Through four episodes of “Smash,” the new NBC musical debuting Monday night at 10, I kept waiting to hear the music.
Not the literal music, mind you. There’s plenty of that to be heard and enjoyed in this backstage drama about attempts to make a Broadway musical out of the life of Marilyn Monroe, some of them original compositions by the award-winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, some of them contemporary pop hits covered by a cast that includes “American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee, Debra Messing and Broadway actors Megan Hilty and Christian Borle. Shaiman and Wittman’s songs for the show-within-the-show are energetic and everything you might expect from the duo who wrote the Tony-winning “Hairspray” score. And the pop numbers position the show as every bit the “‘Glee’ for grown-ups” NBC so desperately wants it to be. (If anything, comparing it to the narrative mess “Glee” has become is damning it with faint praise; “Smash” is much more coherent with its stories and characters.)
But even though “Smash” is a solidly-crafted show with a terrific cast (the ensemble also includes Anjelica Huston and Jack Davenport), great New York atmosphere and, yes, those songs, I never heard quite what the show wanted me to hear, or what a number of other critics I respect have heard. I never heard the music.
I never felt the inescapable lure of Broadway that has grabbed all of the show’s characters. (As one puts it while describing an experience in the crew of a high school musical, “I felt happy, even just being backstage. I don’t know. I felt… whole.”) I never felt my pulse begin to race when a production number began, didn’t feel my heartstrings tugged at various emotional moments for the characters, didn’t get excited about all the backstage conniving, scheming and sabotage.
I enjoyed each hour well enough – there are too many ridiculously talented people in front of and behind the camera on “Smash” for it to not be at least a competent entertainment – but felt like I could wait a while before getting to the next episode.
“Smash” was created by Theresa Rebeck, whose career has toggled back and forth between the worlds of theater and television. One of her earlier jobs in TV was on “NYPD Blue,” and in many ways “Smash” feels very much like HBO’s “Luck,” the new horse racing drama created by her old boss David Milch. Both shows are unabashed love letters to a form of entertainment that’s less influential than it used to be, but that still has an addictive pull to the people who participate in or enjoy it, even as they can recognize its many negatives.
But where “Luck” quickly plugged me into the mindset of its various racetrack denizens and let me see their world the way they saw it, and with some of the passion they felt, “Smash” hasn’t yet accomplished that trick for me. And, if anything, I have more built-in affection for the stage than the track, as I spent a good chunk of my high school years as a theater nerd, acting in or working backstage at various plays and musicals.
Your mileage will obviously vary on the passion you feel for the show and its subject matter, but Rebeck and director Michael Mayer (a Broadway vet who makes an impressive transition to TV) introduce a host of promising characters, stories and conflicts in short order.
Messing and Borle play Julia and Tom, a successful Broadway writing team who practically stumble over the idea for “Marilyn: The Musical.” It’s just a lark at first, but then gets rushed into production thanks to the interest of newly-single producer Eileen (Huston), who’s eager to make her mark away from her philandering estranged husband. Eileen in turn forces Tom to work with his nemesis, arrogant British director Derek (Davenport, probably best-known from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, and dynamite here in one of the show’s more morally-complex roles).
The role of Marilyn herself comes down to two unknowns: Karen (McPhee), a naïve waitress barely off the bus from Iowa; and Ivy (Hilty), a veteran chorus girl who’s been waiting forever for her big break, and has a close ally in Tom.
This is definitely a better vehicle for McPhee than her post-“Idol” attempts at pop stardom. Her voice was never big or remarkable enough to break through on the radio, but when you combine her singing with the acting and dancing, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. That said, the show keeps trying to position Karen and Ivy as equally-deserving of the part, when Hilty very thoroughly outclasses McPhee whenever the production numbers start. (One of the strikes allegedly held against Ivy is that she’s too-practiced, while Karen is more natural, and yet you almost always can see McPhee working hard, where this stuff comes easily to Hilty.)
Perhaps recognizing this, the show starts shamelessly stacking the deck to make Karen seem like a sympathetic underdog when she clearly should be in second position. It would be the most annoying part of the show if it weren’t for the existence of Ellis (Jaime Cepero), an obnoxious, two-dimensional character who gets into an “All About Eve”-style rivalry with Julia.
But despite those missteps (and a snore of a subplot about Julia and her husband trying to adopt a baby from China), the show as a whole moves briskly and confidently. And where “Glee” has abandoned any sense of consistency or internal logic, the talking scenes on “Smash” never feel like a blatant musical number delivery system.(*) Rebeck and the other producers have talked about possibly taking “Marilyn: The Musical” to Broadway for real if the TV show is a success, and while it’s unclear in the early going whether the play itself would be interesting outside this context, Rebeck, Shaiman and Wittman can certainly fake it much more convincingly than, say, Aaron Sorkin could write “SNL”-style sketches on “Studio 60.”
(*)”Glee” parallels are impossible to avoid completely. Not only is there a running gag about drinks being thrown in someone’s face, but the four episodes I’ve seen feature two songs already memorably covered on “Glee.”
Watching “Smash,” it’s not hard to understand why NBC president Bob Greenblatt has invested so heavily in it and is hoping that it and “The Voice” can lead NBC out of the ratings desert. It’s smart and slick and bursting with talent and doesn’t feel like 15 other shows on television (and the one it does feel somewhat like was a huge hit very recently). And it’s well-made and interesting enough that I intend to keep watching, but part of that will be out of the hope that, as the show goes along, I’ll feel what the characters feel about “Marilyn: The Musical,” and what some other critics feel about “Smash.”
I haven’t heard the music yet, but maybe I will in time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: Because NBC has made the pilot itself available far and wide across these here Internets, you’re welcome to discuss it in as much detail as you like in the comments. I’ll have a separate post up Monday night for those who waited to see it on TV, but I’m guessing the majority of people who are curious about this show have already sampled it on iTunes, Hulu, etc.