Welcome to Smash, a world of belting divas, charming girls next door, and more scarves than you can shake a stick at

Credit: Patrick Harbron/NBC
S1 E1
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Smash may not appeal to someone who doesn’t already like musical theater. But to anyone who occasionally finds herself absent-mindedly humming Les Mis‘s “Confrontation” — or, okay, shamelessly trying to belt out both parts at once — this glitzy, refreshingly earnest show’s potential is nothing short of thrilling. As long as it doesn’t get bogged down by snore-inducing subplots (ahem, Debra Messing’s baby mama drama) or overly mired in showbiz cliches, Smash has every right to be a… well, you know.

We fade in on a girl with a hunger for fame. Her name is Karen Cartwright, and she’s singing a soaring rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on an empty stage. Don’t adjust your television screen if this seems familiar — as endless Smash promos have blared, Karen’s played by American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee. And yes, she’s performing a tune that became her signature on that reality competition.

Unfortunately, Karen’s audience isn’t quite as taken with the number as Simon Cowell was. The telltale sound of a cell-phone ring interrupts her rhapsody — and we quickly learn that the stage and the swelling orchestra were all in Karen’s head, Chicago-style. She’s actually auditioning for a table of bored-looking theater pros — one of whom has just taken a call in the middle of her song. As Karen will soon tell her devoted boyfriend Dev, “No, it did not go well!” McPhee skeptics: Listen to the way she delivers that line, then tell me she isn’t a good actress.

Once Karen shuffles out of the room, she’s immediately replaced by a bubbly pro: Ivy Lynn, a gal who knows the importance of a confident strut and some killer cleavage. Something tells me Ivy must be very popular on the audition circuit. She’s played by Megan Hilty, a triple-threat dynamo who deserves to be Smash‘s true breakout star.

Our next stop on the Character Introduction Train: Tom and Julia, the composer-lyricist team behind fictional Broadway fare like Heaven on Earth and Three on a Match. (Crimean war superstition — great musical theater fodder, right?) Julia favors schlubby-chic scarves and is played by Debra “Grace” Messing; Tom has adorably flopsy hair and is played by Christian Borle, a Tony nominee who also happens to be a graduate of my high school. Pittsburghers are doin’ it for themselves! Tom’s just arrived home from London to find that his new assistant, Ellis, has sorted his mail, organized a “tea drawer” and even made him a giant dish of mac and cheese. Ellis is the best! Actually, Ellis is kind of the worst. But more on that later.

While the boss was away, Assistant Boy also took the liberty of perusing Tom’s coffee-table books — namely, a big, glossy volume about Marilyn Monroe. “Oh, Marilyn — so beautiful, so tragic,” says Julia, who today will be playing the role of Captain Obvious. Ellis says casually that he thinks she’d be a great subject for a musical. At first, Tom and Julia are dubious; Broadway tried the idea once already, and besides, everyone from Michelle Williams to freakin’ Gossip Girl is doing her now. But the more they think about it, the more invested in the idea they become. Especially because Julia has been itching to pen a baseball number filled with sex puns.

NEXT: “Baltimore. Baltimore, Maryland.”

After a short interlude in which we formally meet Dev — Karen’s endlessly supportive, totally dreamy S.O., who has a British accent and works for Mayor Bloomberg — we cut to Julia’s gorgeous brownstone. She lives there with househusband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James, another theater vet) and teenage son Leo, who coincidentally shares a name with Grace Adler’s husband. Julia decides to tell the guys about the Marilyn idea, which leads to this ridiculous exchange:

Julia: “When I say Marilyn, what do you think?”

Leo: “Baltimore. Baltimore, Maryland.”

Julia: “Um, okay. Think a person.”

Leo: “Marilyn Manson.”

Julia: “Marilyn Monroe!”

Leo: “Who’s Marilyn Monroe?”

Leo Houston, ladies and gentleman! Someone should tell him to stop the Q-tip when there’s resistance. In any case, Frank is less than thrilled that Julia’s thinking about starting a new project; she’s supposed to be taking time off so the two of them can work through the boring process of adopting a baby. Julia protests that Marilyn is just an idea — but she spends that night watching Some Like It Hot and giggling to herself. Soon, Julia’s telling Frank that she doesn’t want anyone else doing Marilyn. (Insert double-entendre joke here.)

Tom heads to the Shubert Theatre, where Heaven on Earth is playing. (Interesting: Smash takes place in a universe where Memphis doesn’t exist.) He has an amusing interaction with a chorus member and former boy toy before heading down to the dressing rooms to find Ivy, another member of the show’s ensemble. Having just been rejected, she’s not in the best of spirits.

But that’s about to change, since Tom has chosen Ivy to sing as Marilyn; they’re making a demo recording of a song he and Julia have whipped up off screen. It’s a plaintive ballad that quotes a poem by one of Marilyn’s favorite writers, William Butler Yeats: “Never give all the heart.” Ivy belts the tune with ease, then coos it with a more Monrovian, breathy tone; she sounds fantastic both times. And soon, the world will know how great Ivy’s voice is — because terrible Ellis has secretly taped the recording session. Before long, it’s on YouLenz, a YouTube stand-in first introduced on Law & Order. Gotta love that NBC synergy!

Hello, disaster. Ellis is swiftly fired, and Julia goes home to moan about the theater critics and blogs that are surely lining up to rip the song apart. Except, wait: Michael Riedel, the New York Post writer famous for gleefully recapping the various follies of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, has apparently seen the video… and he loves “Never Give All the Heart.” Immediately, Julia changes her tune: “You know, he’s much smarter than people give him credit for.” Even Frank seems more into the idea of the show now.

Meanwhile, Karen sits on her couch and watches the bootleg video, singing along and clearly dreaming of being in Ivy’s place. She’s recently endured a demoralizing dinner with her sweetly clichéd Midwestern parents during which they all but told her they don’t believe she’ll make it as an actress. It’s clearly a conversation Karen, Mom, and Dad have had a hundred times before; good thing Perfect Dev was there to back Karen up.

NEXT: Enter the Grand High Witch

Thought this show already had enough characters? Well, you were wrong — because now it’s time to meet Eileen Rand, a Broadway super-producer played by the timelessly fabulous Anjelica Huston. (According to her character’s fake bio on NBC.com, Eileen was also behind everything from Proof to Beauty and the Beast. Busy lady!) Eileen’s producing days may be over; she and her former partner-slash-husband Jerry are undergoing a nasty divorce, and unless they can come to an agreement, their assets are going straight into escrow. Cue me furiously looking up “escrow” on Wikipedia. (Hey, I’m a TV writer, not a law… person.)

Tom and Julia exit a cab to find a sheepish Ellis waiting in front of Tom’s building with croissants. Don’t think buttery, flaky pastries will make up for what you did, buddy. Unless you brought some for me too. He gives an utterly unconvincing mea-culpa speech about how the Theater is the only place where he’s ever felt whole, as the Tinkly Piano Music of Contrition and Furtive Dreams plays in the background. I don’t forgive him, but Tom does; I guess the buzz Ellis has inadvertently created around the project certainly helps. The composer ushers Assistant Boy and Julia to his piano, where he begins to play a new Marilyn tune he’s just written… and Julia urges Ellis to whip out his cell phone again.

In a matter of days — hours, maybe? the chronology in this pilot is a little wonky — Tom and Julia are meeting with Eileen Rand herself. She tells them she’s interested in their project. What’s more, she can get famous theater-vet Derek Wills to direct and choreograph it. “Great!” says Tom with mock enthusiasm. “Or I could just gouge my own eyes out!” Did I mention that I love Tom?

Tom and Derek, it seems, have worked together before, and theirs was not a match made in heaven. Tom thinks the Brit — played by the very charming Jack Davenport, of Coupling and Pirates of the Caribbean fame — is rude and nasty; Derek thinks the Yank is an overly sensitive diva. When Eileen tries to convince Derek to stage some sample Marilyn material, he reacts much as the composer did: “For me to audition, Marilyn herself would have to pop out of that envelope and do me right here!”

Cut, of course, to Derek in a rehearsal space, presenting his sample scene to Julia, Tom, Eileen, and Ellis. Oh hey, it’s that baseball number! “The National Pastime” is a brassy retro pastiche that’s been stuck in my head for about three days. Derek’s athletic choreography has Ivy-Marilyn repeatedly being tossed from dancing baseball player to dancing baseball player. As the crew croons innuendo about the pitcher’s mound, we begin to flash between the actual rehearsal and a fantasy version of the number that includes ensemble members in sparkly Yankees uniforms and Ivy done up in full Marilyn garb. At one point, she randomly yells “Hot dogs!” In short, this scene is amazing.

NEXT: Man, what the hell did Derek do to Tom?

Julia agrees — when the number is over, she whoops loudly and immediately tries to get Tom to admit Derek did well. But while Tom can concede that point, he’s not prepared to hand Marilyn‘s reins to a man he loudly proclaims to be “a terrible human being!” Derek overhears the insult and complains about it to Eileen: “Gay men piss me off,” he grumbles. “That’s an unfortunate position to take in the American theater,” she replies.

Tom and Derek must reach some sort of agreement, though, because next thing we know, the creative team is auditioning potential Marilyns for their workshop. Karen arrives and finds that every other hopeful has come dressed as La Monroe herself; Perfect Dev reassures her that she doesn’t need the window dressing because she has actual talent. I briefly daydream about being stranded on a deserted island with Dev. We’d swim naked in the sea, and then he’d try and…

Ahem! What was I saying? After an underwhelming auditionee (played by Rent actress Annaleigh Ashford), the creative team bats around names of possible celebrity Marilyns like Scarlett Johansson and Kristin Chenoweth. (Apparently, the latter was discovered by Derek. How long has he been in this business?) Tom points out that they’ve already got a perfectly good Marilyn: Ivy, who is currently suffering from a case of nerves in the bathroom. Though she’s supposed to sing for the team, her trip to the porcelain throne means Karen will be up next instead.

And then we see the moment that launched a thousand promos: Katharine McPhee singing “Beautiful,” beautifully. In her fantasy, the only person sitting at the creative team’s table is Perfect Dev. Awww! Karen sounds great, though I’d argue that her voice is better suited to pop than Broadway; Ivy’s belt is much more powerful. Regardless, Karen is a hit, and she gets a callback.

Thankfully, so does Ivy. But when the blonde calls her mom to tell her the good news, we gather from Ivy’s end of the convo that Mrs. Lynn is less than supportive. This great, cutting little scene is made even better when you know that in a future episode, Ivy’s mean mom is going to be played by Bernadette Peters. Perfect-casting alert!

Though everyone loved the innocence Karen exuded in her first audition, this time, the team wants her to bring the sex. Dev responds by saying, with a straight face, that she needs to wear something “that accentuates [her] breasts,” then shows her a scene from Some Like It Hot in which Marilyn tries to seduce Tony Curtis by “leading with her breasts.” Dev, I love you, but you have to cool it with the boob talk. All thoughts of rehearsal are gone as Dev and Karen begin reenacting a scene from a steamier movie.

Afterwards, Karen dreamily tells Dev that next time, she wants to do “the one where they’re making out in the ocean.” “From Here to Eternity?” Dev responds without missing a beat. “That was Deborah Kerr.” Great, now I’m having serious doubts about his heterosexuality.

NEXT: Happy birthday, straight male viewers and lesbians

Out of the blue, Karen gets a mysterious text; next thing we know, she’s walking into Derek Wills’ palatial penthouse apartment. “Place is a mess, sorry,” he deadpans as he leads Karen from the immaculate foyer to his immaculate kitchen. So why has he invited a would-be starlet to come over at 10 p.m.? Well, Derek knows Karen can play the White Swan, but she isn’t sure if she has Black Swan down yet. And if she works with him privately — nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more — he might change his mind.

Karen stares at Derek, mouth agape, before rushing to grab her purse. But instead of heading back to Dev’s loving British arms, she elects to make a pit stop in Derek’s bathroom. There, she spots one of Derek’s button-downs hanging from a wall and has a brilliant idea. I only wish she had elected to make an outfit out of the shower curtain; everyone knows that curtains make the best dresses.

Our girl next door slinks out of the bathroom wearing only Derek’s shirt and a sultry smile. She slowly walks toward the director as she sings “Happy Birthday,” Marilyn-to-JFK style. Suddenly, Derek is interested. Karen leans in close when she hits her last note — but when he starts to crane his head toward hers, she slides off his lap, says, “Not gonna happen,” and walks away. No comeback, Derek? Ya’ burnt!

And then it’s time for our last musical sequence, a callback-day montage set to a big, bold, ear-wormy tune called “Let Me Be Your Star.” As Karen sings the song’s first verse, she dresses in a cherry-patterned, Marilyn-inspired frock and paints a Monroe-esque beauty mark near her upper lip. Ivy takes care of the second verse, belting about “fire and drive” while strolling confidently down the street in a Seven Year Itch-style dress and a fabulous fur. Though it’s a little awkward to have them sing outside the context of rehearsal or performance, I do believe that these girls might just belt their hearts out while traveling to the biggest audition of their lives. I’ve also got to give songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman props for crafting a number that works so well as both a potential Marilyn song and an auditioner’s plea.

Finally, we shift to the studio as the girls sing the song’s final verse together. Their harmonies are gorgeous enough for me to wish that they could somehow both play Marilyn — but alas, there can only be one. We flash back and forth between them; Tom makes a hilarious “bitch, please” face as Karen gives the song her all. The ladies hit their final glory note… and before we can find out which one will be Tom and Julia’s star, the episode ends. Though Smash certainly isn’t perfect, I don’t know how anyone could watch this final sequence and not be moved — if not to applause, then at least to watch next week’s episode.

I’ll leave you with a few stray questions, observations, and quotes, which I’m dropping in a section called Footlights:

– Ellis, trying to make the case for Marilyn the Musical: “I like Wicked and Jersey Boys. Who would have thought those would make good musicals?” Well, one is based on a property that had already been made into a musical, and the other is about a singing group, so… not a great argument. Should’ve said Urinetown.

– Also, shouldn’t a famous Broadway composer’s personal assistant know who Michael Riedel is? Man, Ellis really is the worst.

– Knowing that Katharine McPhee used to be bulimic made that scene where Dev tells her she’s too skinny uncomfortable to watch.

– A pull quote on Heaven on Earth’s marquee crows that this musical is “the closest you’ll get to heaven on Broadway!” Guess that hypothetical critic couldn’t get tickets to The Book of Mormon.

– If I have one request, Smash overseers, it’s this: Bring back Dennis the Kicky Chorus Boy!

– The Official Smash Drinking Game (for the 21 and over set, of course): Take a sip every time tea is mentioned, and every time you spot a scarf.

– I love how Riedel called out Heaven on Earth‘s title for being “hideous”; amen to that.

– “Bringing up love at a divorce proceeding is childish.” “Screwing every blonde who opens her legs for you is also childish.” Morticia FTW!

– I’m not overly impressed by most of Julia’s lyrics (“Let Me Be Your Star” employs the word “heart” about three times too many), but “A baseball diamond is a girl’s best friend” was truly clever.

– Guys. What if Karen auditioned for The Voice? Would the universe explode?

So there you have it, folks: NBC’s Great White Hope. What did you think of episode 1? Will you stick with the series? And finally, are you Team Ivy or Team Karen?

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