Smash [NBC, Mondays, 10/9C] is a risky oddball of a series that was developed for cable before winding up on NBC. The story of the mounting of a Broadway play, Marilyn: The Musical, it is a big budget swing for the fences that knocks it out of the park.
With a huge regular and recurring cast, Smash’s overarching throughline looks at the creation of a Broadway musical – from a throwaway comment to writing the first song, through hiring a director, casting and rehearsals, workshopping and, finally/hopefully, a Broadway run. Making the process more relatable is the way the show also looks at the lives of the principal players – all of whom are introduced in the pilot.
Tom Levitt [Christian Borle] and Julia Houston [Debra Messing] are the writing team behind a string of successful musicals – successful enough that they can afford to take a year off so that Julia and her husband Frank [Brian d’Arcy James] can jump through the hoops required to adopt a Chinese baby. An offhand remark by tom’s hyper-efficient new assistant leads them to become intrigued by the idea of a musical about Marilyn Monroe.
When the assistant emails a video of a demo they’ve written to his mother, it goes viral and suddenly people are interested. People like high-powered producer Eileen Rand [Anjelica Houston] – and before you know it, there’s a top director, Derek Wills [Jack Davenport] involved and a duel between a veteran of the chorus, Ivy Lynn [Megan Hilty] and a talented newcomer, Karen Cartwright [Katherine McPhee] for the lead role.
Somehow, Smash has been dubbed ‘Glee for grown-ups’ when it’s really nothing like Glee. The show is a drama about creating a musical from scratch and the only competition involved is between actors trying out for roles. Even the singing and dancing is in a completely different context.
Most people have no idea how a Broadway musical comes to be and though it accelerates the steps, Smash is very authentic about the process. How authentic? All the original music is written by the tony Award-winning team of Mark Shaiman & Scott Wittman, and a very high percentage of the cast comes from the musical theater world. The show’s creator, Theresa Rebeck, wrote the first two episodes – which were directed by Michael Mayer – and she definitely knows the ins and outs of that world.
Then there’s Eileen, whose nasty divorce has all her assets frozen, but wants to produce Marilyn: The Musical so badly that she will find a way to secure funds, anyway. And Dev [Raza Jaffrey], the boyfriend whose important dinner date goes wrong because of that long rehearsal. Not to mention Karen’s parents, who don’t seem to have much faith in her ability to find work as an actor.
What makes Smash something exceptional is the way we get to see how an audition looks and feels to an actor who is really in the moment – and how that zone can be disrupted by a callous director taking a phone call in the middle of that audition. Or we can vicariously experience the rollercoaster ride of emotions when a rehearsal goes long and a crucial date is missed.
In that same vein, when Ivy and/or Karen perform, the show cuts between them in the rehearsal space and them as they imagine themselves onstage. It’s a very effective device and adds a bit of glamour to what is not a particularly glamorous process.
Given the amount of promotion Smash has gotten – and which it richly deserves – it should grab a decent initial audience. Given its quality, it deserves a large one.
Smash has a lot of people who should know better saying it is ‘the show that will save NBC.’ It’ll take more than one show to save NBC – even if it is a great show. And make no mistake, based on the two episodes made available for review, Smash is a great show! It’s a terrific start.
Oh, and the opening baseball metaphor? Marilyn was married to Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio for a time and there’s a running gag about ‘a baseball number.’
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Photos by Matt Seliger and Will Hart/courtesy NBC