THE "SMASH" REPORT: Recapping the Pilot Episode, With Comments and Context

By Kenneth Jones
06 Feb 2012

Christian Borle and Debra Messing
photo by Will Hart/NBC

The musical-in-the-making at the center of the series is to be called Marilyn the Musical, a biographical show written by composer Tom Levitt (played by Broadway's Christian Borle) and lyricist Julia Houston (played by "Will & Grace" star Debra Messing), longtime collaborators who also apparently co-write their librettos (at least they do as of the pilot). Three minutes into the episode, the fuse of the entire enterprise is lit. News of a revival of My Fair Lady prompts this from Julia: "Revivals and movies! Why doesn't anyone do new musicals anymore? New book, new songs. We write new musicals."

Tom's efficient, stage-struck new assistant Ellis (played by Jaime Cepero) suggests that movie icon Marilyn Monroe would make a good subject for a musical. It's been done before, the writers say (referring to the 1983 "huge flop," Marilyn — An American Fable), but the seed has been planted. Despite the fact that Tom and Julia are "taking a break" from writing (their latest, Heaven on Earth, at the Shubert, just opened in a West End version), and despite the fact that Julia and her husband Frank (played by Broadway's Brian d'Arcy James) have begun the complicated process of adopting a baby (they also have a teenage son, Leo, and they live in a very well-appointed townhouse — Julia and Tom have made more than just a living on their shows), the writers are hooked on the idea of a Marilyn musical. They can't not try it, so they cut a demo before they even shape a script (something that happens more often than musical writers might admit).

Debra Messing and Brian d'Arcy James
photo by Will Hart/NBC

The two other musical sequences in the pilot underline the producers' approach to music. (No, Tom and Julia do not sing about their passion for writing musicals as they drink tea in his spotless Riverside Drive apartment.)

When Karen gets an appointment to read for Marilyn, she is all nerves before the audition. Her understanding, handsome, kind, soulful boyfriend Dev — whose allure is enhanced by the fact that he also has a British accent and he's a respected player in the mayor's office — tells her to "think of love" when she sings her song. (Civilians giving notes to show people is a fresh twist here.) Thus, when she performs "Beautiful" (the Christina Aguilera hit) in her audition, shafts of soft color flood the room, and what's special about Karen comes alive. We see the story of the song — the character in the song — come to life through the lens of Karen, and those present at the audition table: Julia, Tom, Ellis, producer Eileen Rand (played by a Mona Lisa-like Oscar winner Anjelica Huston) and star-making director-choreographer Derek Wills (Jack Davenport, also a Brit, very sharp on the British sitcom "Coupling"). The moment is topped by the fantasy image of Dev appearing at the table as the object of Karen's affection. She thought of love, and it pays off.

There is not a person linked to musicals (including fans — the boys and girls who used to dance in front of mirrors to cast albums) who will not relate to what the musical numbers in "Smash" so smashingly do. They lift you off the ground.