Prime Time Broadway: The Story Behind TV's "Smash"

News   Prime Time Broadway: The Story Behind TV's "Smash"
 
Top players from Broadway, movies and TV are exploring the drama of making a musical in the new drama series "Smash."

Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman Photo by Krissie Fullerton

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"Broadway Baby," from the landmark 1971 musical Follies, was Stephen Sondheim's valentine to every chorus kid with dreams of top billing. The new NBC series "Smash," about the trials of putting on a great big Broadway show, is about to give those kids their due.

The "Smash" dream team unites the best of Hollywood and Broadway producers, including three-time Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg and Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who produced the film versions of Chicago and Hairspray and the current Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Throw into this creative mix "Smash" creator, head writer and Pulitzer Prize-nominated Seminar and Mauritius playwright Theresa Rebeck, Tony-winning Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and Tony winner Michael Mayer to direct the pilot, and you have the makings of, well, a smash.

"It used to be that 'theatre' was a dirty word on television," Meron says. "It was like you couldn't do politics on TV until 'West Wing' happened, and then there's a law you can't do theatre on TV. We felt it was time [to] explore this world as long as there was some universality and there were characters that the audience can engage with."

Katharine McPhee in the pilot
photo by Will Hart/NBC

Among those characters are a driven producer in search of her next hit project, played by Oscar-winning Hollywood royalty Anjelica Huston; a hit musical songwriting team played by Emmy winner Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") and Tony nominee Christian Borle (Legally Blonde); and two actresses (9 to 5 Drama Desk nominee Megan Hilty and "American Idol" contestant Katharine McPhee) competing for the same dream role.

"There are so many times I've stood backstage and thought, 'There need to be cameras here,'" says Hilty, who plays Ivy Lynn, a veteran Broadway chorus girl with her sights set on stardom. In "Smash" she goes belt-to-belt with fresh-faced newcomer Karen Cartwright (played by McPhee) as they compete to land the role of Marilyn Monroe in a new musical based on the buxom bombshell.

Akin to "Glee," which Meron and Zadan credit for opening the door to honest-to-goodness musical numbers on television, "Smash" will deliver character-driven songs (some culled from the pop charts) as well as original, show-stopping sequences from Marilyn. The goose bump-inducing new songs, like "Let Me Be Your Star," are by Shaiman and Wittman.

"We had to find a musical that the audience could drop in on at any moment and know what the story was," says lyricist Wittman. "And Marilyn, everyone's familiar with the blocks of [her] life story."

Rebeck adds, "The more time we spent with it, the more it became clear that not only would it actually make a fantastic musical, because she's so iconic and there's so many different, enormous arcs to her story, you could also make a great television show about people arguing about how to make a musical about Marilyn Monroe."

Megan Hilty
photo by Will Hart/NBC

As the worlds of Broadway and Hollywood meld in creating the series, the show-within-a-show-within-a-show construct has already led to some meta-theatrical moments. Hilty recalls a shoot in a theatre on Staten Island, where she was playing Ivy Lynn, who was playing Monroe, who was in character as Sugar in the film "Some Like It Hot." "There's a fake camera crew, and a fake director on stage, and then there's the real camera crew that's out in the audience and above us swirling around us capturing it all," she laughs.

While "Smash" promises to deliver Broadway musical numbers in spades, another goal is to give television audiences the experience of sitting in a bare rehearsal space, creating the spectacle. How do you take an unknown actress and transform her into an icon? What does it take to be a star? Are they born, or are they made?

Christian Borle and Debra Messing
photo by Will Hart/NBC

From day one the creators have aimed to deliver an authentic look at the theatre community and the process of putting on a show; that includes using the actual locations where stage dreams are born, tested and sometimes discarded. Members of the theatre community will recognize familiar locations like the 42nd Street rehearsal studios, the must-have footwear retailer LaDuca Shoes, Shubert Alley and even chorus-kid hangouts like the Westway Diner.

"The most surreal moment for me so far was shooting scenes in [casting director] Bernie Telsey's office, where I've sat and waited to audition for many things before," Hilty says.

Right now "Smash" is scheduled for one 15-episode season. Could Marilyn the musical find a place on Broadway after television audiences take the journey from conception and workshop through rehearsal and opening night? That was producer Spielberg's initial notion, according to Zadan. "When we had our first meeting, he said, 'This is the show, but I have a bigger idea, which is, should we be so lucky that the show that we're actually creating within the TV series is great, there's no reason why we shouldn't finish it and take it to Broadway.'"

"Right now, we're standing around on the set and we're filming Marilyn musical numbers and we're thinking, 'God, we'd love to see this on stage,'" Meron adds. That prospect doesn't seem too unlikely, given the talent involved.

As Monroe's character Sugar whispers in "Some Like It Hot": "It's not how long it takes, it's who's taking you."

If you've already seen the pilot, check out this comment-filled recap from Playbill.com.

Check out Playbill Video's interviews with the cast and creatives of "Smash":

 

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