NBC is looking for a star. With one flop after another, we’ve hit midseason premieres. And I’ve had my eye on a certain bright-lights showstopper for months. SMASH has been NBC’s not-so-hidden gem for months with over $25 million in advertising. From billboards to playbills, the network is pulling out all of the stops for this curtain-raiser with executive producer Steven Spielberg (where did that idea come from?!), and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (think busty Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can), and (my personal favorite) creator Theresa Rebeck (award-winning Broadway playwright and writer for Harriet the Spy). And that’s just some of the crew to hype up this show-within-a-show.
It’s no surprise that Broadway theatregoers are fascinated by the life backstage; we’ve seen enough plays, musicals, TV shows, and movies to acknowledge the genre as a classic. But why do I think NBC’s SMASH *may* be different? It’s smart; it’s sexy; it features a powerhouse cast of Broadway, TV, and movie legends (yes, legends); and it may be just what America needs to get out of our Glee-induced slump. So here’s my Pilot Watch, and, ultimately, my hopes and dreams (and worries) for the new hit.
SMASH features a cast that we’ve grown up loving. Yes, my first thought was: “Omigod, Debra Messing is back!” (cue me watching endless episodes of Will and Grace) but here Messing plays Julia Houston, songwriter/lyricist and wife to hunky and moody Brian D’Arcy James’ Frank Houston. Messing has moments of bright-eyed Grace Adler, but the actress has clearly grown-up and her character is much darker than I expected. In fact, she borders on down-right rude to co-writing partner Tom Levitt and his personal assistant Ellis Tancharoen (the former played with flippancy and adorkability by Christian Borle and the later by newcomer Jaime Cepero). Messing and Borle do have moments of gal-pal/gay bff, but it’s clear, luckily, that they have a ton of history and their clever quips reveal a well-developed and complex dynamic. Messing’s Julia seems to recognize Borle’s Tom for his talents and his faults, creating a dynamic relationship, which new assistant Ellis seems to intrude upon. While I found the Messing character’s home life less than fascinating, (really, why are they adopting at their age when they already have a boring teenager son – awkwardly played by a teenager who happened to show up on set?), I am looking forward to how they develop the song-writing duo of Messing and Borle to be more than partners who move the story forward with new songs.
Thankfully, this show is rich in sexy chemistry and relationships. From the first words out of his mouth, I fell in love with Dev Sundaram, charmingly played by Raza Jaffrey. My only complaint is that he’s too perfect in the pilot; not only does he seem to financially support his “theater light” girlfriend (way more on her soon), but he also emotionally supports her in her quest for her breakout role and her fight against her Iowa-stubborn parents. I’m looking forward to impending conflict between Jaffrey’s career in the Mayor’s office (how many times did they have to harp on his choice of a non-theatrical career choice?) and his spunky neophyte girlfriend, Karen Cartwright. Karen is our featured star, and NBC pulls at our heartstrings by giving it to one of America’s idols (small jab at one of American Idol’s many finale upsets), Katherine McPhee. Small-town Karen comes to New York City dreaming of being a star, and we can’t help falling in love with her, despite her only named credential being a high school production of The Sound of Music. She’s sexy, she’s smart, she’s determined, and she’s an underdog. She’s perfect to be our next SMASH.
And yet, I’m conflicted because the show, in a clever twist, has created an antagonist so likeable, so seemingly perfect to steal Broadway that I’m having trouble seeing where the writers are taking us. Here’s the deal: Megan Hilty, who plays always-the-chorus-girl, never-the-star Ivy Lynn, purrs sex and ambition. Are casting directors deaf, dumb, and blind (emphasis on all three)? They must be, in the world of SMASH, because Ivy *needs* this part just as much as the “underdog” of the series. In my excitement over the dynamite cast, I forgot to mention the premise. Messing’s Julia and Borle’s Tom have come up with a hit that’s been done in every medium except video game (no stealing my ideas!): “Marilyn: The Musical.” And they need a star. Cue the drama as McPhee’s Karen and Hilty’s Ivy battle out for America’s heart for the part of a lifetime. Honestly, I’m conflicted. We’re clearly supposed to be pulling for the underdog, but, as I said, Rebeck and co. have created a complex and clever start to this series by introducing interestingly flawed and dynamic characters. I really feel for Hilty, especially in her simple and excited call to her mom about getting a callback for Marilyn.
And this brings me to my worry. The writers, creators, producers, songwriters and cast have stepped up to stage a whirlwind pilot, introducing glimpses into many supporting storylines. Bad-boy director Derek Wills (played by hunky Jack Davenport), has history with Borle’s Tom that I’m just dying to know the juicy gossip on; and Broadway producer Eileen Rand (deliciously played by Anjelica “where have you been all of my life?” Houston) has a dramatic divorce filled with a cheating husband and escrow accounts- I can’t wait for drinks to start being thrown. But where is it all going? We’re given an hour introduction into every character’s arc for the season, but how far will they go with the real “story” of putting this musical on its feet? My worry is stagnating with this “who should we cast” bit. And yet, I don’t want to lose either the fierce Hilty’s sexy ambition, nor the spunky McPhee’s midwestern charm. But please, for the love of Steven Sondheim, don’t belabor the casting for half a season. There are so many rich, slightly cliché stories to move forward in making this musical a hit. And this show perfectly blends song and dance into the story, unlike its bastard cousin Glee, to keep it fresh in the viewer’s mind that we are watching a theatrical process (I think some of the pedestrians at the end of the episode look at Hilty not so much for her ridiculous get-up, but also because she’s belting while listening to her iPod on her saunter to her audition).
NBC, you’ve assembled an all-star cast, who, not so coincidentally, can sing and dance. There are no hidden surprises like Glee’s Naya Rivera and little need for a deus ex machine like Darren Criss. Use the talent you have, and please, use them well. I expect to hear Brian D’Arcy James, though you’ve wasted him in a whining husband role, to charm us with his rich baritone; I implore you to use Christian Borle’s tenor, and not just humming along with the lead actresses; and I demand you not let Megan Hilty fade into obscurity after the first season with a few cheeky and sexy numbers (her fantastic voice was wasted in this pilot, and I only forgave you because the baseball number was HOT-HOT-HOT).
So, I think I’ve covered my bases. We’ve got a hot new series on our hands for all of the right reasons: established, yet gimmicky and cliché plot; fabulous actors returning to a big, new project; smart and clever writers, producers, and composers; enough money in advertising to fund Spiderman: Please Don’t Jump; and a last-ditch effort to save face by NBC. I think SMASH is a midseason thrill for the star in us all. Now don’t close the curtain until we have a chance to hear this cast sing!