’Smash’ Returns, Retooled For Season Two
If a prize was to be given out for the most frustrating show on television last year, the winner would be NBC’s Smash. The ambitious series (created by playwright Theresa Rebeck) showed much promise when it premiered a year ago with strong reviews and much ballyhoo. Over a twelve-episode arc, it told a juicy backstage story of bringing a new musical to Broadway.
Featuring a cast of veterans (Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston), as well as newcomers (Christian Borle, Megan Hilty and "American Idol" alum Katharine McPhee), a producing team that included Steven Spielberg, Craig Zaden and Neil Meron, and the insight of such Broadway luminaries as Rebeck and the songwriting team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (from "Hairspray"); "Smash" chronicled the trials of creating a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. But many things went wrong, from Messing’s ostentatious scarves to plot lines better suited for daytime soaps than prime time.
What makes "Smash" novel is that it is not only about a musical, it is a musical - with numbers popping up not only in the rehearsal hall, but on the street, in restaurants, anywhere a character felt like breaking into song. It was "Glee" for those over-30. But during season one, the tone of the show was all over the place. Characters that we were supposed to love to hate (we’re talking about you, Ellis) we ended up just hating. And even guest turns by Uma Thurman, Nick Jonas and Bernadette Peters weren’t enough to make the show a, well, smash.
A new showrunner
Add to this the behind-the-scenes drama (rumored of, but not made public until last week when the website BuzzFeed reported of the show’s difficulties), and there was the makings of an expensive flop.
But, thankfully, with a strong lead-in from "The Voice" and a loyal fan base, NBC believed there was still a good show in "Smash." Exit Rebeck, and enter a new showrunner, out writer Joshua Safran, who formerly steered the ship over at "Gossip Girl." "I had the great luxury to be able to be an audience member for the show for the first season, which was really exciting and thrilling to watch," he explained at the recent Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Safran knew some things were working on the show and some things weren’t. "I don’t really think it’s changed that much. I think that the stuff from last year that you loved is still there. And the stuff from last year that maybe some people thought was a little... went off on tangents (was) looked at. We sort of tried to find a way to circle (it) back together, but it still is the same ’Smash.’"
Enter Jennifer Hudson
Characters like the duplicitous Ellis (Jaime Cepero), the dull Dev (Raza Jaffrey) and manipulative Rebecca Duvall (Uma Thurmon’s movie star slumming in the theater) are out, and Broadway vets Jeremy Jordan, Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez are in. Also added are such familiar TV faces like Daniel Sunjata ("Rescue Me") and Academy Award-winner, Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls"). Liza Minnelli will also appear later in the season, Sean Hayes reunites with former "Will & Grace" co-star Debra Messing and we’ll see the return of Bernadette Peters as the overbearing mother to Hilty’s Ivy. And there’s a rival show to "Bombshell" in "Hit List," which Karen, McPhee’s character, will be part of.
The idea to add Hudson came from NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt, who developed the show at his former job at Showtime then brought it along when he went to NBC. Safran explained that adding Hudson’s character, Veronica Moore, an ambitious Tony-winning Broadway star, fit with the new season’s direction. (She appears in three of the first four episodes.) "One of the things that we talked about (was) that there are these stars on Broadway" that could act as mentors for Karen (McPhee) and Ivy (Hilty), the two aspiring actresses that spent the first season fighting for the coveted role of Marilyn Monroe in "Bombshell." "Bob suggested Jennifer (to fill that role). It was just absolutely perfect, and it’s been great to have her. I think she’s really amazing. She sings a lot. She acts a lot. She dances a lot, and everyone got to work with her. She’s just an amazing talent."
Even co-star Hilty was awestruck by Hudson. "It was incredible to get to hear her up close, because she is a force. Her voice is unlike any other and she brought such a great energy to the set too. She’s a really generous and kind person on top of all of that talent."
Gay storylines continue
The inclusion of Hayes and the legendary Minnelli in future episodes came through the influence of out Executive Producers Craig Zaden and Neil Meron, who took a break from planning this year’s Oscars to take part in the TCA panel for "Smash." "I think all the guest stars that we have on the show are friends of all of ours," said Zaden. "Liza Minnelli and Sean Hayes and all of these other people have been friends for years, and it’s such a joy to have a show that we could actually call them and say, ’Hey, would you like to do an episode or two or three on ’Smash?’ So it’s been really exciting."
And, yes, we still have the gays on Smash. Last season composer Tom (Christian Borle) began a tentative relationship with chorus member Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.), which this year will be tested when Sam goes on the road with a "Book Of Mormon" tour. This season brings the boyish Andy Mientus ("Spring Awakening") to the cast as Kyle, the writing partner of Jordan’s Jimmy. "We’re working together on the show ’Hit List,’" Mientus said, "I don’t actually play a performer, which is cool for me. I play a writer, but they did find a clever sort of way for me to get to sing, because I am a singer as well, so you will hear it." Kyle is also openly gay and has a not-so-secret crush on his straight friend, Jimmy, that we’ll see play out throughout the season.
Speaking of Borle, following the first season of "Smash," he won the Best Featured Actor In A Play Tony for his role in the Broadway hit "Peter and the Starcatcher," giving his past year a meta-quality.
"It was an amazing, incredible, joyous and fantastic turn of events," he said. "I felt very, very lucky and it was obviously amazing. I was living in New York. I was working on Broadway in a show about Broadway and a show that I’m enormously proud of on both fronts, so it was like a delicious fevered dream."
For Jordan, coming off a successful run as the lead of "Newsies" on Broadway (for which he received a Tony nomination), he shared that performers actually on Broadway are definitely paying attention to the show. "Most people, I think, in the Broadway community watch it religiously. If ’Smash’ is gonna connect to anyone, it would be us first, right? Because it’s about us." Jordan’s Jimmy is an up-and-coming performer who’ll also have a romance with McPhee’s character.
One question lingering from season one...will we ever see "Bombshell," the show within the show about Marilyn Monroe, that was said to be finding its way to Broadway at some future date?
’Bombshell’ on Broadway
"Now that Josh is part of the team," Meron said, "we stand on the set and we watch the ’Bombshell’ moments and say, ’Wouldn’t this show be great on Broadway?’ That’s basically where we’ve left it -- basically having these discussions ad infinitum, ’Wouldn’t ’Bombshell’ be great on Broadway?’ But I think the first priority is to make the television show, and I think that’s what we’re still focusing on. Whether that (’Bombshell’ on Broadway’) would happen in the future, that would be great."
But with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on board since the first season, the idea of ’Bombshell’ going to Broadway isn’t that far-fetched. "I think we always felt," said Zaden, "that Marc and Scott did such a brilliant job in writing such an amazing score for ’Bombshell’ that I would go as far as saying I think their score taken together, all those songs rival any score on Broadway right now."
For now we’ll have to settle for the real-life soundtrack to ’Bombshell,’ which will feature songs from the fictional musical and will be available for purchase on February 12th.
Smash’s two hour premiere aired on February 5, 2013. It is available to watch on-demand through your local cable system or online at the "Smash" homepage. The show’s second season continues Tuesdays nights at 10e/9c on NBC on February 19, 2013. The soundtrack to "Bombshell" will be released on Columbia Records on February 12, 2013.