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Broadway-Themed “Smash” Premieres on NBC Tonight

February 6th, 2012

The Cast of "Smash". Photo by Mark Seliger/NBC.

Smash, the new NBC series about the making of a Broadway musical, finally arrives tonight at 10/9c after months of relentless buzz building. Let’s celebrate our little corner of the world making it to prime time with a review, some insider observations and a video visit to the red carpet.

Katharine McPhee in "Smash". Image via NBC.

So, how is the show? My Dad was a volunteer fireman. (Go with me here.) As a kid, I found there was nothing worse than settling in with our worn VHS of The Towering Inferno only to have him throw a wet blanket on the 70’s disaster goodness with comments about how the rescue squad guys were wearing the wrong boots. “It’s just a movie, Dad.”

Well, in the usual way that life circles around and bites you in the posterior, I’m about to become my Dad. I can’t help but see the pilot through my lens as someone who has written music theater. For the record, let me simply say that it’s a solid, briskly paced show, compelling enough to warrant a look at the second episode and respectful enough to earn a hearty thanks to all the theater professionals involved (from creator Theresa Rebeck to director Michael Mayer). However, I do wish it was either a grittier drama or a bitch-tastically soapier splash because the first episode feels a little too safely in the middle of the road. After watching the premiere, I’m only dramatically invested in the classic plot featuring two actresses (the engaging pro Megan Hilty and the surprisingly camera ready Katharine McPhee) competing for the leading role; hopefully upcoming episodes will heighten the stakes for the rest of the characters.

With the general review out of the way, let’s see who is wearing the right boots and who is breaking all kinds of fire safety codes…

The Right Boots (mild spoilers ahead):

Christian Borle, Debra Messing & Angelica Huston in "Smash". Image via NBC.

  • Much of the world of the writing team played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle feels spot on (although it’s a rarified world with a multi-million dollar hit in their past…wouldn’t there be more drama if they were “hungrier”?). I particularly loved the scene where they invite their friend over to record a demo. That’s how musicals are written these days–with a Mac, a mic and a friend paid with only compliments, booze and the hope of a star role when the show “hits”.
  • The audition and backstage spaces look terrible…which means they’re just right. Look at the shot of all those women squeezed into a hallway on folding chairs waiting to audition. (And good on them for not making a “failed” audition totally laughable. At that level, it’s not about determining who is good and bad; it’s about good and extraordinary.)
  • The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) are clever and tuneful and sassy old-school music theater. The producers could have gone for more “youth” courting sounds but instead they went with pros who tickle the ears and give the show a glow of “golden era” craft. There is plenty of light rock strumming on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, let Smash be a fantasy that balances pop songs with show tunes.
  • Megan Hilty gets the tough/sensitive messiness of a struggling actor just right. I love her call home to celebrate her callback only to find that all they hear is that she didn’t get the job yet. (Now, I just hope they don’t tilt the scales too heavily against Megan in the battle for “Marilyn”…)
  • The brief exchange between the composer and a male dancer suggesting a “past” is priceless. Broadway is indeed a very, very small world…

The Wrong Boots:

Megan Hilty in "Smash". Image via NBC.

  • The time-line of the show feels cracked out. Perhaps the first episode takes place over months but they sure do seem to go from idea to first song to fully cast workshop with producers in about a week. Musicals take eons to write and produce (think a decade for Next to Normal); even very successful writers rarely get this kind of turn-around.  (After each of these, please say, “Dad, it’s just a TV show.”)
  • Let me get this straight: Katharine McPhee goes in for a first audition and the director calls her private number, late that night, to ask her over for a one-on-one coaching session. OK, I bought this casting couch cliche in Black Swan because it’s kah-razy and Nina had been in the ballet company for years but here I just want to call Actor’s Equity and turn the skeazy director in. And then I start wondering why he has her private phone number; shouldn’t he have her agent’s number? Oh, she doesn’t have an agent? Then how did she get into that big audition? It was an open call, you say? Then why were the producer, director and writers in the room and not just some assistant casting agent? See, this is how the wrong boots can send certain people right to harrumph territory and miss the point! (It’s just a TV show, Dad.)
  • Clearly, I like the songs, but let me say I’m gently concerned about the overall musical, particularly because the producers have indicated their dream is to take the show within the show and stage it on Broadway down the line. It’s only one episode so who knows, but I don’t get the feel for what the musical is actually about, their point of view. Yes, it’s about Marilyn Monroe but what ABOUT Marilyn Monroe? Right now it seems like it will be a vaudeville biopic parade through life highlights. Gently concerned.
  • You’ve got super-fit male dancers in shiny athletic costumes/sweaty dance togs and you don’t do more loving camera work? That’s not a wrong boot just an egregious error in judgement.
  • Someone suggests I write a show about Marilyn Monroe, the most analyzed, famous and unknowable screen icon of all time. The first thing I shout with elated inspiration will not be “We can do a baseball number!”

It feels good to get that silliness off my chest. Now let’s enjoy this promising show and celebrate it for bringing us a taste of Broadway’s best each week, from great New York actors (good god, they better find a way to let Brian d’Arcy James sing) to talented writers/composers/directors who clearly love music theater. May it be standing room only for seasons to come…and be the Law & Order for music theater types needing a paycheck.

Speaking of standing room, let’s hit the red carpet (thanks to the folks at NBC/Universal Direct) with some tasty tidbits from the stars of the show…

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