Applauding with the Outfest audience at the Harmony Gold Theater last Wednesday night after a sneak peek of NBC's upcoming TV show Smash, I felt as if I'd just seen something new. Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara succinctly described Smash as Glee meets A Chorus Line.
Yes, it's that and Glee's predecessor Fame. But it's also a lively meditation on creativity, on transforming inspiration into action and something real. Perhaps most importantly, using theater as a framework, Smash explores the good, bad, and ugly of living lives totally focused on the possibility of fulfilling a big dream. Smash aptly premiers on Monday, Feb. 6, after NBC's hit show The Voice, as if answering the question: what happens to those contestant winners and runners-up after the reality show ends?
In the case of American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee, she landed in this Shakespearian-tinged, reality-based tale about the making of a Broadway musical and a star. And lest it escape notice while appreciating her pipes and dreamy demeanor, this singer can act!
Smash follows a successful musical composing team -- gay Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) and straight Julia Houston (Debra Messing) -- as they turn a sudden inspiration into a Broadway musical. Along the way there are bruised and soothed egos, moral and ethic choices, sweet and brutal competition -- and glorious songs. The number with McPhee's Karen Cartwright and her theater veteran competitor Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) is stunning.
But it's the journey that's so new. Smash tells you what it's about in the opening moments, as McPhee stylistically swoons "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," only to be abruptly cut off and dismissed by the curt audition director (a very funny cameo by Kate Clinton): internal big dream versus cruel everyday reality.
Here's an extended preview:
The audition segues to the composing team for some exposition that includes this throwaway line: "Why doesn't anyone do new musicals anymore?" Now maybe it's just me, but that's when I started looking for "insider" references, given that Smash's openly gay executive producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, have been masters at producing Broadway revivals, including How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Promises, Promises, which I contend are slightly subversive in today's culture and economy. (Indeed, there's even a "teacher's guide" to How to Succeed.)
Tom's sycophant assistant Ellis (Jamie Cepero) suggests that they do a show about Marilyn Monroe. The team is supposed to be taking time off from work, but they can't resist that spark of inspiration. Tom notes that no one thought musicals could be made of Wicked and Jersey Boys -- so what about Marilyn the Musical, for which they could create a baseball number out of her marriage to Joe DiMaggio?
Ellis videotapes the first tryout of a song for the possible new musical featuring Tom's friend Ivy, who is a trained actor and dreams of being "somebody" but remains stuck on the chorus line. A Marilyn lookalike who exudes sex appeal and has a strong voice, she and Tom think she's a natural for the part. Suddenly the song appears on YouTube and the team thinks the video has blown their opportunity. They're used to the old way of developing a show from secrecy to the stage. Ellis assures them that he didn't post the video to YouTube; he only emailed it to his mother. He's fired for being untrustworthy.
But the song has gone viral, and a prominent blogger loves it, which prompts Broadway producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) to approach them about doing the show. Rand is involved in a nasty divorce and just placed her current production of My Fair Lady in escrow. Attached to that production is difficult director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), who is hesitant about moving over to Marilyn the Musical. Rand assures Wills, "Marilyn is the American My Fair Lady."
I could have written a whole college comparative literature thesis on that observant throwaway line if I'd been smart enough to think of it.
It's sharp but nuanced writing like that, with the technical intercutting of the character's big internal dreams and external reality, plus big-time production numbers, strong complicated women, and gay characters who just are gay, that makes Smash so rewarding. One other important character needs recognition: the city of New York. Smash executive producer Theresa Rebeck earned accolades for her work on NYPD Blue, another show where NYC was more of a presence than a backdrop. In Smash you feel as if you're walking down noisy and beloved Times Square with the characters.
And then there's the music. Some songs we know, but some are originals, with composers Marc Shaiman and his Hairspray co-writer Scott Wittman also serving as executive producers. Presumably, they and the veteran producers can turn Smash into a stage hit -- a kind of circle of life on Broadway. And of course, there's the irony of ironies: if Smash is a hit, it will have fulfilled a dream executive director Steven Spielberg has had for many, many years.
One other point: the Los Angeles Times reports that NBC is using Smash as a springboard for a new musical initiative targeting 20 underserved schools around the country. The initiative, "Smash: Make a Musical," is a partnership with New-York-based iTheatrics, to enable those schools to stage their own musical productions and implement self-sustaining theater programs. Los Angeles is one of the cities where the program will be held. The names of the schools for the initiative's first round will be announced later this month. The Los Angeles Times reports:
Schools can apply to be part of the initiative's second round, which is scheduled for the fall. Applications are due by March 2.
NBC's initiative is similar in spirit to the education program already launched by Fox that is tied to its hit series "Glee." Fox's program, which is called "Glee: Give a Note," raises money to be donated to music programs in underserved schools throughout the country. The "Glee" initiative is a partnership with the National Assn. for Music Education.
A final note: I saw Smash with an Outfest crowd, so I'm not surprised by the enthusiasm. Indeed, I sat with actor/filmmaker Mike Rose and his partner; Rose credits Outfest for getting him a deal with NBC. On the other side sat two men who were prepared to be critical (one of whom was displeased with the too-long exposition at the beginning), but the applause at the end represented a shared enthusiasm for the musical and acting performances and the feeling that we'd just seen a new approach to an old form of entertainment in a still-evolving medium.
But as I drove home, something else lingered as I thought about this love letter to Broadway and New York City -- it was a saying by Salome Jens, a terrific actress and teacher I used to know. She said something like, "Actors are the epitome of courage because they put themselves on the line to reflect back to humanity the places in the heart we fear to go."
I thought I saw that in these actors: the revelation of truth about big dreams and the difficulty of creativity and ambition. Smash is as much about the making of a person's character as it is about the making of a Broadway play and a star. How cool is that to maybe learn something about ourselves while being so wonderfully entertained!