Combine Emmy and Oscar winners, an "American Idol" finalist, one of the top names in screen entertainment, and a programming chief who has switched networks.
What do you get? A "Smash," they all hope.
Some may see it as NBC's answer to Fox's "Glee," but considering Steven Spielberg's involvement as an executive producer -- plus such talents as producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ("Chicago") and composer Marc Shaiman ("Hairspray") -- the peacock network clearly is aiming for more as it debuts its own musical-drama series Monday, Feb. 6.
The backstage turmoil of launching a Broadway show fuels the program, with "Will & Grace" Emmy recipient Debra Messing top-billed as Julia, the lyricist and co-writer of a musical about legendary screen siren Marilyn Monroe. Christian Borle (Broadway's "Legally Blonde" and "Mary Poppins") is seen as her writing partner, "Idol" veteran Katharine McPhee as favored Monroe portrayer Karen and Oscar winner Anjelica Huston ("Prizzi's Honor") as the maritally troubled producer.
Additional "Smash" regulars include Jack Davenport (also a Messing co-star earlier in the movie "The Wedding Date") as the musical's director, Brian D'Arcy James as Julia's husband and Raza Jaffrey as the McPhee character's politically connected beau.
The series also has impressive guests lined up: In a rare television appearance, Uma Thurman does a multiple-episode arc as a movie star interested in playing Monroe, and Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters appears as the Tony-winning mother of another contender for the Monroe role, Ivy (Megan Hilty, "Wicked").
"It's been a dream, honestly," Messing says of making the show. "The moment I finished reading the (pilot) script and put it down, I called my representatives and said, 'I have to be a part of this.' Cut to my being offered the part, cut to our doing the pilot and having the time of our lives with the most thrilling creative team. Now we've all picked up and moved to New York (where the series is filmed), and it's been an experience that has far exceeded my expectations."
The same goes for McPhee, who claims "Smash" is fulfilling any Broadway performing ambitions she has, at least for now. The fifth-season "Idol" runner-up recalls that when she first heard about the show, "I didn't know if there would be a part for me, but I said, 'There has to be a part for me!' My then-manager quickly calmed me down by saying, 'You've got some time, but we just wanted to let you know it's in the pipeline.'
"Every six months or so, I'd think, 'I wonder what happened to that pilot.' It came up again last year, and I just couldn't wait to get my hands on the script. I kept turning the pages, and I think the actual product turned out even better than what was written."
"Smash" has had a longtime champion in NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt, who brought the project with him when he moved over from Showtime. He's credited with having "developed" the show after the initial pitch from Theresa Rebeck ("Seminar"), whom Messing deems "a genius. I've followed her career as a playwright forever, but her voice and her command of all of these characters is astonishing."
Columbia Records will release songs performed on "Smash" by McPhee, who also has a solo deal with the label, and others. Many are crooned at various Big Apple sites, prompting Messing to term the show "a love letter to New York. We're allowed to shoot all over, from Harlem to Washington Heights to Brooklyn to SoHo to Times Square. It's really been exciting."
"Smash" was held purposely until midseason so it could be teamed on Mondays with the singing competition "The Voice," which begins its sophomore season a night earlier, immediately after NBC's telecast of Super Bowl XLVI. Declaring herself a "Voice" fan, Messing finds it "very encouraging" to have that show paired with hers. "I couldn't think of a better lead-in."
As someone of notable voice herself, McPhee also likes the scheduling. The opening scene of "Smash" is of her character auditioning, but she maintains that filming it didn't give her any "American Idol" flashbacks.
"It's funny, I never once thought about that. There are hundreds and hundreds of auditions I've been on, and obviously, that was one that people remember because it was broadcast on national television.
"Reality show auditions are a little bit different," McPhee adds, "because they're kind of made for television. The ones I've been on the past four or five years, trying to get acting jobs, were the references I used."
"Will & Grace" was very much an ensemble piece for NBC, where Messing has returned along with fellow Emmy winner Sean Hayes (an executive producer of "Grimm"), alias Jack to her Grace. "Smash" is a much bigger ensemble situation, though, and the actress says that's why she's able to be in it.
"I did one hourlong drama (ABC's 'Prey') before I had a child," Messing says, "and before 'Will & Grace,' and just from that experience, I knew I wasn't built for that kind of schedule. The balance of my personal and professional lives is something I'm always struggling to maintain. Originally, this was going to be a cable show with 13 episodes a year ... so I was like, 'This is perfect for me!'
"Then it moved with Bob to (broadcast-)network prime time, where it could potentially be 24 episodes a year. That made me very nervous, but luckily, Theresa is also a mother, and everyone involved seems to respect my concerns. (With the USA Network series) 'The Starter Wife,' I was on set 16 hours a day, every day. That has never happened in the episodes we've shot here, and I'm so grateful."