What defines a smash hit? “Wicked,” “Rent” and “Billy Elliot” — those shows stunned and awed audiences with catchy lyrics, spectacular one act finales and emotional endings. But in television, a hit is defined differently. A TV show has to have the ratings week after week and if it’s lucky, the critics will like it too.
NBC is hoping that “Smash” can be the hit show they’ve been looking for. As “Glee” proved, music plus television equals money and success. It opens up a lucrative landscape with songs taking over top ten lists on iTunes and live performances acted out in front of audiences across the country. “Smash” builds on this imaginative playground in television, bringing the musical and TV show together.
But what “Smash” does differently from “Glee,” is that it actually has a plot. “Glee” got lost in pointless cover songs that vary from the inner emotional monologue acted out through music to the glee club ballads sung after classes.
Created by Theresa Rebeck and produced by Steven Spielberg, the pilot of “Smash” finds a middle ground between the musical and the week-to-week format of television by taking the viewers behind the scenes into the making of a Broadway musical.
They say there’s no business like show business, and as we watch we see that this really is true. Debra Messing returns to television as Julia Housten, who, alongside her writing partner Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), begin to write the book and lyrics for a musical about the beloved Marilyn Monroe. From the writers we jump to the producer out to prove herself, Eileen Rand (Anjelica Houston), and sleezy but talented director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport).
With the choreography starting to come together and the songs building from number to number, we meet the actors pitted against one another to compete for the title role. A Midwestern-small-town-girl, the brunette Karen Cartwright, played by Katherine McPhee, wants her talent to prove to her parents and to the world that she is a real actress, not just a waitress making it by on tips. On the other hand, blonde beauty Ivy Lynne, played by Megan Hilty, is already on the stage, but stuck in the ensemble, and wants to break out as a star. It’s the American dream of the theatre geek.
The pilot episode sets up McPhee’s character as the underdog who steals the show. But in all honesty, it is Hilty who has the Broadway talent, the look, and the vibe of a star. That is not to say that McPhee isn’t talented as Karen, because she is. But her whole attitude doesn’t yell “theatre” nearly as strongly as Hilty’s Ivy. But this is only the pilot, and even I can’t pretend to know what the writers will choose to do next. I just hope they choose surprise, and I hope that their competition against one another turns into a story line worthy of Broadway show business.
In the final minutes of the pilot episode, Karen and Ivy seemingly break out in song as they roam the streets of New York City hoping to reach the stardom they so desire. It is not until the end of the original number, “Let Me Be Your Star,” that we realize they are practicing and singing their final call back audition number.
In this moment, as well as others throughout the show, “Smash” takes the story of the making of a musical and uses it to embrace songs that are essential to furthering both the plot of the show itself, and the show within the show.
From the writers to producers, directors and actors, “Smash” has pulled together the entire line of production to draw the audience into what happens before opening night of a Broadway show. Every character is out to prove something. Ivy and Karen are dying to show their true inner Broadway Star. Tom and Julia want to write the next critic’s darling while Julia has to confirm her ability to balance family and career. Even Tom’s assistant, Ellis, just wants to demonstrate that he can be a part of show business, no matter how small of a task. As we watch the development of “Smash,” we’re watching the inner workings of a competitive, cutthroat industry that can sometimes, if it’s just right, be magical.
A smash hit on television is a show that captivates fans week after week. In the Internet age it’s a show that racks up comments on critics websites and trends hash tags on twitter. Hopefully some of that Broadway magic has rubbed off on this new show. And maybe, just maybe, “Smash” will be NBC’s next big hit.