Smash is a musical drama about Marilyn Monroe: the Broadway show, from conception to opening night. This isn’t immediately obvious from the somewhat ambiguous programme title. It could be a Top Gear spin-off, for all we know. Thankfully, the pilot opens with a musical number and sufficient stage lighting to weed out the confused. It’s the equivalent of a lecturer standing up at the start of the hour and saying ‘if anyone’s not here for introduction to applied theory and performance, please leave now.’ And so it begins. Welcome to the theatre, darling.
All the clichés are here. Fresh flowers, soft furnishings, people wearing scarves indoors. Debra Messing (as Julia, one half of the writing duo penning the stage show) is effortlessly theatre, throwing around ‘darlings’, air kisses and ‘you guy were delicious!’ with ease. Even so, Smash is just as much drama as it is musical. There are relationship issues, rogue family members, videos being leaked onto the internet. This is tv from the standard American drama mould – The Good Wife / Lie to Me, but with law / twitchy faces replaced with songs. (Requisite Brit contingent represented by a crumpled Jack Davenport as the shouty director and Raza Jaffrey as auditionee Karen’s dashing, if slightly Marilyn obsessed, boyfriend.) Indeed, it isn’t until a restrained 40 minutes in that someone steps out of the shower and spontaneously bursts into song. By which point you’re already kind of hooked. Clever.
The pilot charts the light bulb moment – over a bowl of macaroni cheese, glamour fans – of the idea for the Marilyn musical, through to call-backs casting its leading lady. This first episode ends with the two contenders, Karen and Ivy, fighting it out (vocally) to gain the part. Karen (played by Katherine McPhee of American Idol fame) is an aspiring actress from the mid-west, who moved to New York to follow her dreams, and whose quirky ways and unique talent catch the eye of the show’s director. So far, so very 42nd Street. Ivy (Megan Hilty. Has played Wicked’s Glinda on Broadway. Enough said.) is the seasoned chorus girl with bags of experience and the backing of the writing team. A winner hasn’t been declared yet, but they’re going to have to stop squabbling and make a decision soon if they ever want to get that curtain up.
This is an original telling of a classic tale. With a score. It’s not going to convert many non-believers to the musical way of life. If Larry David couldn’t win them over by setting an entire season of Curb Your Enthusiasm on Broadway, they’re not coming. And those on the fence may well dismiss it as another Glee. Which (at least so far) it really isn’t. But fans of the arts, ensemble casts, and a finely balanced mix of class and cheese, should pull up a chair. And use it to strike a Cabaret inspired pose while watching, naturally. Next week Anjelica Houston throws a drink in someone’s face, which is always a pleasure.