NBC pins its hopes on 'Smash'
Steven Spielberg's new NBC series spares no expense in trying to re-create the backstage drama and excitement of a Broadway show in development. It's a risky venture for the network, which is in last place among its rivals.
New York Times News Service
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'Smash'Premieres at 10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6, on NBC.
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Decades before his elaborate film productions like "E.T." and "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg cut his teeth as a high-school stage manager in Phoenix, feeding lines to forgetful actors in "Guys and Dolls" and trying to keep the members of a large "Brigadoon" cast from turning into bumper cars.
Backstage drama provided the first adrenaline rush of his career, he said, and always struck him as good material.
Now Spielberg, along with NBC Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt, is hoping that excitement will translate to TV, in the guise of "Smash" — a prime-time soap starring Debra Messing as the lyricist of a new musical about Marilyn Monroe, Anjelica Huston as a Broadway producer, and scores of theater actors playing, well, themselves. The show premieres Feb. 6 on NBC.
"Smash" carries huge stakes for NBC and Greenblatt, a one-time Broadway producer ("9 to 5").
"We're in a pretty bad situation," Greenblatt said of NBC's last place among the networks. "We desperately need something to catch fire, and we hope this is it."
For Broadway, nothing less than pride is on the line.
For years, amateur singers on reality shows, and more recently the high-school choir characters on the Fox series "Glee," have passed for musical-theater talent without doing justice to the sweat, training and tears seen in audition rooms across New York. "Smash" is the theater capital's best shot to reveal itself to the rest of America.
Greenblatt and the Broadway veterans on the show's creative team have emphasized authenticity above all else, transplanting their own DNA into the characters and plot lines, and even hiring real-life insiders like the producer Emanuel Azenberg and the theater owner Jordan Roth to play themselves.
The producers of the series are hoping for the next great workplace drama; their model, they said repeatedly in interviews, is an earlier NBC series, "The West Wing." On that show the writer Aaron Sorkin injected smart dialogue and absorbing melodrama into the hallway banter and political crises facing a fictional White House.
"Smash" has its own knowing touches — references to "Bernie" (the influential casting director Bernie Telsey) and "George" (the powerful theater agent George Lane) — and humanizing story lines, particularly the competition for the role of Marilyn between two young hoofers, played by Katharine McPhee (best known from "American Idol") and Bellevue native Megan Hilty (Broadway's "Wicked" and "9 to 5").
Perhaps more resonant in the era of "the 99 percent," "Smash" is also about class, showing its actors working as waiters and struggling to pay bills, while Huston's grande dame tosses drinks in the face of her cheating husband, even as she herself is trying to raise money for the Monroe musical.
"Upstairs, Downstairs," the 1970s British series about servants and their masters in a London town house, is a touchstone for the creator and head writer of "Smash," Theresa Rebeck, a frequently produced playwright (her comedy "Seminar" is now on Broadway) and an alumna of the writing staffs of other serials.
"Instead of the mansion, we have a musical," Rebeck said of the story architecture in the two shows.
Of course one musical series already exists — "Glee" — although it has been up and down in the ratings lately.
The creators of "Smash," while thanking "Glee" for opening the door to television musicals after flops like "Cop Rock" and "Viva Laughlin," were quick to draw distinctions between the two shows.
Chiefly, the teenagers on "Glee" sing pop songs and show tunes; the theater pros on "Smash" perform a couple of covers each episode too, but they also sing numbers that have been newly written for Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and others in the show within the show. The Broadway songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who won Tony Awards for "Hairspray," have been creating the numbers at breakneck speed for the original, two-act musical about Monroe — which Spielberg fantasizes about producing on the real Broadway if "Smash" is a hit.
"We're writing a genuine musical, with all the complications that entails for the characters and for us," said Wittman, who first proposed that the "Smash" musical be about Monroe, given her inherent glamour and drama and widespread recognition. "These aren't 'Glee' numbers, singing standards in a classroom."
Producer Craig Zadan said he would be delighted if "Smash" drew ratings as high as "Glee" (in the neighborhood of 7 million viewers), but he and his partners are also hoping to copy that show's success beyond North American viewership. "Smash" has deals in place with Columbia Records for a soundtrack and singles to be sold on iTunes, while NBC and DreamWorks (Spielberg's home) have already sold the show's entire 15-episode first season to several international television broadcasters.
Broadway producer Azenberg said he had been tickled, at the age of 77, to audition for the role of himself, but that he came away from the "Smash" experience with admiration for the creators' determination to get Broadway right.
"I always thought Broadway made for good drama, in every sense, and it was nice to learn that Spielberg thought the same," he said. "It'd be nice to discover, after all these years putting on shows, that America thinks so too."