‘Smash’ NBC’s Monday Night Hopeful

– Judy Elkind

I suppose I should start by admitting that from first word of “‘Smash”, a new NBC drama surrounding the making of a Broadway show, I was extremely hopeful. While NBC seemed an odd network for the unique drama, being most known for it’s half-hour comedies, this would also mean NBC has a fair amount invested. As the network continues to try to expand their ratings and diversify their reputation, promoting “Smash” into success would help rival the ABC dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and the musical hits on FOX, Idol and Glee. That being said, the real key to whether “Smash” succeeds lies in those involved in the production. Here, “Smash” reigns with a whole slew of fantastic creatives developing the show and actors bringing it to life.

Yes, the initial idea apparently came from Steven Spielberg, which I do believe and respect. Yet I question how much he really had to do with the series, being that Theresa Rebeck is credited as creator and remains a writer and executive producer of the show. Having begun as a playwright and transitioned into TV and film, she has remained solidly in the theater world, a past Pulitzer Prize finalist, and with a show currently running on Broadway. Rebeck was clearly a smart base for the musical theater insider show making a stab at primetime TV. Another man who seems to have made a large stake in the creation of “Smash” is Robert Greenblatt who originally ran Showtime, where “Smash” was first developed, but when he moved to NBC so did the series. Greenblatt didn’t have to bring the show with him as he started at a new network, but took the risk and pushed for production. I do wonder just what “Smash” would have been if he stayed at Showtime, when “Smash” supposedly ran closer to a full hour and had a darker, edgier tone amid cables more lax broadcast rules. But never mind what might have been, “Smash” seems to have found solid footing with NBC.

A clear commitment to working with respected veterans of theater helps to create a genuine and exciting blend of action that even non-theatergoers can appreciate. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman must be highlighted here, the Tony and Grammy winning team behind the music of Broadway’s Hairspray. This duo has already proven they can create lovable pop-genre musical theater, having Hairspray so well received by masses of Americans and even turned into a movie musical, and are charged with writing the original songs for “Smash”. And of course, many of the actors hail from the Broadway stage as well. Megan Hilty, who plays Ivy Lynn, vying for the role of Marilyn, is indeed a well-seasoned musical theater actor. I’m biased on this one, because the only NY Broadway show I’ve seen is Wicked, when she played Glinda, but she nonetheless deserves all the praise she gets. I have since been following Hilty’s career, and she doesn’t just have a voice, but is a skilled actor, honed to play with intricacies, and demonstrated fantastically entertaining comedic delivery in many past jobs. Continuing the list, others in the ensemble has rich theater credits and the occasional Tony, while guest stars like Bernadette Peters and Norbert Leo Butz (Wicked, Catch Me if You Can). Even the director for the first three episodes comes from Broadway descent, Tony winner for Spring Awakening, Michael Mayer and this adds to the appeal of “Smash”’s composition. Looking at the actual presentation of the show, I am impressed with the work.

The pilot, admittedly, was not a rock solid hit in my opinion, but most pilots aren’t. In a single episode, attempting to introduce and ensemble of characters while simultaneously planting roots for future drama to draw viewers back, all while remaining sleek and entertaining is a tricky balance. There were certainly some lines that didn’t quite land and a noticeable amount of cheesy moments, like opening with a fantasy-song sequence, of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” no less. Not to mention a plot line about adopting a daughter (from China) that injects tension for Debra Messing’s character and her husband. Still, the pilot did a great job at establishing the show including a catchy original song “Let Me Be Your Star” delivered as a duet, transitioning between two of the title characters, which brings me to Katherine McPhee playing Karen Cartwright, the second aspiring Marilyn. I was definitely paranoid at how a past American Idol contestant would prove as an aspiring theater actor, and there are some moments where she is slightly lacking, though certainly still talented and likable. She didn’t quite have the same spark and presence as Hilty, though McPhee’s character is a novice and timid, so perhaps this is part of the show. Moving into the second episode, which aired last night, it seems everything and everyone, including McPhee stepped up the game.

The episode had just the right amount of action and plot progression while laying out enticing possibilities for how the drama will develop. While some of the dialogue was stale, a little too cliche in scripting, mainly the adoption talk, as a whole the writing is well done and there are little lines that interject great moments. Like a pair of producers in a restaurant trying to lure the director into another show murmuring “it’s a vampire musical.” Not to mention the obvious setting of real-world New York with Broadway marquees and familiar locations. Debra Messing, without a doubt, is lovely actor to watch and just knowing she is a part of “Smash” is exciting. Then of course, Angelica Houston! I’m not sure how she ended up with the project, but every time she’s on screen is fantastic. As a strong and somewhat bitter recently divorced producer, when she mocks a young, fake bimbo, throws a drink in her ex’s face and still ends up showing some touching excitement and vulnerability, all I can say is Love. The interweaving of the characters as people with their theater-world character is very beautifully done. You see Karen move between acting out Marilyn against a Joe DiMaggio into a parallel situation between herself and her boyfriend. Then as Ivy takes her turn at rehearsing the scene, her devotion and delivery leads the director to make a move on her, and then quickly to sex. I think we can all see potential complications with that one.

Most of all, I was pleasantly surprised that a Marilyn was in fact chosen at the end of the second episode. I thought, surely, “Smash” would stretch its drama as far as audiences will permit, but instead they are letting the story carry itself organically. The decision didn’t seem rushed, but perfect timing and this gives me faith in how the rest of the show will carry out. After all, the drama is by no means over just because a Marilyn is chosen for the initial workshop. The industry can be fickle with so many talents competing against each other, and clearly, neither contender is fully out of the picture. One last thing I feel is really worth noting is the manner of filming. Filmed musical moments can often loose a key essence when the scene is designed too flashy and with quick changing shots. In “Smash”, the numbers have been raw, with the actors standing in an audition or rehearsal room, or on an imagined staging in the theater. The craft of the set design and gorgeous lighting do a great job at reproducing the feel of theater on the screen, enhanced by wide shots that linger. The human aspect of live theater  isn’t entirely there, but it’s just the right blend to bring it to TV.

www.nbc.com/smash/

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