: That's Bette Midler as Rose in "Gypsy." Hearing that, I guess it's 18 years later, what do you think? What do you hear?
MERON: You know, whenever I see a clip or I hear a sound, I remember exactly where I was while it was being filmed. And so I just go back to me standing in that theater in downtown Los Angeles watching this onstage and knowing that it was our first movie musical. It was one of those could it get any better moments.
ZADAN: We also â we did something on that one that was a little bit risky, and at first Bette and Neil and I, you know, a major disagreement about it, actually. We pre-recorded everything in advance as we always do for a movie musical, but we insisted that Bette do a couple of takes live. We didn't want that speed bump that happens when you finish dialogue and then go into a song.
So we didn't want it to go from saying a line and then turning it into the recording studio. And Bette, at first, resisted it. She didn't want to do it live. And we talked about it endlessly, and then she said, OK, I'll do it once. And she did it once and then she saw, and we saw, that she did it live, brilliantly. And then she said all right, I'll do one more.
And then, OK, let's try it again. And we were able to, in the studio, mix it in such a way where a lot of pieces of the songs that Bette did were live recordings and some of them were mixed with studio recordings. And you couldn't tell the difference once they were blended, but the truth was that we had a much more naturalistic entrance into the musical numbers in that show than we would've normally had.
BIANCULLI: Why, whether it's on Broadway or on television, or in the movies, why do musicals still matter?
MERON: You know, there is a reason, you know, that was given for why people sing in musicals. And that reason is when emotions get so great you can no longer talk, you sing. So I think it is about that heightened emotion that is translated, and it is just that joy of the release of a song. And music heals. Music does a lot of things to people. And when it's done in the context of a dramatic story, it's even better.
BIANCULLI: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, thanks for being back on FRESH AIR.
MERON: Thank you, David.
ZADAN: Thank you. Thanks so much.
MERON: Any time.
GROSS: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron spoke with FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli. They're producers of the series "Smash" which premiers on NBC Monday. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews several books about unemployment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Unlike the Great Depression, the Great Recession hasn't yet produced much memorable literature, but our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that situation seems to be changing. Here's her review of several books on unemployment.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Like many of its readers, the novel has always lived for the weekend. Historically, the workaday world of the office and factory has been considered too mundane to be of much interest. Even less sexy to fiction than the topic of work, is the topic of losing work. Being fired, losing homes to foreclosure, searching for a new job in middle age - these are the grim situation so many readers today are facing.
The good news is that a few standout recent novels have ingeniously decided to tackle unemployment head-on. Stewart O'Nan is an unfailingly smart and affecting novelist, but never more so, I think, than when he writes about the economic struggles of ordinary folks. His great 2007 novella, "Last Night at the Lobster," is about the last shift at a closing seafood restaurant in a crummy New England mall. Now, O'Nan has just published a powerful new novella about the unemployed, called "The Odds."
O'Nan's main characters, Marion and Art Fowler, are out of work and just about out of options. On the eve of their 30th anniversary, they're getting ready to divorce to protect what little assets remain. But, first, they've booked a deluxe suite at one of the honeymoon hotels in Niagara Falls. What a perfect setting to dramatize the ultimate middle-class nightmare: the fear of falling.
Art's plan to turn things around, wanly agreed to by Marion, is to gamble their remaining cash on the roulette wheel at the hotel casino. If that scheme sounds improbable, it's nowhere near as bizarre as the quick demise of Art's 20-year career as an insurance agent. Listen to how the end arrived.
(Reading) Art relied on his seniority to protect him. It seemed to, through the early round of cuts. The new head of Human Resources had come for friends on both sides of his office, a brawny security guard trailing behind like a bouncer. The drill was simple: hand over your badge and take your personal possessions. No farewell lunch, no sheet cake, no gag gifts. He made it to July. They came for him in the morning, before coffee break.
It sounds like a scene out of Edgar Allan Poe, doesn't it? And that's O'Nan's brilliance in this novella, revealing the unemployment story to be the tale of everyday terror it really is.
Of course, as Ross Raisin reminds us in his new novel, "Waterline," the Great Recession isn't just an American horror story. Raisin is a phenom in Great Britain, having won awards aplenty for his debut novel "Out, Backward". In "Waterline" he tells the evocative story of Mick Little, who has just lost his wife, Cathy, to cancer.
The cancer may have been caused by the asbestos Mick tracked into their little house every evening after his shift ended at the Glasgow shipyards. The shipyards are dead now, too, being renovated into an industrial heritage theme park. "Waterline" follows Mick as he searches for a second act in life, scrubbing dishes in a hotel kitchen, sleeping in homeless shelters.
There's a lot of wisecracking working-class humor in "Waterline" and strong echoes of George Orwell's classic, "Down and Out in London and Paris."
One American literary subgenre where hard-luck characters have always taken refuge, is crime noir, those hard-boiled tales of men and women driven to the shadow side to make a buck. Crime noir was a product of the 1930s; in fact, James M. Cain, the king of crime noir, said that his classic, "Double Indemnity," was a story of the Great Depression.
Another Cain masterpiece, "Mildred Pierce," is set in 1931, and the novel, unlike the movie versions, focuses obsessively on Mildred's struggles to make a living. A contemporary crime noir writer who walks in Cain's down-at-the-heel footsteps is Dave Zeltserman; his novels, "Small Crimes" and "Pariah," are about as nasty and clever as noir can get.
Zeltserman, who was a software engineer in his previous life, has written out a dark gem of a story called "Outsourced" about four computer geeks who are laid off and decide to take advantage of a glitch in a security program that one of them had installed in a bank, to rob it. Zeltserman's pulp sensitivity to panic makes this novel a macabre delight to read. Before they hit on the robbery scheme, his characters spend down their 401(k)s and frantically shave years off their resumes.
The bank heist plan is about as nutty as the Fowlers' gamble on that roulette wheel in Niagara Falls, but in desperate times, these unemployment novels tell us, all bets are off.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
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