Smash: Broadway Musical World Comes to Network TV

I probably speak for most theater fans in saying I was excited when I read about Smash before its premiere on NBC in February. The idea of a weekly network series depicting the development of a new Broadway musical was irresistible. The fact that so many theater people -- both on and off camera -- were involved in the show added to the anticipation. Executive producers included Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who, among other things, have produced film versions of Broadway hits Chicago and Hairspray, along with television movie adaptations of The Music Man, Annie, and Gypsy. Original songs were written by the team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who won the Tony award for their Hairspray score, and also wrote the fine score for last year's Catch Me If You Can. Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening and American Idiot) directed the pilot. And, while not a theater name, the legendary Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers.

So, how do I feel now, with Smash recently completing its fifteen episode first season? Like many a network series trying to find its footing, Smash has had its ups and downs. It started with a very good pilot episode, followed by two weak outings. Things picked up in episode four but remained inconsistent until the last couple of weeks and ended with a fine finale, the best Smash we have seen since the opening show. During that period, the show's creator and show runner, Theresa Rebeck (who authored the play Seminar, which recently closed on Broadway), stepped down, although she will remain with the show as a writer and producer. She will be replaced as show runner by Joshua Safran, who has been executive producer of Gossip Girl. The show's narrative line has yet to find its voice. Some of its subplots have worked, some have not; Smash is at times a behind-the-scenes drama about the making of a Broadway musical and, at other times, pure soap opera. That mix can work, but it is not there yet. So far, Smash has yet to be the guilty pleasure or quality drama that I hope it can ultimately become.

As might be expected, viewers have had divergent reactions to Smash. Some theater fans have complained that the show lacks realism. They point out that the workshop and the out-of-town tryout of Bombshell, the musical being created in Smash, all came together much too quickly. That is true. Musicals now take years to be written, financed, and ultimately mounted. The musical depicted in Smash seemed to take only a few weeks to fall into place. In the pilot, we see the writers, played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle, come up with the idea of a musical about Marilyn Monroe. They bring the idea to producer Eileen Rand, played by the wonderful Anjelica Huston, and before we know it, a workshop is being put together even before the musical's book has been written. Before the first season is over, we're already watching the opening of the out-of-town tryout. That could never happen, but that dramatic license is necessary for a television series and does not particularly bother me.

One of the pleasures of Smash for a theater fan is seeing so many Broadway performers being showcased on a network television series. In addition to Borle, who currently is shining on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher, Smash stars include Megan Hilty, who recently starred in the Encores production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, successfully recreating a role originated on Broadway by Carol Channing and on film by none other than Marilyn Monroe. Another Smash star is Brian d'Arcy James, a veteran of multiple Broadway musicals. Supporting and guest roles have been played by theater performers, including the legendary Bernadette Peters, Will Chase (who plays Joe DiMaggio in the musical depicted in Smash), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Leap of Faith), Ann Harada (Avenue Q), and Wesley Taylor (The Addams Family), to name a few. We have seen cameos from theater columnist Michael Riedel, producer Manny Azenburg, and many others. It is fun for a theater fan to watch. The series has had its strong moments, including the lovely rendition of "September Song" by Anjelica Huston in the second last episode. That song was introduced on Broadway in 1938 by Walter Huston -- Anjelica's grandfather -- in the original production of Kurt Weill's and Maxwell Anderson's Knickerbocker Holiday.

Could Bombshell succeed on Broadway? There actually has been a musical about Monroe: Marilyn: An American Fable ran for just seventeen performances back in 1983. Based on what we have seen, it is hard to tell whether Bombshell would do better. Shaiman and Wittman have written several first-rate songs for it, and Smash has done a good job repeating these songs in multiple episodes so viewers can become more familiar with them. The new finale for Bombshell, introduced in the last episode, sounds like another fine song. There look to be some splashy production numbers in the musical. But we have seen only snippets from Bombshell and, without knowing more about the book or the storyline, we cannot really judge the show. Broadway musicals may be best known for their stars, music, and production numbers, but it is hard for a musical to work without at least an adequate book.

Smash was first developed for Showtime in 2009. When Robert Greenblatt, who ran programming for Showtime, moved to NBC, he brought Smash with him. Greenblatt also knows something about producing a Broadway musical, as he developed and produced the stage version of 9 to 5, which ran for several months in 2009 and included Megan Hilty in the role created by Dolly Parton in the movie. While ratings on NBC have dropped after a strong opening, the show has done better than most of NBC's dramas and has been renewed for a second season.

Overall, I've enjoyed watching Smash, and I would not want to miss an episode, even though I am hoping for more, in terms of drama, from the series. The first season ended on a high note; here's hoping that continues when Smash returns next season on NBC. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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