As a mix of snow and rain came down outside 54 Below, the popular Manhattan venue offering three sold-out concerts of the "Smash" musical Hit List, things began to heat up under 54th Street, as theatregoers and "Smash" fans filled the space in anticipation for the 11:30 PM concert — the first of the three, held Dec. 8-9.
"Let Me Be Your Star," the show's anthem (penned by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), resonated throughout the building, and members of the 54 Below staff took audience members' phone numbers, in the style of "Hit List text messaging," the concept Jimmy Collins and Kyle Bishop incorporated into their modern-day musical — a show about finding fame, establishing stardom and falling in love that lives among the worlds of Tony winners Spring Awakening and Rent.
Writers of the Hit List score — including A Christmas Story Tony Award nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Drew Gasparini, Joe Iconis and Andrew McMahon — were tucked away in the far left corner of 54 Below, close to the onstage piano, where they would take turns playing songs they created for the NBC television musical drama.
Ann Harada, the comedic Charlotte of Broadway's Cinderella — known for her performance as feisty stage manager Linda on "Smash"— paced the venue (headset atop her head) and, in true "Smash" fashion, began to call the shots at 11:50 PM, when the lights dimmed and First Date actress Krysta Rodriguez entered from the back of the house as The Diva. She began with an a cappella version of Joe Iconis' "Broadway, Here I Come!" and fired a fake gunshot towards center stage — setting up the evening and the gritty plot behind the "Tony Award-winning" musical Hit List. Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus, the star of Broadway's upcoming Les Misérables, took the stage as Jimmy Collins and Kyle Bishop, respectively, and the evening officially kicked off with Jordan and Carrie Manolakos (stepping into Katharine McPhee's role — Karen Cartwright, the actress on "Smash" who plays Amanda in Hit List), who sang "Rewrite This Story" (the first big musical number of Hit List by Pasek and Paul, who also penned the award-winning Off-Broadway musical Dogfight).
|Photo by Monica Simoes|
The concert version of Hit List — presented by Julia Brownell, Joshua Safran (executive producer and showrunner of the second season of "Smash") and Jennifer Ashley Tepper (54 Below's director of programming) — was staged throughout the venue to give audiences the "real feel" of the musical, which (on "Smash") opened at the intimate Manhattan Theatre Workshop (resembling the real-life New York Theatre Workshop) and transferred to Broadway's Barrymore Theatre. In the scene where Amanda stands atop a bridge, contemplating suicide and singing "Broadway, Here I Come!" (accompanied in the concert by its writer, Joe Iconis), Manolakos sang from the far right corner of 54 Below — standing on a countertop, behind a railing — to suspend reality and make the audience believe she was truly "falling through the sky." The song "Reach for Me" — a number penned by Andrew McMahon that featured the character of The Diva dangling from silks in Hit List on TV — featured a chicly dressed Rodriguez performing on 54 Below's center table. Audience members directly underneath Rodriguez made a quick grab for their phones to capture the moment.
Molly Hager, Eric Michael Krop, Julia Mattison and Monet Julia Sabel provided backup vocals throughout the evening, which featured tight harmonies and vocal arrangements by music director Benjamin Rauhala, orchestrations by Charlie Rosen and band members Rauhala, Rosen, Shannon Ford, Alisa Horn, Dennis Michael Keefe and Hiroko Taguchi.
Composers Iconis, Gasparini, Paul and McMahon made special appearances at the piano throughout the evening, while Pasek offered a brief acting cameo at the end of the show. (The Tony-nominated songwriter was later congratulated by numerous fans and friends for his polished acting chops.)
Songs not included in the television version of Hit List (but intended for the fictional musical), such as "If I Had You" by Gasparini (a duet for Jordan and Mientus), "Haddonfield" by Iconis (performed by Rodriguez) and "Swim" by McMahon (a belty number for Mientus), were sprinkled throughout the evening and woven into the plot of Hit List.
As the night came to a close (and The Diva had the last say in which actress would take the final bow in Hit List), Manolakos and Jordan offered heartfelt versions of Lucie Silvas' "Heart Shaped Wreckage" and Shaiman and Wittman's "The Love I Meant to Say." "Smash" showrunner Safran smiled in the back corner alongside co-producer Tepper, an avid "Smash" fan and the driving force behind bringing the musical to life at 54 Below. The venue erupted when a group of 40 actors flooded the aisles for "The Goodbye Song," the Hit List finale and a new anthem for the rising generation of contemporary musical theatre.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)