Smash, the New NBC Musical Drama, Has Everything for a Smash Hit

The cast of NBC’s “Smash.”

When you name a show Smash, you better have a lot of confidence because critics can turn that title against you quickly. Fortunately the pilot of new NBC series Smash (premiering Feb. 6 at 10 p.m.) captures your attention just as quickly and never lets the audience go. It has the beauty and heartbreak of the Broadway Theater as its backdrop, with the most interesting characters, schemers and dreamers of all types, to enjoy as the intriguing story unfolds.

Smash also has a stellar cast and an impressive production team since it started as an idea from executive producer Steven Spielberg. And it has show-stopping music integrated into the storytelling because the series centers around people trying to make a great musical about Marilyn Monroe. The backstage drama follows the successful songwriting duo of Julia (Emmy-winner Debra Messing, Will & Grace) and Tom (Christian Borle). Julia wrestles with the process of adopting a child with her husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), while she seizes the opportunity to write another Broadway hit.

A key ingredient to Smash’s strength is the rivalry that develops between two actresses vying for the lead role of Marilyn Monroe. There is the youthful, inexperienced Midwestern beauty Karen (Sherman Oaks’ own Katharine McPhee, of American Idol fame). And there is stage veteran Ivy Bell (Megan Hilty, Wicked and 9 to 5: The Musical), who is determined to leave the chorus line and finally get her big break. Both light up the screen when they perform, and more than hold their own in scenes with Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston (Prizzi’s Honor) playing Eileen, a tenacious producer who jumps on board the Marilyn project with brilliant director Derek (Jack Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean films), whose talent is matched by his ego and amorality.

There are a lot of stereotypical themes explored, such as the backstabbing rivalries, the casting couch, egocentric directors, working as a waitress between auditions, etc.; so I had to ask McPhee and Hilty if the show reflects their experiences? “The stereotype is there for a reason. I have worked in a restaurant,” Katharine said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced backstabbing, but I was testing for a film and the actor who was reading opposite me had rehearsed with a girl who was at the same agency. So you think, ‘well, gee, that’s not fair.’ But it’s the business and you just pick up where you left off and keep going. So it definitely happens.”

Megan agreed and explained, “I think the genius of making this idea into a series is that when you are a live theater performer, you’re giving so much of yourself and there’s so much at stake when you’re out and exposing yourself in front of hundreds of thousands of people, that it naturally sets the tone and sets the stage for high drama. It’s because the adrenaline’s going and the stakes are so high. There’s so much at stake and this show definitely taps into all of those things. And, yes, all of those stereotypes are there for a reason. And the drama that happens behind the curtain is way more interesting than what’s happening on the stage.”

For all those reasons, the life of Marilyn Monroe is a great analogy for the struggles that go on in the theater world, according to Megan. She thinks it’s the perfect parallel because “her story is one of tragedy, heartbreak, glamour, love, and all things that make for great drama, all things that people want to watch and are intrigued by, which is why we’re still talking about her today.”

In addition to executive producer Steven Spielberg, the talent behind the scenes includes playwright Theresa Rebeck, David Marshall Grant, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Oscar-winners for Chicago), and Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey also serve as executive producers. Smash is a production of Universal Television in association with DreamWorks. The pilot was directed by Michael Mayer, and original songs are written by Tony and Grammy winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray).

Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, was excited when he talked about Smash being “something very ambitious” for the network. The “oohs” and “aahs” heard from TV critics when he showed clips from upcoming episodes validated his faith in the production. Tune in Mondays on NBC.