What Happens Backstage
Smash is not Glee.
The urge to compare them is understandable: there just aren’t that many television shows where the cast routinely breaks into song. Both shows have a true love for musical theater and its fans. Btu, where Glee is a frothy, candy-colored romp, Smash is an earnest drama without much sign of a sense of humor. The high school kids in Glee (and many of their teachers) sing anywhere and everywhere. The singing in Smash, at least in the first two episodes, occurs under more realistic circumstances, that is, performances by professionals at auditions or in shows.
Smash shares more in common with another recent show about the nuts and bolts of creating expensive and highly scrutinized entertainment, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. If Smash lacks the benefit of Aaron Sorkin’s hyper-literate and unmistakable dialogue, it follows Studio 60‘s format, observing the producers, writers, and actors who collaborate on a show, particularly what happens backstage. Smash‘s show is a Broadway musical, and its story begins when a successful writing team—Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle)—pen a song about Marilyn Monroe. A leaked version of the song attracts the attention of wealthy producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), who brings in famous director/choreographer Derek Wills (Jack Davenport).
Soon a team has formed and they’re casting their star. They narrow down their search for Marilyn to two actresses: Ivy (Megan Hilty), a sultry blonde Broadway veteran who is still looking for her starring role, and Karen (Kathryn McPhee), an ingénue from Iowa with a big voice. Their competition provides Smash with the potential for soap operatic plotting. But in the first two episodes, the cattiness is minimal and both Ivy and Karen are three-dimensional characters, sympathetic and appealing.
As Smash follows up on its much-publicized premiere—“the night after the Super Bowl!”—and proceeds on a weekly basis, we’ll see more auditions, as well as workshops and rehearsals. Already the series evinces reverence for the musical itself but, thankfully, not for the process of creating it. All of the central characters are people working at jobs. They’re creative, highly skilled jobs for which few people are qualified, but they are jobs nonetheless.
Again, this is very similar to the approach of Studio 60. But in Smash, the workers have lives outside of their jobs. Julia and her husband, Frank (Brian D’Arcy James), are trying to adopt a baby from China. Karen’s boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey) is supportive of her dreams until they start to interfere with his. Eileen is in the middle of a bitter divorce that threatens to take away her wealth and therefore her means to produce the show. So far, Derek’s extracurricular activities look a little too familiar, that is, he’s your garden-variety brilliant philanderer.
The subtext of all of these stories is that the lure of the project—embodied by Marilyn Monroe—is addictive and all-encompassing enough to threaten everything else in the participants’ lives. All are attracted by the rush produced by working on the show.
In this, again, Smash may appeal to fans of both Glee and Studio 60. For the first, it features original songs that are catchy enough to believe they could be in a hit musical, while the covers, like Blondie’s “Call Me,” are well chosen and realized. For the second, this is a respectable drama designed for adults, without a hint of snark. Glee is (or was) a hit and Studio 60 was not. And that may be the rub for Smash. Non-procedural dramas with adults in mind remain rare on network TV.