David Marshall Grant sits at his desk in a nondescript office in an unmarked building in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, near the East River.
That's where Broadway magic happens, at least by way of the new NBC series"Smash," which premieres 10 p.m., Monday, Feb. 6.
As an executive producer/writer on the show, the Westport native faces a large whiteboard hanging in his wall. On it are math-like diagrams of the characters, plot points and musical numbers of the final episodes of the first season, now filming.
"It's very Rubik's Cube-y," he says with a relaxed smile, not showing the least bit of anxiousness at the much-hyped premiere just a few days away.
For NBC, it's a high-risk throw of the dice for the last-place network, committing to an expensive series about a subject that no one has yet undertaken on this scale: a prime time soap about the backstage drama surrounding the creation of a big Broadway musical.
But even with Steven Spielberg as a prime producing hand on the show — not to mention a huge Superbowl promotion, there is no guarantee that viewers will buy into the musical series the same way they did to make"Glee" and "High School Musical," well, smashes — as well as franchises.
But Broadway is invested in the success of the show, too.
"I think there's a lot of hope riding on this show — and 'Marilyn,"" says Grant, referring to the musical within the series. The last time Broadway tried to do a musical based on the life of American icon Marilyn Monroe in 1983, it flopped.
"['Smash'] doing well would be a huge help to the Broadway community,' says Grant, 56, "but it would also be a seismic change in the cultural appreciation of Broadway music."
Not since the '30s, '40s and '50s have Broadway shows been a regular contributor to the American songbook, says Grant. Since then, Broadway is seen as a musical footnote in America's cultural conversation.
Broadway veterans Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman ("Hairspray," "Catch Me If You Can"), are creating the original songs for "Marilyn" which also counterpoint the off-stage drama.
The show also features pop tunes in the course of the off-stage story-line with performers singing in pianos bars, karaoke clubs and auditions.
"Every number is intoxicating," says Grant, "and I defy America not to like that music and want to download it the next day." (The show is plugged into iTunes for quick and easy downloads.)
For the moment, Grant is focused on his script of the 14th episode — the next to the last of the season —which is about to be filmed. The final show of the first season will be "Marilyn"'s out-of-town opening in Boston. Grant says the second season — still in outline stage — will involve bringing the musical to Broadway.
"What's so complicated about our show is that we're trying to put on a musical within a television soap opera," he says, "so we're beholdento two masters. First there's 'Marilyn,' the musical and then there's 'Smash,' the TV show."
Grant says the logistics and plotting of "Smash" is infinitely more difficult than previous TV series he worked on in an executive producing position.
"With 'Brothers and Sisters" we did a story line and we were done," he says. "This is like doing the story line, making sure it fits into the musical numbers that are in the show, serving the [TV] show, and seeing that it all fits in the progression to the musical's opening night. There's more to worry about than just the emotional lives of the characters."
The show, which was created by playwright-TV writer Theresa Rebeck, has parallels to real life.
Megan Hilty plays Ivy, a stunning Broadway talent in the chorus line looking for the right part to propel her to star status. Hilty, too, has years of experience in the ensemble as well as a leading replacement role ("Wicked") and a major role in a flop show ("9 to 5: The Musical"). Hilton is looking for her star-making role.
Ivy is competing for the starring role in "Marilyn" with Karen, played by Katherine McPhee, who, like her character, is a musical theater newbie. McPhee was the runner up in the 2006 season of"American Idol,"and her singing background comes from the recording world, not the musical stage, so the connection to her character's being an outsider in the heightened and cliquish Broadway world rings true.
Adding to the parallel experiences is the recent tabloid news that Debra Messing (TV's "Will & Grace") who plays "Marilyn"'s lyricist/book writer is romantically involved with actor Will Chase who plays Joe DiMaggio in the "Marilyn" show. In the TV show, their characters have had an affair that may be re-ignited in the making of the musical, though both are married to others.
"No comment," says Grant when the subject of the actors' "showmance," "but it's all very meta."
Salute to Classic Broadway
Because the pilot episode which introduces many of the main characters — Angelica Huston playing the hustling producer, Christian Borle as the gay composer, Jack Davenport as the Brit director — can already be downloaded for free in iTunes, "Smash" has generated early internet chatter and buzz.
Grant says he doesn't check out the theater chat rooms for "Smash" critiques but says, though "Smash" tries to be authentic to the present day Broadway dynamic, it also purposely evokes another era.
"We wanted to do a musical theater that had a certain nod to the past," he says. "['Smash'] would have been different if we decided to do a rock musical, for instance. But we wanted a classic, traditional musical that would allow us to be able to delve into all the parts of what is great about American musical theater.
"Our show has a certain tip of the hat to the great old days and its music and choreography, even extending to the way that it's filmed. There's a nod to the great heyday of the MGM musicals. It's more romantic."
The musical world a new journey for Grant, "to a degree though you can't be in the theater without knowing about the musical theater world. And my husband, Karl Christian, was a Broadway dancer for 10 years."
Though musicals were not a part of Grant's early life, he was never-the-less hooked on theater from the 10th grade when he became a member of the Staples Players at Staples High School in Westport.
Grant later joined the acting program at the Yale School of Drama in New Haven. Upon graduation in 1978 he was cast as Richard Gere's lover in the Broadway production of the drama"Bent."
In Grant's early career, he also performed in several shows at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre in the early '80s: Robert Anderson's "Free and Clear" and David Mamet's "Lakeboat."
He played Joe Pitt in the original Broadway production of "Angels in America," which earned him a Tony Award nomination. His film credits include "French Postcards," "The Stepford Wives" and as also played Ann Hathaway's father in "The Devil Wears Prada."
Grant played Russell Weller for four groundbreaking episodes in TV's "thirtysomething" which introduced a serious gay character in prime time. The story thread was also noted for a controversial episode that showed two gay men in bed together for the first time.
Grant is also a playwright. His first play, "Snakebit," received praise and awards (and a production at Hartford's TheaterWorks). His most recent plays is 2006's "Pen."
Grant says he misses acting occasionally. "I feel that will inevitably going to come back around someday."
Writing for the theater is something else he says and hopes to return to it when his schedule — and his muse — allow.
Grants says for now he is just trying to juggle the parallel worlds of television and theater in the challenge that is "Smash."
"Just because the subject [of the making of a Broadway musical] hasn't been brought off in television before "doesn't mean that it can't. If people see the right musical done the right way, they're going to respond. I really have high hopes for a public appreciation of this [art form]."
"SMASH" premieres Monday, Feb. 6 on NBC-TV at 10 p.m. The pilot and its songs can be downloaded on iTunes. Information: http://www.smashtheshow.net.
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