As a fan of music theatre, television and Marilyn Monroe, I really should love Smash.
And I’m happy to say I do.
In truth Smash owes a lot to Glee (and before the the musical revival via Moulin Rouge, Chicago and their peers). Before then, nobody would come near the musical on the small screen -all dreading another Viva Laughlin. Jibes about the dreaded Cop Rock were everywhere in those reviews.
Smash comes from the Spielberg camp, although he is neither creator nor director. But it immediately sends a signal to the audience that we should expect a certain level of quality. Doubtless, he has also managed to attract quality creatives to the project.
The series is created by Broadway playwright Theresa Rebeck (Mauritius, Omnium Gatherum, The Understudy) who has also written for L.A. Law, Third Watch Law and Order: Criminal Intent and NYPD Blue.
Smash revolves around the creation and staging of a Broadway musical, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. As in real life the Hollywood legend has been the subject of failed musicals before (1983’s Marilyn: An American Fable perhaps?).
Composer Julia Houston (Debra Messing) is frustrated by poorly-written musicals, but is on the hunt for her next subject. Her collaborator Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) has a cute new assistant Jaime (Ellis Tancharoe) who piques their interest with his memories of Monroe.
Despite the pitfalls of previous attempts, Houston can’t stop thinking about the idea of a new Monroe musical. Long sessions at the laptop watching Monroe movies fascinate her.
Fearsome Producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) is in the midst of an ugly divorce but takes interest in the Marilyn project. The three make early steps with workshops involving stage director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), which allows for some very sharp musical performances into the narrative.
Most of the performances involve two females, newcomer Karen (Katharine McPhee) who is auditioning for the Marilyn role and Ivy (Megan Hilty) a seasoned performer who is hired for the workshops, but keen for the role. This cleverly adds an element of competition and jeopardy into Smash.
Smash is more adult than the Gen-Y Glee, wrapping the show in the financial risk and paranoia that accompanies the creation of a new Broadway work. As a result this ramps up the emotions of the central characters.
But it’s impossible to ignore the original songs by Broadway composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray). They are totally authentic to the genre. These have been inserted into the ‘show-within-the-show’ while conventional covers such as Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful serve as audition pieces. Songs are also confined to the music theatre performers, as opposed to having Messing or Huston suddenly break into song.
The performances by McPhee and Hilty are solid stuff, employing dance and theatrics to create showbiz moments within the wider drama.
Smash begins with a great start and has been lovingly made, without resorting to cheap shots. How well a broad audience connects with the inner-workings of a musical remains to be seen, but with enough musical numbers it should strike the right balance. Can’t wait for Opening Night.
Smash premieres 7:30pm Tuesday February 21 on W.