Stars of Stage on Screen
By Mike Berlin
Photo: Paul Randak/NBC
Naming a yet-to-air television show Smash is a tad presumptuous. But with a cast that includes Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston, and lead actresses from American Idol and Wicked, NBC’s new musical-behind-the-musical can afford to take this ego trip.
A sort of Glee about adults, the series tracks the development of a Broadway show titled Marilyn the Musical based on Monroe’s life from the perspectives of all the players involved -- from the actresses competing ruthlessly to play Norma Jeane (Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty) to the duo composing the score (Messing and Christian Borle).
Reviving her signature best girlfriend role, Messing plays Julia, the lyricist who keeps Borle’s Tom, the gay, more musical half of their partnership, in check. While sexuality factors less into the actual humor of the show than it did on Will & Grace, the pair’s professional relationship draws inspiration from real-life romantic partners -- the Broadway and film composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote Marilyn’s music and lyrics. “I think Christian Borle sits at the piano like Marc,” Wittman says, “and Deb Messing runs around with my notebooks.”
In terms of picking a subject that could sustain an entire series, Monroe wasn’t a difficult choice. Wittman and creator Theresa Rebeck proposed the idea at an early meeting for the show and were unanimously approved. “It was the first time—and certainly the last time -- I’d ever been in a group of that many people and such heavyweights where everyone agreed on something right away,” says Shaiman.
For Shaiman and Wittman, who have been together for 33 years and are best known for their Broadway hit, Hairspray, Smash became a crash course in Monroe, as their original songs must work with the faux musical and the TV characters’ private lives. The first example is the pilot closer, “Let Me Be Your Star,” a belt-worthy number that predictably “leaked” last summer and garnered blog buzz and will likely be for sale, along with the rest of the soundtrack, on iTunes.
But the duo’s songwriting mastery won’t be enough to guarantee success, and there’s a lot riding on it. NBC’s ratings took a plunge last fall, and the network is treating aspirational music competition as the spring season’s panacea, debuting Smash after reality show The Voice for a strategic contact high.
“There’s no question that the other talent-based shows paved the way for us,” Messing says. “It’s made the American audience excited about new, undiscovered talent.”
And indeed, Hilty and McPhee will find their eager upstart roles very familiar -- Hilty, for her understudy-to-starlet Broadway turn as Glinda in Broadway’s Wicked in 2005; and McPhee, who started her career in front of millions with her second-place American Idol finish in 2006.
For now, in this pre-ratings state of development, Shaiman and Wittman get a kick out of watching the actors interpret the inner workings of the musical industry, especially a certain star who plays Marilyn’s no-nonsense producer. “I can literally watch Anjelica Huston every take of a scene,” says Shaiman. Wittman adds: “We have a big crush on her.”