They used to call them "backstage musicals" — films and plays about the theater, almost invariably focusing on a young hopeful who overcomes his or her naivete, climbs to the top and ends up basking in the applause of an opening-night smash. It's usually required that the hopeful fall in love long enough to understand that you can't take applause home when the curtain comes down.
They don't much make backstage musicals anymore. Perhaps the closest we get are the reality competition shows The Voice and American Idol, the High School Musical movies or the TV show Glee. But in concocting the optimistically titled Smash, premiering Monday night on NBC, producer Steven Spielberg and creator Theresa Rebeck have looked backward to the classic backstage musical for inspiration (not to mention plot), and the result is, yes, a smash.
How good is Smash? So good that one wonders why no one thought of it before. It's a compelling mix of credible real-life melodrama with a fictionalized approximation of what it takes to get a Broadway show from the idea phase to opening night.
The premise for the TV show is that two successful songwriters, Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle of Broadway's Legally Blonde: The Musical), think they're going to take their time finding their next project, until Tom's new assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), mentions how cool it would be if there were a musical about Marilyn Monroe.
Faster than you can say, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show," the idea takes flight, songs are written, a producer is found in formidable Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston, whose father, John, directed Monroe in The Misfits), director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) is hired, and the search is on for the woman to play the lead role.
Tom wants it to be his pal Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, who was a replacement for Glinda in the Broadway hit Wicked), a Broadway veteran with the right hair, the right look and the right curves. But in the initial auditions, a young unknown catches the ears and eyes of the creative team. Her name is Karen Cartwright (American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee) and she is, of course, from Iowa.
The competition between the two Marilyns anchors the first two episodes of the series, and it continues even after a decision is made.
Like any backstage musical worth its salt, Smash is as much about the theater of real life as it is about Broadway. Julia and her husband, Frank (Brian D'Arcy James), are trying to adopt a baby from China, optimistic that Julia can balance a career with caring for a new child. Karen is trying to convince her Iowa parents (Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Baker) that she can make it on her own in New York.
Eileen is going through a nasty divorce, trying to prove she can produce a new show without her husband and figure out where the money will come from. And because Broadway is nothing if not incestuous, expect even more complications as past lovers cross paths again in the rehearsal hall.
All of the melodrama is just that, but there's a kind of genius to it: Many significant events in the lives of the major characters reflect real or mythologized aspects of Monroe's life and career. There's even a deliciously sly bow to All About Eve — not to the walk-on character that Monroe played in the film but to the title character: There are distinct echoes of Eve Harrington in the sycophantic ambition of one of the supporting characters in Smash.
Most of all, though, the various "sides" of Monroe are reflected in the differences and similarities in the two women who are so desperate to play her in the new musical. Ivy doesn't want to be seen as a sex object, but she knows that's how she can get ahead. Karen is absurdly naïve, but she's getting a fast education about the realities of the theater. Can she ever make it without learning to be tougher? And if she becomes tougher, how will that affect her relationship with live-in boyfriend Dev Sundaram (Raza Jaffrey)?
The show within a show opens the door for Smash to be filled with lots of music and dancing. Many of the songs are as good as anything you'd hear in a contemporary Broadway show. In general, that wouldn't be a compliment, but Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) have written tunes that you can hum on your way out of the living room. The show also is graced with terrific cover performances, including Adele's hit Rumor Has It.
Joshua Bergasse's choreography is energetically solid without breaking any new ground. Broadway director Michael Mayer (American Idiot) is a consulting producer on the show and directed the first three episodes. In one of the later episodes, you can catch a glimpse of the marquee for one of Mayer's more recent projects, the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which closed over the weekend.
Sometimes that's what happens to a revival. Other times, as with The Lion King, Cabaret and Sweeney Todd, the revival is as successful as the original and can come up with an intriguing reinterpretation.
Above all, though, revivals are the lifeblood of the theater simply because audiences potentially respond well to familiarity. As much as anything, that's why viewers are likely to respond to Smash. It doesn't hurt that the show is terrifically fun.