On Monday, NBC premiered its much-anticipated musical television show, “Smash.” As both a television and theater fanatic, I had high expectations for the show — which were unquestioningly fulfilled by the new musical dramedy.
“Smash” is set in the cutthroat world of New York City Broadway Theater — acting as a love letter of sorts to the harsh profession and unique city. The show follows two successful musical writers Julia and Tom, played by Debra Messing and Broadway actor Christian Borle, as they create a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.
Former “American Idol” contestant Katharine McPhee and Broadway actress Megan Hilty play Karen and Ivy, two hungry young actresses, singers and dancers who will do anything to get the part of Marilyn. Anjelica Huston stars as Eileen, a Broadway producer trying to prove she can still be a success by backing the Marilyn show. Finally, Jack Devenport plays Derek Willis, a brilliant Broadway director (and arch-nemesis to Tom) who reluctantly decides to take the Marilyn directing job.
The cast is absolutely amazing. Each actor has some kind of experience with the harsh music or theater world and therefore skillfully depicts the emotional side of glitzy Broadway. This is what mainly separates “Smash” from other musical television flops like the 2007 “Viva Laughlin.” Even the show’s creator, Theresa Rebeck, is very familiar with the theater world, as a playwright who has been featured on and off the Broadway stage.
The only soft point in the show, at least in the first episode, is Katherine McPhee’s implausible portrayal of a Broadway actress. Surprisingly, as she is mainly a singer, McPhee is a wonderful actress in many scenes. However, in a duet number between McPhee’s Karen and Megan Hilty’s Ivy, it is clear that Hilty is a theater actress and McPhee is primarily a pop singer. The show’s plotline portrays Karen as a fairly raw stage performer, which matches McPhee’s own theater inexperience. In the show, casting directors call Karen “fresh” and “light,” which is exactly why, in the end, she is so highly thought of for the role of Marilyn. Hopefully, as Karen’s character will learn to be more theatrical, over-the-top and sexual (for the part of Marilyn), so will McPhee in her portrayal.
Another worrisome part of the show is its rapid story progression. In just one episode, Julia and Tom think up the idea of a Marilyn musical, write three original songs (which sound amazingly polished), choreograph a musical number, start writing “the book” (the narrative structure of a musical) and hold auditions and call-backs for the part of Marilyn. If “Smash” was trying to show how incredibly fast things happen on Broadway, they succeeded. However, in a television series, there needs to be a steady progression of action that can last for up to 22 episodes of a season (and more if it is renewed). Hopefully, “Smash” did not rush through too much in one episode and can keep up story momentum for the rest of the season — because it is just too entertaining to burn out.
Though much happened in the pilot, the accelerated pace is good in terms of character development. The main purpose of a show’s first episode is to establish each main character — their personality traits, goals and potential obstacles. “Smash” does an excellent job of establishing relationships and conflict between characters.
In the pilot, the audience learns of Julia and Tom’s close bond, Julia’s struggling home life, Tom’s hatred of Derek, Derek’s hatred of Tom (though forced to work together), Eileen’s vicious relationship with her ex-husband as well as the home and professional lives of the two main Marilyn contenders — Karen and Ivy. Viewers are given ample time to develop strong feelings (positive or negative) toward each of these main characters. And with a show like this, character is very important.
Though the pilot was not perfect, my inner television addict and theater geek was immensely satisfied by this latest genre-bender.
If “Smash” can keep up a fun, energetic and deliciously ruthless story, then it will certainly stick around.