Ever since the TV series "Smash" spawned a narrow but rabid fan base before going off the air in 2013, the question has lingered: Would "Bombshell," the fictional Marilyn Monroe musical that drove the series, ever be developed for a real Broadway stage?
"Bombshell" did arrive on Broadway this week to a rapturous reception at the 1,700-seat Minskoff Theatre — but only as a one-night charity event in which members of the original cast reunited to sing and dance their way through the songbook created by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Tickets to the Monday night show had sold out in about an hour in April after a Kickstarter campaign raised $300,000-plus to defer development expenses.
"This is the largest theater Kickstarter in history," said Christian Borle, fresh from his Tony win Sunday for his featured role in "Something Rotten!" He was joined by his "Smash" costars Debra Messing, Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty, Will Chase, Brian d'Arcy James and Jeremy Jordan and a 30-piece orchestra.
The response from the young audience was electric from the moment McPhee and Hilty sang the first number, "Let Me Be Your Star." On TV the two played actors competing to play Monroe, and onstage they dominated the concert in songs that toggled between the erotic allure of fame and its bruising costs.
Monroe's presence was palpable in videos and haunting photographs, which were interstitially presented between the nearly two-dozen numbers. Cast members also read excerpts from Monroe's writings as well as observations of her from Billy Wilder, Arthur Miller and
Newsreel footage of Monroe and Joe DiMaggio introduced one of the show's highlights, "The National Pastime," in which Hilty cavorted with male dancers in an exuberantly raunchy number choreographed by Joshua Bergasse that hinted at the overt sexuality that might have been injected into "Smash" had it aired on cable rather than network television.
Although the creative team and producers had demurred from any talk about "Bombshell" being developed as a Broadway musical, the evening's success appeared to make them more sanguine about that prospect.
"I would certainly love to think that these songs and those performances could continue to live," Shaiman said. "Anyone in that theater would be perplexed as to why something like that couldn't continue."
Shaiman and Wittman maintained that their songs were tailored to the Broadway stage, perhaps, as the latter put it, to the "detriment" of the television show. A different pop style, along the lines of "American Idol," could have drawn a bigger audience.
"We tried to stay so pure to what we thought it should be," Wittman said. "The subject was Broadway and that was to us a classic sound."
To Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the executive producers of the series who also produced the concert, those songs are the bones of any future Broadway musical.
"What we start with is one of the greatest scores that's been written for the theater in I don't know how many decades," Meron said. "So it's a pretty auspicious beginning to combine that score with a story about a beloved movie icon. But that's easier said than done."
Indeed, developing any Broadway musical is a steep climb that becomes more precipitous when dealing with a legend as emotionally complicated, well known and tragic as Monroe. The evening included Miller's observation that his wife was "a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes."
Noting that several musical classics such as "Cabaret" and "Sweeney Todd" end unhappily, Zadan said, "I think it really needs a conceptual point of view and somebody who can write this who has a vision how to make it so it's not a biography."
Zadan cautioned that they might be getting ahead of themselves even though talk of turning "Bombshell" into a Broadway musical was part of the discussions from the early days of the series.
"We always thought that it might be or we wanted it to be or we hoped it to be, but there was never any movement whatsoever about making it into a Broadway show," he said, adding that what was essential was first to get through the series, then the benefit concert and now the aftermath. "And we don't quite know what's going to happen in the next couple of months or year. We just don't know."
Those decisions rest to a large degree, said Zadan, on the series' "godfathers":
Theresa Rebeck, who created the series but left after the first of its two seasons under contentious circumstances, may also have some say in the matter. The playwright, who said she was sorry to miss the Monday event because of a previous engagement, gave credit to her collaborators for the concert.
"I'm very proud that they did it and I really believe in what they're doing," Rebeck said, expressing delight at the buzz surrounding a potential musical. "I'd be happy for it to move forward. I really believe in the work I've done on it. I put my heart and soul into 'Smash.'"
That same passion and commitment was evident in the "Bombshell" concert. The creative team and performers volunteered their time so that most of the $800,000 in proceeds could go into the coffers of the Actors Fund, which supports social services for people in entertainment.
Whether the sustained ovations from the audience can be transformed into a long run as a Broadway musical is anybody's guess. For now, the ambitions for the next stage of "Bombshell" are modest. Wittman said that the management of the Actors Fund have expressed a wish for a West Coast encore.