WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — All the world may be a stage, but Megan Hilty, one of the stars of NBC’s “Smash,” has been around long enough to know that the most compelling action doesn’t happen under the spotlights.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been backstage, looking around, going, ‘Where’s the camera? There needs to be a camera here,’” says the actress, who appeared for several years in “Wicked.” “The drama that happens behind the curtain is way more interesting than what’s happening on the stage.”
NBC desperately hopes viewers agree. The beleaguered network is betting big on “Smash,” a dazzling, boldly ambitious fictional saga about the making of a Broadway musical — or, as Hilty calls it, “a gorgeous, elaborate soap with some fantastic, splashy song-and-dance numbers.”
The show is packed with creative firepower, including film and theater producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and movie kingpin Steven Spielberg. And its sprawling cast features Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing and “American Idol” Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee, who plays a Broadway newbie battling Hilty’s character for the lead role in a production about Marilyn Monroe.
“Smash” is the kind of quality fare that NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt hopes will pump some life back into a once-proud network that is now sputtering in fourth place. “We think it’s special — that it can break through the clutter,” he says.
On the other hand, skeptics wonder if a mass audience will, indeed, be seduced by the lullaby of Broadway — or if the musical setting will appeal only to those few who regularly read “Playbill.”
Spielberg is convinced the idea has legs. An executive producer on “Smash,” he had long envisioned a TV series about the Broadway creative process, complete with “the fights, the arguments, the dreams, the egos, the disappointments and the energy” that go into it.
“I thought audiences would be able to relate to (it) whether or not they ever had seen a Broadway show,” he told journalists last month during television’s winter press tour. “This is about the drama of the characters.”
Several years ago, Spielberg recruited Zadan and Meron, who brought “Chicago” to the big screen. They enlisted playwright Theresa Rebeck to pen the script, as well as the composer-lyricist team of Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”).
The series was initially pitched to Greenblatt during his stint as president at Showtime. When Greenblatt left the cable network, he brought the series with him to NBC. Still, “Smash,” being the offbeat risk that it is, may have never made it to prime time had it not been for the success of a certain little musical comedy about high school songbirds.
“When (producer) Ryan Murphy did ‘Glee,’ he broke a great barrier,” Zadan says. “He allowed the networks to really believe that there was room for drama, comedy and music in one show week after week. I don’t think (our) show is like ‘Glee,’ but we feel grateful to ‘Glee’ for opening that door.”
Monday’s instantly captivating pilot episode of “Smash” introduces viewers to the writing team of Julia (Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle), who are eager to craft a musical about America’s iconic blonde bombshell, even though a previous production about Monroe flopped. The project draws interest from a producer going through a messy divorce (Huston) and a self-absorbed director (Jack Davenport).
As the casting process unfolds, two ingenues — the naive novice, Karen (McPhee), and a veteran chorus girl, Ivy (Hilty) — engage in a spirited showdown to play Marilyn.
The performances are solid all around, with McPhee and Hilty making strong impressions — and not just for their vocal power. Also thoroughly convincing is Messing, who dials things down from her “Will & Grace” days to play a woman torn between professional passion and family life.
And true to Spielberg’s word, there is plenty of dramatic juice that will have universal resonance, including workplace rivalries, marital strife, sinister scheming and sexual tension.
Should “Smash” become a smash, producers have discussed turning the fictional Marilyn musical into an actual Broadway show. But Rebeck insists they don’t want to get ahead of themselves.
“What we’re aiming to do right now is write a great television show,” she says. “ ... What happens in the future, who knows?”
For now, we know that each episode will feature a blend of covers of popular hits and original songs. As the season progresses, there will be guest appearances by the likes of Uma Thurman, Nick Jonas and Bernadette Peters. But in the early going, expect much of the attention to be on McPhee, who was reportedly hand-picked by Spielberg.
Since appearing on “Idol” in 2006, McPhee has had what she calls “steady” success, but the 27-year-old Los Angeles native is by no means a household name. “Smash” could quickly change that. She has been prominently featured in a massive NBC promotional campaign that claims to be “introducing” McPhee, and her breakthrough performance in the pilot episode has been generating substantial buzz.
“It takes a long time to build a career and have people see you in a different way,” McPhee says. “For me, ‘Idol’ was a steppingstone rather than a launching pad. A launching pad is for people who have a straight shot to wherever they want to go. ‘Idol’ was a wonderful experience, but it was just a longer path for me.”
And for McPhee, who studied musical theater in college, the wait has been worth it.
“I think the fact that it has taken some time just gave me more drive,” she says. “And it has made the ups even more sweeter because a lot of hard work went into them.”
To make sure this “up” has a truly sweet impact, NBC has given “Smash” what Greenblatt calls a “full-court press” of promotional oomph. The network offered sneak advance screenings of the pilot in several major cities and also made it available for download on numerous sites.
More significantly, NBC has paired “Smash” with its hit reality series, “The Voice,” figuring that the musical numbers and aspirational qualities of both shows make for a powerful ratings combo.
“Hopefully the synergy of the night will invigorate both shows,” Greenblatt says. “I don’t believe ‘Smash’ is a make-or-break kind of show for us, but it’s a really good potential long-term asset.”
10 p.m. EST Monday