By Caitlin Gardner
NBC’s new show Smash takes us to the early developments of a stage musical planned for Broadway.
The featured Marilyn Monroe-centric production is backed by musical talent and a director willing to cut it down to size, but a major producer going through a divorce could kill the funding behind the musical—if the company can even settle on a leading lady, that is.
Is the show good? Well, yes and no.
Smash’s pilot is an atypical story of beginners in show business shown from the perspective of Katharine McPhee’s character, Karen. The show’s protagonist works a menial job while getting constantly rejected from auditions, causing her Midwestern parents to worry. Additionally, she has a supportive boyfriend but must deal with unwanted advances from producer Derek Wills, played by Jack Davenport.
Megan Hilty’s effervescent chorus girl, Ivy, Karen’s competition, has the talent, brass and attitude for success, but has yet to win the leading role that will propel her into stardom.
Hilty has her day in a show-stopping original musical number whereas McPhee, the American Idol fifth season finalist, sings ballads like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Beautiful.”
While the success of Fox’s high school show choir drama Glee might be responsible for Smash’s existence, at least on network television, the latter focuses more on the behind-the-scenes side of show business as opposed to shoving over-saturated pop tunes down your throat—this is not to bash Glee, however; I write this as a die-hard “Gleek.”
In Smash, however, we see these people really work. It could appear self-indulgent to have a show surrounded by people with theater backgrounds complain about how hard their lives are, but it actually comes off as a pretty neurotic, exciting, crazy and dramatic environment—which, for anybody involved with theater or acquainted with people who are, feels authentic.
Smash came to NBC thanks to new network chief and former Broadway producer Bob Greenblatt, who first heard the pitch while working for Showtime. He believed that this show needed a network budget and boldly took it with him to NBC.
Showrunner Teresa Rebeck has plenty of stage play credits that make her suitable for the job, and the original music is composed by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman of Hairspray fame.
While actors like Debra Messing (Will & Grace) and Angelica Huston (The Royal Tenenbaums) are pretty recognizable, cast members such as Hilty, Christian Borle and Brian d’Arcy James have all worked in some of the biggest musicals of the last decade.
Smash has a lot riding on it. The show has been advertised heavily—NBC even allowed Amazon and iTunes to show the pilot free before its network debut —and features Broadway actors making their work a public subject.
People with theater backgrounds on television are typically seen in Law & Order re-run marathons, but with only Law & Order: SVU still standing, soap operas dying, and many of the New York-based shows this past season getting canceled or moving to L.A., there is increased pressure from the Broadway community to spike popular interest in their craft, and fast.
With this in mind, Smash may have come to the wrong place, as NBC, unfortunately, has been stuck in ratings purgatory.
The show is off to a good, promising start. Despite its tendency to rely on clichés associated with the entertainment industry, it gives viewers plenty of reason to check out future episodes.
There is too much talent behind and in front of the camera to not give Smash a chance, which will hopefully display the originality of and give insight into the business of working in live theater.