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NBC's 'Smash' blends drama with original songs in a celebration of Broadway, and ordinary life
NEW YORK (AP) ' As TV series go, "Smash" does a smashing job of abstaining from the usual: no courtrooms, no operating rooms, no interrogation rooms.
Meanwhile, this new NBC musical drama puts a bright, sexy sheen on one of filmdom's most timeless tropes: Hey, kids, let's put on a show! Which "Smash" does, introducing as many as three songs per episode embedded in the TV drama's narrative.
Premiering Monday at 10 p.m. EST, "Smash" tracks the genesis of a Broadway musical from multiple perspectives, including those of composer and lyricist, producer and director-choreographer, and the two rival actresses competing for its title role: Marilyn Monroe.
"There was something about her ' how much she wanted to love and be loved," says Debra Messing, who plays the lyricist, getting all dreamy-eyed as she imagines the project's possibilities.
Her early vision of Marilyn is soon turned into a number called "Let Me Be Your Star" ("To do what she can/ For the love of one man/ And for millions who love from afar"), with both would-be Marilyns performing it in an explosive finale to the first episode.
But "Smash" is no more single-minded about charting a Broadway show's long journey from raw concept to opening night than "The West Wing" was about obsessing over how a bill wends its way from Congress to the president's desk.
"Their day job happens to be putting together a show, but their lives aren't really about that," says Craig Zadan, who, with partner Neil Meron, is among the many "Smash" executive producers. "We also have adoption, divorce, infidelity and disapproving parents from the Midwest in our story lines. We've put in as many human, universal qualities as we can: It's a story about wish fulfillment."
Rest assured, no one solves a crime or diagnoses a disease. Even so, Meron suggests that "Smash" could still be called a procedural.
"The goal would be to have a Broadway show created every season, and have our characters involved with creating each of them," he says.
What "Smash" won't be, he quickly adds, is a sort of "Glee"-for-adults, as some viewers may have assumed.
"We don't think that it's anything like 'Glee,'" Meron declares. "But we thank God for 'Glee,' because it got viewers used to watching people sing on TV dramas."
One big difference: While "Glee" does covers of popular songs, "Smash" will introduce and compile original songs (splendidly conceived by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of "Hairspray") for the "Marilyn the Musical" show-within-a-show. Then, possibly, that pretend musical might be mounted for real.
"By season's end, we're going to have at least 15 songs," Meron says, "and if we really like how the 'Marilyn' musical is turning out, we might actually put it on Broadway. Why not?"
Presumably, this attempt would go better than the first shot, "Marilyn: An American Fable," which opened in 1983 and ran for 17 performances. "A huge flop!" composer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) and his collaborator Julia Houston (Messing) say in unison.
And yet they can't resist giving Marilyn another chance.
In the large "Smash" ensemble, Messing plays perhaps the series' central character in Julia, who is torn between her happy domestic life with a loving husband and son, and the addictive, all-consuming demands of the musical.
"I hate the theater, I really do," says Julia's schoolteacher husband (Brian d'Arcy James) when he learns she has broken her promise to take some time off for the family, and instead has plunged into the Marilyn project.
As a youngster, Messing, best known for the long-running comedy "Will & Grace," had her own dreams of being a Broadway musical star. She remembers seeing "Annie" when she was 8 "and wanting to jump on stage and be in 'It's the Hard-Knock Life' with all the other girls." Then she sang in high school musicals.
On "Smash," she finally has a taste of that professional world: "I got to sing a song my character wrote, and it was thrilling and terrifying, especially considering the company I'm keeping with this cast.
"The rest of the time, I get to watch the really talented singers, and enjoy."
Initially proposed a couple of years ago by Steven Spielberg (another "Smash" executive producer along with his DreamWorks colleagues Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, and writer David Marshall Grant), the show quickly became a passion project of Robert Greenblatt, then head of pay-cable network Showtime, for which it was being developed. But when he jumped to NBC as its chairman last January, he wasn't about to leave "Smash" behind.
Greenblatt unveiled the finished product at a gala premiere party last week at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, in a refreshingly unguarded moment, he told the gathered what "Smash" means to him and the rest of the team: "You work hard on every single show, but your heart isn't always in it. Well, with 'Smash,' everyone's heart is in it."
Of course, it's Greenblatt's best shot at redeeming his first year at NBC, which remains in the ratings cellar after a slate of lackluster fall premieres. There's no mystery why NBC is hyping "Smash" like mad.
Greenblatt's arrival with "Smash" at NBC pleased Zadan.
"Sometimes you have a series that you wish to be on cable, because you want the edge," he says. "But this is a universal-appeal show, and really works better on a network than on cable."
Zadan (whose many credits with Meron include the musical films "Hairspray" and "Chicago" and the Lifetime series "Drop Dead Diva") is talking with a reporter at "Smash" production headquarters in a converted factory in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood. He is in the rehearsal studio, which is both a set for the show and the actual rehearsal space where "Smash" dance numbers are created by the series' choreographer, Josh Bergasse. (As often happens with "Smash," reality and make-believe are intertwined.)
"This," says Zadan, "is a Cinderella story." But just who will be crowned, launched from unknown status to Broadway royalty, remains in flux the first season, as the characters Ivy (played by Megan Hilty) and Karen (played by Katharine McPhee) go head-to-head for the Marilyn role, their prospects alternately rising and falling. Week after week, viewers will surely be rooting for their favorite, as if this were a scripted version of "American Idol" (on which McPhee, of course, was runner-up in 2006).
"The show gives viewers a chance to see the behind-the-scenes deal when producers and writers have to choose between two people they think are both great," says McPhee.
She has been on the receiving end of such torturous choices.
"Karen is more naive than I am," McPhee says, "but her struggle ' trying to get attention, better representation, a casting person to see you, callbacks ' I know what that's like. I've lived it."
While Karen is talented but green, Ivy is experienced ' maybe a little too experienced ' but has never been able to escape the chorus line.
"I think a lot of people can relate to her, simply because everybody knows what it's like to be stuck in their career and desperate to make that next step," Hilty says. "Ivy is at the point where she's willing to do just about anything" ' a knowing laugh ' "to get there. The stakes are that high for her."
Like Ivy, Hilty grew up in the theater, and she starred on Broadway in "9 to 5: The Musical" in the Dolly Parton role. "I think we're both ambitious that way. I think Ivy's willing to do a little bit more than I am" ' another laugh ' "but I admire her for her aspirations."
"Smash" has radiant moments as a feel-good fantasy. But it boasts savvy footing. It's populated by Broadway pros on both sides of the camera (for example, creator-executive producer Theresa Rebeck, who wrote a number of the episodes, is currently represented on Broadway as writer of the new comedy "Seminar").
Observes Christian Borle (whose Broadway credits include "Legally Blonde: The Musical" and "Spamalot"), "There's a real theater pedigree among everyone on the 'Smash' creative team. You have a sense they're trying to get all the details right for all the people who live in New York and work on Broadway, who will be watching to see if we get it right."
"Smash" gets it just right, according to show-biz veteran Anjelica Huston, who plays the Broadway producer spearheading "Marilyn The Musical."
"I think it's kind of right on the money," Huston says. "It's not without a certain gloss, but at the same time, I think it's very reflective of what goes on in show business, and in life. It captures how people move up ' and how people are moved out."
That's the drama of "Smash" ' honest, but dazzling and magic, with brand-new songs and dance. For the viewer, it borders on the miraculous. Who wouldn't want to get into this act?
EDITOR'S NOTE ' Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier