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Winter TV Preview: 'Smash'

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Premieres: February 5, 9PM, NBC

Jennifer Hudson is having déjà vu on the Brooklyn set of Smash. The actress, who is appearing in the second season of the theater drama, has been spending this July morning shaking and shimmying on stage as Veronica Moore, a Tony-winning Broadway diva starring in a 1960s-set musical called Beautiful, about the first African-American supermodel. Decked out in a glitzy gold gown, Hudson belts the tune ”Take a Picture … It Lasts Longer” as dancing paparazzi swirl around her. The lavish production number could easily be mistaken for a big-budget Oscar-bait movie musical. Enthuses Hudson, ”This is such a Dreamgirls moment!” Unfortunately, viewers will probably never get to share in Hudson’s proud moment.

Three months later the Oscar winner is back filming a new opening performance for her character. ”Take a Picture…” has been cut and replaced with a jazzy swing number, ”Mama Makes Three.” Beautiful is now about an Etta James-style singer in the 1960s, not a supermodel. ”We all realized that maybe that [original] introductory number did not service Veronica Moore’s arc as well as this,” says new executive producer Joshua Safran, who adds that the original scene may still pop up in a future episode. ”We went back and retrofitted a musical that closely mirrored Ronnie’s emotional landscape with her mother.”

These days changes are as inevitable as stray sequins on the set of Smash. Expensive production numbers scrapped. Actors let go. Wardrobes overhauled. The ambitious NBC drama is undergoing the most involved reboot of the TV season, and no change is too big or too small when it comes to molding Smash into the blockbuster that NBC and the show’s phalanx of producers hope it can be. Admits exec producer Neil Meron, ”We want the ratings to go up. We want the continued critical acceptance. We want the music to be out there and be popular. We want it all. With a show like Smash, we should have it all.”

After a tumultuous first season that made the Two and a Half Men set seem stable in contrast — it culminated in the departure of creator and showrunner Theresa Rebeck, along with several cast members — NBC is attempting to retool the Broadway drama under the guidance of Safran (Gossip Girl). His plan: more star power (Jennifer Hudson! Liza Minnelli!), more ambitious plotting (dueling musicals!), and more original music. Basically, this season could be retitled Smash 2.0: Go Big or Go Home. But lofty goals also mean even greater risks. ”Some things you’ll fail with because being audacious doesn’t always fly,” says NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. ”But I think we have to be audacious or we’re dead.”

A lot of people have a lot of hopes riding on Smash 2.0, first and foremost the show’s 10(!) executive producers, including Hollywood’s biggest director, Steven Spielberg; Meron and Craig Zadan (the Oscar-winning Chicago); and Tony-winning composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray). This impressive pedigree made Smash the most high-profile premiere of 2012, and the series started strong with a stellar pilot, which followed the team behind a new Marilyn Monroe musical called Bombshell, including the two starlets vying for the lead, Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty).

Then something went wrong. Actually, several things: The tone whiplashed from heartfelt drama to camp, the plotting verged on the ludicrous (egad, someone poisoned the leading lady with a nut-spiked kale smoothie!), and episodes took regular detours to Crazytown in the form of musical fantasy sequences, such as Karen hallucinating a Bollywood-style production number while dining at an Indian restaurant. ”People will criticize the Bollywood number, but in all honesty you don’t really know [while you’re filming],” says McPhee. ”You think, ‘Well, on the page this could work.’ There’s a lot of things you think are going to work beautifully, and they don’t.”

Like, for example, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), the sweater-vested sexually ambiguous assistant to Broadway producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston). Or the wardrobe of Bombshell‘s lyricist, Julia (Debra Messing), which featured a collection of distractingly large — and ugly — scarves. ”I thought it was really shocking that it offended some people to their bone,” says Messing. ”There were some virulent things written about these scarves.” Jokes Hilty, ”Who knew that Debra Messing’s scarves would become a drinking game? When I heard that, I was like, Really?

Oddly enough, Smash‘s progression into the land of toxic smoothies and karaoke-bar baby showers became part of the show’s appeal. On average, more than 9 million people (including DVR viewers) tuned in every week — not just to watch Smash but to talk about it online, making it one of the shows most frequently associated with the ”hate-watching” trend. It was precisely because Smash had so much promise — and could do some things so well — that frustrated viewers watched, and complained, more. ”Oh, yeah, I read it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly,” admits Meron. ”I could see the love-hate stuff that was going on. I’m very emotionally involved in the show, and also trying to be an objective viewer. It’s ultimately the responsibility of all the people on the show to make the best show possible and to listen to what’s being said.”

Yes, Smash hate-watchers, the producers were paying attention to your tweets. And blog posts. And status updates. Says exec producer Justin Falvey, ”We were completely abreast of what was tracking. I think all of us from top to bottom had a lot of the same reactions. I wouldn’t say it was welcome news, but we recognized the shortcomings.” The audience and critics, says Zadan, were ”in large part echoing our sentiments…. When we went to the personal stories, the show bogged down. And the show went from being incredibly special to kind of ordinary. I think that a lot of people became disappointed in it.”

In order to get the show on track, Greenblatt knew that he had to make a major change. On March 22, NBC announced that Smash would be returning for a second season, and news soon broke that showrunner Theresa Rebeck would not. ”In every show like this you look at how they unfold, and you have to make some decisions about creative choices that were made and how stories were told,” explains Greenblatt of Rebeck’s departure. ”We just decided we wanted a fresh take for season 2.” The change proved shocking to the cast, particularly Huston. ”For me, yes, I was upset, because I really liked Theresa,” says the actress. ”I think she’s a fine writer. I felt that it would rob the show of some of its personality. After all, she created these characters.” (Rebeck declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Meanwhile, Safran, who was wrapping up his final year on Gossip Girl, became the front-runner to replace Rebeck after a sterling interview with Smash‘s producers. ”Josh basically sold it in the room, as they say,” says Spielberg, who actually came up with the initial concept for Smash and brought it to Greenblatt at Showtime in 2009. ”He pitched his point of view, and it was unanimous with everyone in the room that he had an authentic understanding of theater and drama and comedy.” Despite his schedule, Spielberg has remained actively involved in the show, even watching footage on the set of Lincoln.

Now that Safran’s got the gig, he admits that Smash is a helluva lot more challenging than plotting out GG‘s weekly cotillions. ”My joke is it’s basically like doing Transformers 4,” says Safran. ”I don’t think there is another television show that’s as large as this one in terms of as many people and the fact that there’s not just music but original music. I mean, we built a Broadway stage downstairs [on the set]. We built a Broadway stage! It’s definitely out of the frying pan and into the fire in many ways. I don’t know if I’ll ever work on a show as big as this again.”

Big is the operative word for season 2. Instead of one Broadway show within the show, there will be multiple — most notably Bombshell, which will face a rough road to Broadway, and a rocking Rent-esque project called Hit List spearheaded by a bad-boy composer named Jimmy (Broadway breakout Jeremy Jordan). The variety of musical styles means more radio-friendly tunes — many of which will again be written by Shaiman and Wittman — in the hopes of giving Smash a better shot at attaining Glee-like success on the iTunes charts, a goal it struggled with last season (though the show’s soundtrack debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200). Hit List also provides a way for the series to incorporate some younger actors, like Jordan and newcomer Andy Mientus as Jimmy’s writing partner, Kyle. And if that draws more young viewers as well, no one’s complaining. Says Zadan, ”It’s a much sexier show, a much younger show, a much cooler show.” Jordan says that because there are so many fresh faces this year, from costumers to writers, it’s been easier for new cast members to feel comfortable. ”It’s a different energy, which is kind of nice because at the beginning you feel like you’re a little bit of an outsider looking in,” says the actor. ”I compared it to being a replacement on a Broadway show, which is always weird at first.”

With all this Broadway fabulousness to follow, there’s no room for distracting subplots (Julia, we don’t care that your son was busted for pot!) or tangential players outside of the showbiz scene. To that end, Julia’s husband (Brian d’Arcy James) and son (Emory Cohen) have been shown the door, along with Karen’s fiancé, Dev (Raza Jaffrey), and the aforementioned universally reviled Ellis. Instead we’ll see Karen and Jimmy begin to circle each other romantically and professionally. And the competition between Ivy and Karen for the lead in Bombshell will get … interesting. Teases McPhee, ”The part of Marilyn is sort of up in the air again because Karen makes a bold choice to do something entirely different.”

Plus, Tom and Julia’s partnership will be pressed when Bombshell gets mixed reviews; an investigation into Eileen’s financing will threaten to derail Bombshell‘s Broadway hopes; and temperamental director Derek (Jack Davenport) will find his history of dalliances with his actresses coming back to haunt him. The scandal doesn’t help him when he pushes Hudson’s Veronica to sex up her image. ”I found this role kind of intimidating, like, ‘Oh my God, I have to sing, act, dance, perform all at once,”’ says Hudson, who signed on for the three-episode arc after Greenblatt floated the idea to her manager. ”But I just loved what this show was about.” (Hudson isn’t the only Oscar winner guest-starring this season: Liza Minnelli will appear as herself in episode 10.)

Making so many changes to a series is always risky, but in the case of Smash, that risk is being rewarded: Safran seems to have dosed the show with some much-needed mood stabilizers, correcting those roller-coaster character shifts (like Ivy’s zigzag from vengeful diva to pathetic victim and back again) and wild fluctuations in tone. The first new batch of episodes are not only more cohesive but funny (look for a great joke about scarves in the premiere) and musically thrilling, with a showstopping Hudson performance called ”I Can’t Let Go” at the end of the fourth hour. It’s possible this Smash may just live up to the promise of a spectacular juicy behind-the-scenes Broadway drama.

But the best new twist for Smash is that it no longer has to be the savior of a fourth-place network: NBC recently scored its first November-sweeps victory among viewers age 18-49 in nine years, thanks in large part to The Voice and Revolution. That means Safran and company can focus less on becoming a smash hit and more on making Smash a show people love-watch rather than hate-watch. It’s a struggle that closely mirrors the theme of season 2: ”Last year the whole thing was ‘Stars aren’t born, they’re made,”’ says Safran. ”This season is ‘It’s not about getting there, it’s about staying there.”’ Break a leg.

Q/A: Debra Messing
Throughout her 18-year career, Emmy winner Debra Messing, 44, has learned a lot about the vicissitudes of the television business — which no doubt made surviving Smash‘s wild first season much easier. EW talked to the actress about all of the changes in store for season 2 and how she really feels about Julia’s scarves (may they rest in peace).

Looking back, what did you think about the first season?
Being someone whose first love was musical theater, it sort of fulfilled every fantasy for me of a perfect TV show to be a part of. So I loved it. Having said that, it certainly did have inconsistencies. But it was the first season of the TV show, and a very ambitious and large TV show. So in my mind, it was a success.

Were you surprised at the attention given to Julia’s wardrobe?
I have to take some responsibility for that. It was very important to me that Julia not look like a fashion plate, that she look like someone who is a creative person, who lives in Brooklyn, who is also a mom. But clearly it became kind of a joke because you never saw her without [a scarf]. The last thing that I wanted was for my clothes to distract from the storytelling…. I have not seen a scarf this entire season. I mean, it literally was like there was a big red circle with a slash going through a picture of a scarf.

What was your reaction to Theresa Rebeck leaving the show?
I was shocked, I was scared, I was sad — she was the creator of the show. And it was her voice that imbued all the characters. It did concern me that it would be hard for anybody, regardless how talented, to pick up a show and continue the voice of the characters. But having said all of that, I think that Josh [Safran] has done a valiant job.

Your old Will & Grace costar Sean Hayes is guest-starring this season as a film actor making his Broadway debut. But you don’t have any scenes with him!
I still have not recovered from that. Bob Greenblatt came to set and looked me in the eye and said, ”I promise you will definitely interact with him at some point.” And then [Hayes] was gone.

Seems like a wasted moment.
I agree! I mean, come on. Even if I ran into him at the local Starbucks, a scene that has nothing to do with moving the plot along, just having us bump into each other and say hi, that’s all I wanted.

Does it feel like the same show this season?
It definitely feels different. We lost half of our cast and gained a beautiful new group of cast members. So to say that it feels exactly the same would just not be honest. But it feels good. It feels different but good.

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