ON the Staten Island set of NBC’s new musical drama “Smash,” it was easy to miss the choreographer Joshua Bergasse amid the hubbub in the St. George Theater. Onstage one of the show’s ingénues, Megan Hilty, rehearsed a chorus girl dance number behind the Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz. In the audience the show’s creator, Theresa Rebeck, chatted with the songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
It would be wrong, though, to overlook Mr. Bergasse, perhaps the busiest man on “Smash,” whom Ms. Rebeck calls the show’s “secret weapon.”
“You’re about to see our first run-through — aahhh,” whispered Mr. Bergasse, a bright-eyed, boyish 39-year-old, taking a seat behind a monitor as the playback rolled. Before “Smash” started filming in September, Mr. Bergasse was a journeyman choreographer and dancer for musical theater whose highest profile gig was in the company of “Hairspray” on Broadway. Then his life changed: the right director saw his reel, and the right big-time filmmaker liked it. Soon he found himself choreographing a fictional musical for network TV. “This is like the golden ticket,” he said. “I still have to pinch myself once in a while to realize this is for real.”
Positioned as a more adult alternative to “Glee,” “Smash,” which had its premiere on Monday, follows the development of a new musical about Marilyn Monroe, focusing on two aspiring Broadway actresses (Ms. Hilty and Katharine McPhee) both going after the title role. Each episode features performances of original songs by Mr. Shaiman and Mr. Wittman, in addition to other pop and theater tunes.
Though he wasn’t plucked from the chorus line to become a star, per se, Mr. Bergasse benefited from the attention of a helpful director. Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”), a consulting producer and director for “Smash,” first met Mr. Bergasse when Mr. Bergasse was a dance captain in the out-of-town tryout of Mr. Mayer’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 1999. “He was a fantastic performer, and that’s all I knew at the time,” Mr. Mayer recalled at the St. George.
Years later the two reconnected at a New York University benefit. “Part of the entertainment was this undergrad dance performance — this jitterbuggy, real period stuff,” Mr. Mayer said. “A lot of tricky partnering and group numbers. And I was like: ‘My God, this choreography is really terrific. Who did it?’ I look in the program, and it’s Josh Bergasse.”
Soon after that Mr. Mayer asked Mr. Bergasse for his reel. “There was this brilliant sequence,” Mr. Mayer recalled, “showing him in the process of choreographing ‘Cool’ from ‘West Side Story,’ intercut with the finished version of it. It was beautiful to watch.” (Mr. Bergasse is certified by the Jerome Robbins Foundation to teach that choreography.) Mr. Mayer said that when he visited DreamWorks for the first time to meet Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of “Smash,” “one of my big agendas was to sit him in front of Josh’s reel, and he said: ‘This guy’s terrific. We should definitely hire him.’ ”
Mr. Bergasse said Mr. Mayer found him at just the right time. “It was at a point where I’d been doing this for so long, and I was struggling,” Mr. Bergasse said on set, “and I’m, you know, almost 40. I was about ready to say: ‘What else can I do? What if I leave here?’ And then this happened.”
As choreographer Mr. Bergasse is responsible for all movement in the show, from studio pirouettes to big production numbers, like the one he was rehearsing that day. His extensive theater experience fit perfectly with the raison d’être of “Smash”: to show the nuts and bolts of making a Broadway show. “My assignment with these big numbers is to choreograph to the proscenium,” he said. “It needs to be shot from beginning to end as if it’s onstage.”
Mr. Bergasse’s style exudes a classic Broadway charm. In this number — a rollicking, gospel-style dance — and others he deftly weaves discrete groups of dancers to create cohesive stage pictures that still draw the audience’s eye to individual performers. Mr. Bergasse emphasizes the need for images to pop on screen.
Creating the numbers is the tough part. Mr. Bergasse’s process begins right after Mr. Shaiman and Mr. Wittman finish a song. “I listen to it 4,000 times,” Mr. Bergasse said. “I get to know it backwards and forwards, intimately.” He meets with the “Smash” creative team to brainstorm and then enters the studio with his assistant, Valerie Salgado, and a skeleton crew “to hammer out ideas and steps.”
He conceives the number first with stand-ins for the principals, sending video to the executive producers. Finally he rehearses with the leads. “Working on a production this size, there are so many moving parts,” he said. “Scheduling — just trying to get a rehearsal for one hour — that’s the biggest challenge.”
He’s coming to understand the value of time management. A week qualifies as long prep time here; sometimes he has as little as two days to work out a number. “As soon as I think I’m caught up, it’s time to start the next episode,” he said. In most episodes he also plays the assistant to the director-choreographer played by Jack Davenport. (“I say a lot of ‘five, six, seven, eight!’ ” Mr. Bergasse said.)
While this dance number shoots, he is rehearsing Uma Thurman, a guest star. He’s also learning Bollywood-style dance, so he can create a Bollywood number. “Twelve episodes in, you’re like, ‘Gosh, I hope I didn’t use all my tricks in one season,’ ” he said. It’s all a far cry from Mr. Bergasse’s days on tour, wondering where the next paycheck would come from. He is now the one choosing dancers, a perk he seems to value above so many others. “All these years there were dancers I was dying to work with, and now I can,” he said. “But I’m not going to lie. It feels good to not have to audition.”