Scene: A massive converted warehouse somewhere in Brooklyn, late 2011. The lights come up on the cast of an ambitious network drama about the making of a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe as they screen the series' pilot during a catered lunch break. Once the credits roll, so do the waves of applause...
As anyone who's read the copious critical raves knows, Smash — the most faaabulous show that's not on Bravo — is all that and an orchestra seat. Produced by Steven Spielberg, created by Emmy nominee Theresa Rebeck (NYPD Blue), loaded with tunes by Hairspray Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and boasting a cast so good you'd think it was on cable, this stage-door soap is either gonna be a knock-'em-dead blockbuster or one of TV's splashiest misfits.
It's risky for sure. There's a reason you don't see a lot of musical dramedies on the small screen, and unless Rachel Berry winds up in the Big Apple, Smash couldn't be any less like Glee... something NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt is happy about. "Three years ago, everybody thought putting Glee on was crazy, including the network," says Greenblatt, amid a swarm of hyped-up chorus types and crew members following the cast screening. Having first developed a "darker" version of the backstage serial while heading up Showtime, Greenblatt is grateful that Fox's show-choir hit "laid the groundwork for music in a TV show," even while distancing Smash from any comparisons. "Up until Glee, it had been a spotty record for musicals," he says. "We take our hats off to them. We're different shows that are going to be lumped together because we're the only two musicals, but we are very different."
So different, in fact, that Smash might be too "inside baseball" for the average viewer, which is why the producers have packed it with something for everyone. "If you love theater, you'll love the show," says executive producer Neil Meron (a producer of Oscar winner Chicago). "If you have no interest in theater... well, their lives are like everybody else's, so we'll be dealing with their parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, their families." Adds Rebeck, "It's more character-driven" with "great soap elements" aplenty. "It's a very complicated world in terms of the class structure," she says. "It's very much like Upstairs/Downstairs, except there's not a mansion; it's a [theater]."
In what appears to be an effort to spice up the niche subject matter, expect theatrics and lots of sexy twists: In addition to the ongoing battle for the role of Marilyn, there will be bed-hopping, a drug-fueled decline, a brutal divorce case, an All About Eve-ish betrayal, love triangles, an original song and cameo by One Republic's Ryan Tedder, and (holy stunt casting!) a Nick Jonas guest appearance. Of course, it doesn't hurt that all of this is acted out, sung or kick-ball-changed by a cast riddled with award winners and gifted Broadway talent.
"As soon as I finished reading the pilot, I called my agent and said I have to be a part of this," remembers Debra Messing, whose harried lyricist, Julia Houston, is dealing with the birthing pains of a new musical, a pending adoption with her frustrated hubby (Brian D'Arcy James) and the Episode 3 return of her former lover (Will Chase), who scores the role of Joe DiMaggio. "I loved every character. I loved the world," effuses Messing. "And then to do it in New York? It's shot so beautifully that it feels like a love letter to the city."
Christian Borle (Legally Blonde: The Musical), whose charm as Julia's sardonic composing partner, Tom Levitt, could fill a Broadway theater, shares her excitement for the show's risk-taking when it comes to presenting audiences with an industry rarely explored on TV. "They got the details right," raves the Tony nominee. "As glamorous and goosebump-inducing as a lot of the numbers are, the backstage stuff shows a lot of the warts of what you go through."
"I was like, 'Damn, that doesn't read like a TV show'... in a good way," echoes Jack Davenport, set to send hearts swooning as Derek Wills, the 14-carat bastard of a director who beds one of his stars early on. "The scripts are fantastic."
Rebeck's writing also swayed Oscar winner Anjelica Huston (Prizzi's Honor) to sign on for her first-ever series-regular role. "The quality of the material, Theresa is responsible for that," says Huston, kicking back in diva-caliber Louboutins while stand-ins work out a rehearsal-room powwow between her scene-stealing, soon-to-be-divorced producer Eileen Rand and a group of potential Marilyn investors. "And just in terms of the kind of work that one can do for a series, particularly a beautifully written one like this, it's great," she says, clearly thrilled. "You get to really develop character." She'll also get to develop some chemistry with All My Children stud Thorsten Kaye when he shows up as a bartender who helps her do more than drown her sorrows.
For its dueling ingenues, Smash is blessed with an embarrassment of riches in both stage vet Megan Hilty (Wicked) and Katharine McPhee, the Season 5 American Idol alum who came with Spielberg's seal of approval. "I think he'd seen her for a film and said, 'We should think about Kat McPhee for this,'" says Greenblatt. Best known as a singer, McPhee's revelatory turn as newbie Karen Cartwright is already silencing her naysayers. "I know, it's like, 'What? Steven Spielberg cast her as an actress?'" says the brunette stunner with a laugh, adding that previous post-Idol endeavors to find work (The House Bunny, a Community guest spot) mirror her untested alter ego's frustrations. "Going in for every major film you could imagine, coming really close to getting them, being up there against two or three or five other girls and not getting it [because] I didn't have a big enough résumé... it's literally a real-life story that I have lived and I deal with on a daily basis that we're telling in the show."
Likewise, Hilty finds her star-making gig as Karen's blonder, bustier competition, embittered chorus girl Ivy Lynn, easily accessible. "I have gone to school with this character, I've done community theater with this character, I am part of this character," says the sunny belter who earned a Drama Desk nod for playing the Dolly Parton role in 9 to 5: The Musical. "It's too good to be true to have a television series about my world and all the things I love so dearly. I wanted to be a part of it so badly." Not only did she get the part, but she also gets Bernadette Peters as her mom, who shows up mid-season and sends her daughter on a downward spiral.
And while Hilty and McPhee show off some serious vocal ranges in each episode — production numbers routinely veer between the reality of rehearsals and the fantasy of what the opening-night version might look like — it's the operatic off-stage collision of these ladies, as well as the arrival in later episodes of Uma Thurman as a movie star who wants to play Marilyn — that will propel the series toward a splashy season finale built around the Marilyn out-of-town tryout. "You have two women who are so different in every way imaginable, and we're forced to be together constantly in very uncomfortable situations," says Hilty. "And with that comes some very real drama."
Should that drama work on screen, there is the possibility of it moving, meta-style, to the stage. "If this Marilyn turns out to be terrific, after following it for a season, we [could] then take it to Broadway," predicts Meron's producing partner Craig Zadan. "Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman will write more songs, Theresa Rebeck will write the book... and Neil and I will produce it with Spielberg and the [DreamWorks] group. So we'd have a Broadway show."
They might even have a smash.
Smash premieres Monday, February 6 at 10/9c on NBC.