Broadway sees itself in ‘Smash’
— In the second episode of the new NBC series “Smash,” a hard-driving Broadway producer played by Anjelica Huston throws a drink in the face of her ex-husband and former business partner at a midtown Manhattan watering hole.
“Would you get out of my booth?” she snarls. “I’m not giving you Bond 45 in the divorce, Jerry!”
Bond 45 is the buzzy restaurant in Times Square where many major Broadway deals go down over oysters and martinis. It’s a place where people bark “Get me Bernie!” into their cellphones, meaning Bernie Telsey, a top theater casting agent. Or “Get me Joe Machota,” the powerful CAA agent. Or where you might find Jordan Roth, the young president of Jujamcyn, a leading Broadway theater owner.
The fact that “Smash” — a series about the creation of a fictional Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe — is awash in these arcane details has generated ripples of excitement among those who toil in the often unforgiving fields of Broadway. Mainstream network attention to what has long been regarded as niche entertainment has aroused hope, pride, curiosity, Internet chatter and deep skepticism in the restaurants, rehearsal halls and offices surrounding New York’s Shubert Alley.
“We were surprised at how small the community is compared to film and television, everybody knows everyone,” says Neil Meron, who, with his longtime business partner Craig Zadan, is the executive producer of the series. The pair recently entered the Broadway arena with the revivals of “Promises, Promises” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” after resuscitating the movie musical (“Chicago,” “Hairspray”) and musicals on television (“Annie,” “Cinderella”).
“We wanted to bring that intimacy to ‘Smash,’” Meron said. “We want the Broadway community to see themselves in this show, literally and figuratively.”
These reflections extend from the cast, which mostly features a who’s who of Broadway, to the show’s composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”), who write original numbers for each episode, to the show’s creator and head writer Theresa Rebeck, who is currently represented on Broadway with the hit comedy “Seminar,” starring Alan Rickman.
For the lead actors, Katharine McPhee of “American Idol” and Debra Messing of “Will & Grace,” the series is an opportunity to build on their already established following. But reflecting the “grab-the-brass-ring” story line, a career breakthrough is what’s at stake for Megan Hilty — who competes with McPhee’s character for the title role in the Marilyn musical — and Christian Borle, who plays opposite Messing as the other half of the show-within-a-show’s fictional songwriting team.
While Hilty (' Wicked,” “9 to 5") and Borle (“Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Legally Blonde”) along with Brian d’Arcy James (" Shrek: The Musical,” “Next to Normal”), who plays Messing’s long-suffering husband, are well known within the Broadway community, they are hardly household names. And, of course, the production numbers are replete with “gypsies,” the chorus boys and girls that populate every lavish musical.
“Everybody in New York wants to be in ‘Smash,’” says Bernie Telsey, who, of course, is casting the show. He adds that if the series is successful it could become a staple on the resumes of New York actors just as “Law & Order” once was.
“If you need a Bernadette Peters-type, why not get Bernadette Peters?” Telsey says. The popular actress will be playing Hilty’s mother in upcoming episodes. That all-inclusiveness also stems to cameos by Broadway personalities, like the one by Jordan Roth at Bond 45.
Another cameo belongs to Michael Riedel, the snarky and influential theater columnist of the New York Post who is referred to in the “Smash” pilot as a “Napoleonic little Nazi.” Riedel makes an appearance in the ninth episode of the series as “Michael Riedel,” a New York Post columnist whom Huston manipulates in order to force a recalcitrant director to do her bidding.
“The scene is exactly what happens in real life,” says Riedel, who has championed shows and writers as vociferously as he tears them down. “Producers do use my column and I use producers. That scene with Anjelica Huston is a scene I’ve played a million times. If you’re writing a show that is trying to be an accurate depiction of our world, you have to deal with a character who sticks it to the business. That would be me.”
That ripped from the pages quality has been the goal from the beginning, says Michael Mayer, the Tony-winning Broadway director (“Spring Awakening”) who directed the pilot as well as several of the 13 episodes of “Smash.”
“Historically, there has been an over-glamorization of what happens on Broadway. The results can be absolutely ridiculous,” says Mayer. “There hasn’t been a real attempt prior to this to capture the experience in a real way. “
The mandate from NBC was for the show to be “authentic,” says Rebeck, “and authentic is what they’re getting.” The template was “West Wing,” the hit series that conjured up the frenetic and intricate games at the pinnacle of American political power. Just as that series often featured characters based on real-life personalities from the Washington elite, the involvement of “civilians” in “Smash” is an attempt to honor the world it strives to create, Rebeck says.
Not that Manny Azenberg, at 77, is about to quit his day job. The veteran producer, who has produced most of Neil Simon’s oeuvre, was one of nearly a dozen producers who was asked by Telsey to audition for the role of “Manny Azenberg,” a hard-nosed investor who gives Huston a hard time. Azenberg got the part. When asked if his peers aren’t a bit jealous of his sudden acting debut, the producer says, “Envy exists even when you breathe in this industry. It’s a suppressed desire among many of us. We’re doing what we’re doing because we couldn’t sing, dance or act. “
NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt — himself a Broadway producer (“9 to 5") — has been frank about how much is riding on the expensive series: The fourth-place network is desperate for a hit. But desperation, says Rebeck, is a way of life in the theater.
There is “this reckless belief in this strange ephemeral art form” among those who practice it, she says. “People who become entranced by theater are a little bit like heroin addicts.”
“I think ‘Smash’ taps into some kind of youthful exuberance in an otherwise potentially jaded and beleaguered group because this business can just beat you down,” says Mayer, who had his own travails recently with the failure of the Harry Connick Jr., vehicle “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” “There is a real desire on the part of the community not just to be a part of this but to own this.”
If the series is successful — it averaged 11.5 million viewers and scored a 3.8 rating/10 share in the 18-49 demographic in its Monday premiere, the highest rating so far this season of any 10 p.m. drama on any channel — there are plans to actually produce the show-within-a-show on Broadway. It will also mean that dozens of New York actors will find work in television.
But also on the line is the theater community’s collective ego — “and that’s a lot of unbridled ego,” says Riedel.
Can “Smash” dispel the notion that the theater is not a popular medium? In theater chat rooms — where legions have already downloaded the pilot and other episodes — there is both optimism and pessimism, carping and praise.
Par for the course, says Riedel. “Broadway can be a vicious, spiteful, horrible place. And Theresa, I think, is capturing that. The TV audience may not get all the inside stuff but they’ll get that its concerns and obstacles are as crazy and compelling as if it were set in a hospital or diner … or in a psych ward.”
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