Smash – Pilot Review
“Smash”, the new TV series that debuted on American NBC in February, has been highly praised and received great ratings overseas. Considering its subject matter, broadcasting it in the UK was the next natural step. The show hit our screens last week with its smash-ing pilot and will continue to do so every Saturday on Sky Atlantic.
The series is set in New York amidst the Broadway world. Now, it is a musical drama so if you generally don’t get too excited when actors randomly burst into song from time to time you might not like the idea. However, if musical theatre has a special place in your heart – or if at least you can tolerate it enough – “Smash” will be your new favourite thing. Not convinced by me? Steven Spielberg as the executive producer should do the trick. And be on the lookout for other big names to follow.
The show revolves around an idea for a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. The acknowledged songwriter Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), always partnering up with scriptwriter Julia Houston (Debra Messing) put all their hearts into turning that little spark into songs, lyrics and dialogues. After presenting the concept to a producer, Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), currently in the middle of a rough divorce, they all decide to give it a serious try. Despite Tom’s objections, the director chosen for the project is Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) – a rude but brilliant Englishman, whose conflict with Tom he summarizes: “Gay men piss me off”. Meanwhile, in the acting world, not everything is roses. Another audition was going great, but the director picking up her phone in the middle of Karen Cartwright’s (Katharine McPhee) song is not exactly what the actress slash waitress was hoping for. Then there is Ivy Lynne (Megan Hilty), for whom another job in a yet another Broadway show’s ensemble (i.e. chorus) is no longer enough. Both women audition for the role of Marilyn, hoping this will be the big breakout they have been waiting for. One of them will be in for a not so nice surprise.
As a musical theatre enthusiast I can honestly say I enjoyed every bit of the pilot episode of “Smash”. The critics have already raved about great acting – and, to be honest, what else can you expect after that amount of hype created around the big names involved in the project? However, I would like to give credit to the two leading ladies. Both McPhee and Hilty give a great amount of spark to their characters whose battles to become stars have only just began – you can almost argue that their naturalism comes from the fact that just like the characters they play, neither of the actresses has actually had the chance to be the proper big star yet, McPhee being the “American Idol” runner up and Hilty mostly a stage actress (“Wicked” on Broadway). And their voices! There must have been shattered glass in the studio after they were done recording.
Music is another huge part of the show’s success. For the concept of “Marilyn” to work, the show needed its own original music written by real life composers (so that the fake show composers, Tom and Julia, can take all the credit). Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman did a truly tremendous job. The hauntingly beautiful song “Never Give All The Heart” was stuck in my head for days – I can still hardly believe that it was written for a television show rather than a five-star Broadway production. Similar goes to “The National Pastime”, called “the baseball number”. It’s catchy, sexy, very “Marilyn”. The way the workshop practice transformed into on-stage performance was well done and gave viewers a taste of the musical in the flesh. The cast and crew are bursting with talent and potential. You can see the dancers are having fun, the choreographers have done a great job. Also, you gotta love the brilliant homophobic Derek Wills – how unusual to high-class British characters on American TV.
There has been much pressure put on this project, especially with the immediate comparisons to “Glee”, but I think “Smash” fights back very strongly. My prediction is that if we haven’t had a TV show inspire theatre yet, “Marilyn” might just be the first one to debut on Broadway in a year’s time. I strongly recommend following the next episodes; there is more to come – with Uma Thurman on top of that list!