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2012 winter TV preview: 'Smash'

NBC hopes to take center stage with this razzle-dazzle drama from Steven Spielberg about the making of a Broadway musical

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Staten Island is home to the gorgeously baroque St. George Theatre, where former American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee is once again in the spotlight. But instead of singing for a crotchety Brit and a loopy ex-pop star, the 27-year-old is belting out an original tune on the set of NBC’s new show Smash, which follows the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical. Dressed as Norma Jean Baker, the girl who would become Marilyn, McPhee stands calmly as the platform underneath pushes her toward the camera and the playback begins. ”The music starts playing/It’s the beat of her heart saying…” She raises her hands, pleading with the audience: ”Let me be your star!”

That last lyric may as well be the unofficial slogan for Smash, the highly anticipated drama from NBC that the media have pegged as a potential ratings bright spot for the downtrodden network. Hatched from an idea by executive producer Steven Spielberg, the show mixes the politics and behind-the-scenes drama of mounting a big Broadway musical with splashy numbers led by two ingenues (McPhee and Broadway actress Megan Hilty) battling for the lead role. Says NBC Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt: ”It’s about the hope of getting your dream. It’s the same thing that gets people excited about American Idol or The Voice. Out of obscurity comes the next Celine Dion.” With a cast that includes Emmy winner Debra Messing and Oscar winner Anjelica Huston, the producing team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago), composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman (Hairspray), and, of course, Mr. Spielberg, it’s no surprise that Smash is an incredibly ambitious hour of TV. ”It feels like something new and exciting is being born,” says Messing, who plays Julia Houston, the co-creator of Smash‘s musical-within-a-musical. ”You look around and you see people at the top of their game.”

But the series has some obstacles in its path, primarily a home on the fourth-place network. NBC is hoping Smash and its returning reality hit The Voice will boost its numbers. ”It will be a phenomenal building block for us if it works,” says Greenblatt. ”If for some reason it doesn’t, I think it won’t be the end of the road.” Says Messing, ”I don’t think we feel [the pressure], and that’s a good thing. Obviously, we want to deliver for Bob and for NBC.”

While one doesn’t necessarily associate the man who made E.T. and Schindler’s List with jazz hands, Spielberg himself brought the idea of Smash to Greenblatt, then president of Showtime, in 2009. ”I had just finished producing a Broadway musical — 9 to 5,” says Greenblatt, who was already working with Spielberg on United States of Tara and The Borgias. ”It’s a world that I am very much involved in and love and am fascinated by, so it wasn’t a difficult thing for me to say, ‘Yes, let’s develop this.’ ” The pair then roped in power producers Zadan and Meron, who loved Spielberg’s idea of dissecting the dysfunctional-family aspects of the theater world. ”He wanted to do an upstairs-downstairs look at the creation of a Broadway musical and tell it from the perspective of the people that were below and above the trenches,” says Meron. Shaiman and Wittman came aboard thanks to previous collaborations with the producers on Hairspray and with Spielberg on the musical version of Catch Me if You Can. Playwright Theresa Rebeck (Seminar) was brought in to write the script because Spielberg was impressed with her body of work. ”It was a pretty good day for me, I can say that,” admits Rebeck. ”My agent said the word Spielberg used was ‘infatuated.’ And I will never forget that as long as I live.”

But before the curtain was ready to go up, the project hit a snag: Greenblatt left Showtime in the summer of 2010, and Smash was left in limbo. Eventually, news broke that the exec was being groomed to run NBC, which finally made it official in January 2011. With his job starting in the midst of pilot season, Greenblatt had little time to develop his own projects, so he saw Smash, which was in turnaround at Showtime, as an obvious one to push forward. Rebeck reworked the original script, which involved toning down profanity and sexual content. The trailer for the reportedly $7.5 million pilot drew raves at the May upfronts for advertisers in New York City — but it also drew comparisons to TV’s current musical phenom Glee. ”To be blunt, I think they’re a bit fatuous,” says Jack Davenport (FlashForward), who plays smarmy director Derek Wills. ”Whilst there’s only one other show on television with singing, every other show is either about cops, doctors, or lawyers. You don’t hear people going, ‘Well, that show’s just like House.’ Half the shows have got the same name, for Christ’s sake!” The real talking point, though, was the breakthrough performance by McPhee. ”It’s unreal,” says Zadan. ”It’s sort of like, ‘Who are you? Where have you been?’ It’s a real discovery situation.” Noting that her portrayal of struggling actress Karen Cartwright was making waves, producers even crafted the trailers to emphasize her role. ”I was really surprised in the trailers when they said, ‘And introducing…Katharine McPhee,”’ says the California native, who was handpicked by Spielberg, a fan of hers since her days on Idol. ”But it is a new introduction because people don’t know me as an actress.” (Except for those who saw her big-screen debut in 2008’s The House Bunny.) Adds Greenblatt, ”Isn’t that funny? She’s having a comeback at the age of 27.”

While McPhee relishes her moment in the spotlight, her Smash character will be struggling to get her first big break. The premiere episode sets up a showdown between McPhee’s actress/waitress Karen and Hilty’s Broadway chorus girl Ivy Lynn for the lead role, but don’t expect that to be the show’s main narrative: Viewers will actually learn who lands the part of Marilyn, at least for the workshop, by the end of episode 2. Still, things can change. Teases Rebeck: ”I have to say when a musical is being developed, all sorts of things can happen. There’s more than one Marilyn in this soup, definitely.” Both actresses will have even stiffer competition when Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) joins the cast in the second half of the season as a movie star who’s also circling the coveted role. (Other planned guest stars include Nick Jonas as a former Broadway wunderkind and Bernadette Peters as Ivy’s Tony-winning stage mom.) But not all the action is confined to the stage: Messing’s Julia has work-life balance to contend with as she and her husband (Brian d’Arcy James) try to adopt a baby from China; her life gets thrown even further into disarray when she finds herself reunited with an old flame (Will Chase), who’s cast as Joe DiMaggio. ”There’s fantastic drama and chaos happening at home for Julia,” says Messing. (The actress has been linked with Chase off screen as well.) Anjelica Huston, as the show’s producer Eileen Rand, will struggle to maintain her powerful image during a messy divorce — among other curveballs. ”I just had a lovely long-lost daughter reappear in the form of [actress] Grace Gummer,” says Huston. And of course there will be plenty of Broadway spectacle, with producers estimating at least one new musical number per episode as well as several covers of modern songs, from Rihanna’s ”Cheers (Drink to That)” to Blondie’s ”Call Me.” As with Glee, fans will be able to download songs from Smash on iTunes, and the network has a deal with Sony to release soundtracks. Down the line, there’s even the hope that the show will yield an actual Broadway production about Monroe — an idea that was part of Spielberg’s initial pitch. Says Zadan: ”It would be the first time in history that you used a television show to develop original musicals. I mean, the notion of it is so enormous.”

Of course, nothing is small with Smash. NBC is putting all its might behind the series; in addition to the ”massive” (Greenblatt’s term) ad campaign, the network has made the pilot widely available for download from the likes of iTunes and Amazon (up next: Hulu and NBC.com will stream Smash starting Jan. 23). But the biggest show of force is pairing the series with The Voice on Monday nights; Greenblatt actually held Smash until midseason so that it could have the reality hit’s momentum behind it. ”We know that our turnaround is going to take a few years,” he says. ”If we had launched them, like, the third week of September, I think I’d be sitting here bummed at this point. The future is what it’s all about.”