In 2009, “Glee” brought musicals to mainstream television. The story is a legend: the unprecedented rise to fame, outrageous musical numbers and subsequent bastardization of everything the show stood for. For those who still want to love musical television but believe in organic storytelling and creative originality: rejoice, for your salvation is at hand.


Mondays at 10 p.m.

NBC’s midseason headliner “Smash” is everything “Glee” isn’t and it’s probably many things “Glee” aspired to be. The plot is simple: 24-year-old Karen Cartwright (“American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee) wants to make it big on Broadway. There are no petulant teenagers or life-and-death sing-offs. There is original music (as opposed to straight covers and shameless pandering) and quality acting from relative newcomers as well as veterans of the stage and screen.

Karen manages to land a callback for a new Marilyn Monroe musical by illustrious Broadway legends Julia Houston (Debra Messing, “Will and Grace”) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle, “Legally Blonde: The Musical”). The pair teams up with director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), whom Julia respects and admires, though Tom harbors unrestrained loathing for him.

Julia and Tom want to cast their friend Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, Broadway’s “Wicked”), but Wills wants to have auditions. His tangible ego makes him the closest thing to an antagonist, but he’s the first person besides Karen’s charming British-Indian boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey, the London production of “Bombay Dreams”) to see something in her.

Wills isn’t overtly sleazy, but he does manage to make things awkward by calling Karen to his home late at night to capture the essence of Marilyn. Despite the compromising situation, she performs a sultry “Happy Birthday” to prove she has the necessary sex appeal, only to inform Wills as he inevitably leans in for a kiss that it’s “not gonna happen” (WWMD?). It’s one of the standout scenes of the pilot, but it requires elaboration: Was it some kind of test? And, if so, what was he trying to prove?

Truthfully, McPhee is too beautiful and talented to be the girl next door, just as this role didn’t suit her on “American Idol” years ago. Wills echoes the American people in 2006, seeing that this girl was born to be a star. Still, the fact remains that she was that girl, so playing cautious hope comes naturally to her.

The first audition is shown partially in a room with the judges (who also include a shrewd and calculating Anjelica Huston, “The Royal Tenenbaums”) and partially as a staged number. At first, it seems like a “Glee” tactic — going back and forth between real life and the stage — but upon further inspection, it’s genius. “Smash” actually has a reason to picture every auditionee as the star in the spotlight — it puts us right in the position of the creative minds behind Broadway’s best, prompting us to visualize the potential of every performer with the skill and foresight (and pressure!) of a casting director.

Karen and Ivy are both excellent choices to play Marilyn, and therein lies the main conflict of the pilot. It spends more time on Karen, a fresh-faced ingénue, so she’s the underdog who garners the audience’s sympathy. On the other hand, it’s hard not to want to be on the same team as Will and Grace — I mean Tom and Julia — so we’re forced to take a second look at Ivy and see that she too deserves a leading role after years of struggling.

The story isn’t surprising by any means, but in a way, that’s classic Broadway. Is it so bad to promise aesthetic entertainment and a certain “happily ever after?” “Smash” has no pretentions about pushing the boundaries of television drama, so its strength lies in showcasing the heart and soul of showbiz. With such apparent passion behind the scenes, “Smash” is poised to be just what the title promises.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.