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NBC hopes going backstage on Broadway is a 'Smash' hit

Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing and Bernadette Peters are among the stars of this peek at what goes on to get a show on Broadway. Call it a mix of 'Glee' and 'West Wing.'

January 08, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian Borle and Anjelica Huston of "Smash."
Christian Borle and Anjelica Huston of "Smash." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — — Actress Anjelica Huston is standing at the edge of a large mirrored rehearsal space as dancers and choreographers circulate around her. Preparation for a big Broadway number is frenetically underway. In one corner, performers limber up; in another, they nervously await a director's judgment.

It might seem like any rehearsal for any one of the numerous musicals that play this city nightly. Except this isn't a Broadway musical or even a rehearsal — the cameras are rolling on the set of "Smash," a new fictional television series about the theater world. Huston plays Eileen, a brassy producer.

"Can I just have someone [during the scene] wave to me?" she asks the episode's director between takes, brassily. "Just anyone, please?"

Debuting Feb. 6 on a swell of expectation, NBC's new scripted series from Steven Spielberg and veteran playwright and TV writer Theresa Rebeck ("NYPD Blue") chronicles the staging of a fictional musical about Marilyn Monroe. With its crisscrossing story lines about ornery directors, discontented writers, insecure actors and, of course, bull-headed producers, it is almost certainly the first mainstream television show to mine the machinations of backstage Broadway for entertainment value.

"In a lot of ways, it doesn't matter that this is the theater world," Rebeck, "Smash's" creator and show runner and an executive producer on the series, said in an interview. "The way I think of the show is as 'The West Wing' — an adult workplace drama, only they're not in the White House."

Then, after a pause: "But the basic idea is also that theater people are fascinating creatures. We have big names and crazy lives."

That craziness starts in the first episode, with the writing team of Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle), who are tickled by the prospect of a musical about the blond bombshell. Ignoring the fact that a previous musical about Monroe flopped (a real-life show called "Marilyn: An American Fable," from 1983), they set about creating a show with the help — and sometimes hindrance — of various allies and frenemies.

As the season unfolds, plot lines multiply. Some stories are personal. Eileen is going through a messy divorce, while Julia and her husband are attempting to adopt a child. The most compelling dramas, however, are professional. There's mutual suspicion between Tom and a misanthropic director, Derek (Jack Davenport). Two actors — the chorus girl, Ivy (Megan Hilty), and the fresh face, Karen (Katharine McPhee) — compete for the lead part, just as actors might for, well, a role on "Smash."

"It's a very meta thing. You're putting on a show about putting on a show," said Neil Meron, an executive producer.

Those layers of meta could soon get even thicker — producers have discussed turning the fictional Marilyn musical into an actual Broadway show if the series is a hit. Future seasons, which would focus on different fictional musicals, could then spin off different Broadway shows.

Spielberg, who is an executive producer, had long harbored the idea of doing a TV series about Broadway. Several years ago, he enlisted Rebeck and veteran film and theater producers Craig Zadan and Meron (the pair brought "Chicago" to the screen). The trio then brought on the composer-lyricist team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who worked on "Hairspray," which Zadan and Meron also produced.

The series was initially sold to Showtime, but when then-entertainment chief Greenblatt decamped for NBC, he brought "Smash" with him.

The stakes are high for NBC. The network desperately needs a hit drama, so much so that Greenblatt gave "Smash," which will air at 10 p.m., the coveted lead-in of hit reality competition series "The Voice." The hope is that audiences drawn to that series' musical numbers and aspirational qualities will also respond to "Smash."

To attract that audience, "Smash" aims to go beyond the backstage drama of mounting a production and show the gloss of that production itself. As principals struggle to put the Marilyn musical together, we flash forward to how the songs will eventually look onstage (say, a sexy Joe DiMaggio-themed number, or snappy lyrics such as "Bring all the vices/I don't care what the price is.")

The soapy plot lines and glitzy numbers have prompted some in Hollywood to call "Smash" the "grown-up 'Glee,'" though as Davenport wryly noted, "it's not like one minute we're in a high-school hallway and then the next minute we're in a Britney Spears video. It's more grounded than that."

The "Smash" actors come from an unusually wide range of backgrounds, from "American Idol" to film royalty to Broadway, with veteran theater performers Hilty and Bernadette Peters (in a recurring role as Hilty's mother) playing versions of their real-life acting selves. In one scene, the pair face off so intensely that Peters asked that a reporter and crew members leave the room during the shoot.

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