A Show Just for Us: "Smash," Starry New Drama Series About the Making of a Musical, Debuts on NBC

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06 Feb 2012

Megan Hilty
Megan Hilty
Photo by Will Hart/NBC

"Smash," the new hour-long musical drama series created by Broadway dramatists who dwell in the world they're writing about, premieres 10 PM Feb. 6 on NBC. In an era where "Glee" has become a cultural phenomenon, will this tuneful, starry soap opera be a hit? Stay tuned.

In order to generate buzz, NBC offered the pilot episode of the show free on multiple digital formats in recent weeks. It even appeared on select American Airlines flights.

The scripted drama about the subculture of musical theatre people is the brainchild of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who has long been fascinated about the backstage personalities involved in putting on a Broadway show. Pulitzer Prize-finalist playwright Theresa Rebeck (Seminar, Mauritius, "NYPD Blue") penned the pilot episode and is the series creator and show-runner. The original songs in the series are by Hairspray Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics).

The pilot, introducing us to the major characters and setup in just 46 minutes, is directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot), who also helms future epsiodes. The show is populated by brand-name, award-winning stars such as Anjelica Huston ("Prizzi's Honor") and Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") as well as Broadway favorites who don't necessarily have an international profile — yet. Namely, they are Christian Borle (Legally Blonde the Musical), Megan Hilty (9 to 5: The Musical) and Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek the Musical, Sweet Smell of Success). Broadway stars such as Will Chase and Tony winners Bernadette Peters and Norbert Leo Butz will appear as guest stars in the 15-episode first season.

Debra Messing and Brian d'Arcy James played lyricist Julia and schoolteacher-husband Frank.
photo by Will Hart/NBC

Broadway theatre executive Jordan Roth (president of Jujamcyn Theaters) and Tony-winning, Pulitzer-honored composer and orchestrator Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) make cameos in the second episode.



Music star and "American Idol" alumna Katharine McPhee makes her acting debut as a major character in the series, aspiring star Karen Cartwright. (The NBC materials have billed her this way: "Introducing Katharine McPhee." She and Hilty compete for the role of Marilyn in Marilyn the Musical. If you look at the ads and posters, McPhee is at the top of the heap — is this the ultimate spoiler before the show even airs?)

Here's how NBC characterizes the series: "'Smash' is a musical drama that celebrates the beauty and heartbreak of the Broadway theatre as it follows a cross-section of dreamers and schemers who all have one common desire — to be a 'Smash.' The series centers on a desire to create a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe — written by the successful songwriting duo of Tom (Tony Award nominee Christian Borle of Legally Blonde: The Musical) and Julia (Emmy Award winner Debra Messing of 'Will & Grace'). Julia recently began the process of adopting a child with her husband of many years, but her focus is torn when she has the opportunity to write another Broadway hit. A rivalry soon forms for the lead role between a youthful, inexperienced Midwestern beauty (Katharine McPhee, 'American Idol') — who is trying to find fame in the big city against all odds — and stage veteran (Megan Hilty of 9 to 5: The Musical), who's determined to leave the chorus line and finally get her big break. A tenacious producer Eileen (Oscar winner Anjelica Huston, 'Prizzi's Honor') discovers the Marilyn project and jumps on board with a brilliant director (Jack Davenport, 'Pirates of the Caribbean' films) — whose talent is matched by his cunning and egocentric amorality."

Playbill.com jumped the gun following the Jan. 16 iTunes release of the pilot and filed this comment-filled recap, full of spoilers and trivia. As the season continues, we'll offer a weekly recap after each episode.

The show's executive producers are multiple Emmy and Oscar winner Steven Spielberg ("ER," "Schindler's List"); Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Oscar-winning "Chicago," "Hairspray"); Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey ("United States of Tara," "The Borgias"); Shaiman and Wittman; and Rebeck.

"Smash" is a production of Universal Media Studios in association with DreamWorks.

Read the Playbill feature that introduces you to the characters of "Smash."

Series choreographer Joshua Bergasse plays Marilyn's assistant choreographer, Josh, in the series, dancing and teaching combinations. Bergasse has a couple of Broadway credits (The Life and Hairspray), and also performed on tour (Movin' Out, West Side Story). A member of the Broadway Dance Center (BDC) faculty, he has choreographed Off-Broadway, touring and regional productions of musicals.

Don't expect "Smash" characters to burst into songs, movie-musical style (or as they do on the TV hit "Glee"). All singing in "Smash" is expected to be in the context of performance/rehearsal/audition/recording sequences, and in the imaginations of the characters. For example, McPhee's aspiring-actress character's initial piano-and-voice audition morphs into a fantastically lit performance sweetened with orchestra, to reflect what the industry folk in the room are seeing in their imaginations (and reflecting Karen's state of mind). Such musical fantasy elements were the backbone of the film "Chicago." 

Read the "Smash" feature from the pages of Playbill magazine.

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