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WHEN MUSIC POPS, WE TURN IT UP

Building a SMASH hit

Building a SMASH hit
February 6, 2012 DAVE Q
SMASH

TelevisionBytes with NineDaves

An average American sees an advertisement for SMASH every ten seconds. That’s not a formal study, of course, but I think if you started to keep track of all the promos, billboards, print ads, articles, banner ads, Facebook apps, talk show appearances, radio spots, tweets, and previews flying around out there, my estimation would come pretty close.

SMASH

So much so that I don’t think I even need to spend the time explaining the basic premise of SMASH. Your grandmother who doesn’t even own a TV could probably tell you everything about NBC’s new hour-long musical drama.

I mean, even though SMASH premieres tonight on NBC at 10 p.m., the full pilot’s been available on Hulu, NBC.com, iTunes, and YouTube for weeks (I’ve embedded below for those living under a rock). NBC is literally doing everything they can to make sure you watch this thing.

Who can blame them? NBC has a lot riding on SMASH. It’s no surprise that things haven’t been going well for NBC. The fourth place network has been on a decade-long decline since the days of Must-See TV. Sure, the network has a catalog of quality programming and critical hits, with shows like Parenthood, Law and Order: SVU, 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community and Up All Night. But they’re missing the core thing: an audience. Low-rated quality shows are good for awards season. But NBC needs an award-worthy scripted show that gets viewers to tune-in.

SMASH might be the show that does just that. It has all the makings of a great television hit: a phenomenal production team, lead by Steven Spielberg; a superstar cast, lead by Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston, and Jack Davenport; a built-in story-arc with dramatic plot points, juicy romances, and most importantly, characters that you root for.

Yet all of this is wrapped up in a show about the making of a Broadway show – and an original Broadway show at that, with new, never-heard-before songs. That’s not something that necessarily appeals to a wide audience. Look at the state of Broadway right now, and you’ll see: even they’re having a hard time drawing audiences in to an original Broadway musical (without casting celebrities, of course). So building a show around the making of a musical that’s not based on a popular movie or catalog of already-established hit songs? That’s pretty ambitious.

Does it pay off?

Well … yes. ‘Cause in the end, the Broadway setting pretty much fades into the background. This isn’t a show for the theatrical elite (although there are plenty of references for those of us who know who Michael Riedel is). At it’s core, SMASH is a working-place drama. You know how The West Wing gave you the behind-the-scenes look at what it was like to work in politics? SMASH does just that, but for an industry guarded with secrets and filled with juicy stories.

That being said, there’s a lot for Broadway folks to hold on to here. Not only does SMASH feature some of the brightest musical theater-stars working today (among the many: Megan Hilty, Christian Borle, Brian d’Arcy James, Will Chase, Raza Jaffrey – heck, even Bernadette Peters stops by), but also it features some of the most talented creatives in the industry. Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Spring Awakening, American Idiot), directs the first three episodes. Tony-winning composer and lyricist team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can) wrote the songs for the show-within-the-show. Playwright Theresa Redbeck (who’s show Seminar is currently running on Broadway) wrote the script. Even new NBC Entertainment chairmen Robert Greenblatt, who in his first few months on the job green-lit SMASH, has attachments to the biz. He produced the 2009 Broadway musical 9 to 5.

All those theater people working on SMASH doesn’t necessarily mean SMASH will be a perfect portrayal of the biz. But if you’re going to watch a show about the theater, you need to put yourself in the mind frame of seeing a live Broadway show. And that means willing suspension of disbelief. In the real world, it’s pretty unlikely that a bunch of people can break into song, performing a fully choreographed, perfectly sung number. But on stage, you accept that as a device used to tell the story. In the real world, it’s pretty unlikely that an inexperienced actress would get an audition for a new musical, let alone a final callback. But on SMASH, that’s another acceptable storytelling device. “Marilyn: the Musical” would never develop as quickly in the real world as it does in the pilot episode of SMASH. You got to let that all go. This is just a glimpse. The series as a whole will give the bigger picture.

If the premise alone isn’t enough to keep you coming back week after week, The cast is. Messing (much more subdued then during her tenure on Will & Grace) and Borle are endearing as Julia Houston and Tom Levitt, the hit songwriting duo at the center of the creative team of “Marilyn: the Musical.” Their chemistry is the heart of SMASH. Davenport plays a loveable villain as Derek Wills, the egotistical director you can’t help but fall for. Plus there’s the incomparable Huston as producer Eileen Rand, who gives a tough, riveting performance and basically steals every scene she’s in.

And then there’s our two “stars.” Katharine McPhee, (known for her season five runner-up spot on American Idol), is on-pitch as Karen Cartwright, the inexperienced talent vying for the lead role as Marilyn Monroe in “Marilyn: the Musical.” While Broadway vet Hilty, (who fits the Marilyn role so perfectly, she’s been cast in Marilyn’s role in the New York City Center’s ENCORES production of Gentleman Prefers Blondes this spring), shines as Ivy Lynn, the experienced beauty who will do anything to win. Promos have been spinning the show as an ultimate competition between these two characters. But judging from the first four episodes, SMASH is more about these ladies vs. the industry as a whole. That struggle to break though – to prove yourself and be recognized. Isn’t that something in which we can all relate?

If you’ve ever seen an awards show, you’ll know that when the Best Movie or Best Musical or Best TV Show award is given out, about 100 people get up there to accept. The entertainment industry is in its very nature, collaborative. SMASH sets out to expose that group and they work they do. I found myself drawn to the world SMASH revealed in front of me. And I hope to see more.

As they say in the promos, “Stars aren’t born. They’re made.” Let’s hope NBC and SMASH can make themselves a hit.

SMASH