Actress Anjelica Huston is standing at the edge of a large mirrored rehearsal space as dancers and choreographers circulate around her. Preparation for a big Broadway number is frenetically underway. In one corner, performers limber up; in another, they nervously await a director’s judgment.
It might seem like any rehearsal for any one of the numerous musicals that play this city nightly. Except this isn’t a Broadway musical or even a rehearsal — the cameras are rolling on the set of “Smash,” a new fictional television series about the theater world. Huston plays Eileen, a brassy producer.
“Can I just have someone [during the scene] wave to me?” she asks the episode’s director between takes, brassily. “Just anyone, please?”
Debuting Feb. 6 on a swell of expectation, NBC’s new scripted series from Steven Spielberg and veteran playwright and TV writer Theresa Rebeck (“NYPD Blue”) chronicles the staging of a fictional musical about Marilyn Monroe. With its crisscrossing story lines about ornery directors, discontented writers, insecure actors and, of course, bull-headed producers, it is almost certainly the first mainstream television show to mine the machinations of backstage Broadway for entertainment value.
“In a lot of ways, it doesn’t matter that this is the theater world,” Rebeck, “Smash’s” creator and show runner and an executive producer on the series, said in an interview. “The way I think of the show is as ‘The West Wing’ — an adult workplace drama, only they’re not in the White House.”
Then, after a pause: “But the basic idea is also that theater people are fascinating creatures. We have big names and crazy lives.”
That craziness starts in the first episode, with the writing team of Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle), who are tickled by the prospect of a musical about the blond bombshell. Ignoring the fact that a previous musical about Monroe flopped (a real-life show called “Marilyn: An American Fable,” from 1983), they set about creating a show with the help — and sometimes hindrance — of various allies and frenemies.
As the season unfolds, plot lines multiply. Some stories are personal. Eileen is going through a messy divorce, while Julia and her husband are attempting to adopt a child. The most compelling dramas, however, are professional. There’s mutual suspicion between Tom and a misanthropic director, Derek (Jack Davenport). Two actors — the chorus girl, Ivy (Megan Hilty), and the fresh face, Karen (Katharine McPhee) — compete for the lead part, just as actors might for, well, a role on “Smash.”
“It’s a very meta thing. You’re putting on a show about putting on a show,” said Neil Meron, an executive producer.
Those layers of meta could soon get even thicker — producers have discussed turning the fictional Marilyn musical into an actual Broadway show if the series is a hit. Future seasons, which would focus on different fictional musicals, could then spin off different Broadway shows.
Spielberg, who is an executive producer, had long harbored the idea of doing a TV series about Broadway. Several years ago, he enlisted Rebeck and veteran film and theater producers Craig Zadan and Meron (the pair brought “Chicago” to the screen). The trio then brought on the composer-lyricist team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who worked on “Hairspray,” which Zadan and Meron also produced.
The series was initially sold to Showtime, but when then-entertainment chief Greenblatt decamped for NBC, he brought “Smash” with him.
The stakes are high for NBC. The network desperately needs a hit drama, so much so that Greenblatt gave “Smash,” which will air at 10 p.m., the coveted lead-in of hit reality competition series “The Voice.” The hope is that audiences drawn to that series’ musical numbers and aspirational qualities will also respond to “Smash.”
To attract that audience, “Smash” aims to go beyond the backstage drama of mounting a production and show the gloss of that production itself. As principals struggle to put the Marilyn musical together, we flash forward to how the songs will eventually look onstage (say, a sexy Joe DiMaggio-themed number, or snappy lyrics such as “Bring all the vices/I don’t care what the price is.”)
The soapy plot lines and glitzy numbers have prompted some in Hollywood to call “Smash” the “grown-up ‘Glee,’” though as Davenport wryly noted, “it’s not like one minute we’re in a high-school hallway and then the next minute we’re in a Britney Spears video. It’s more grounded than that.”
The “Smash” actors come from an unusually wide range of backgrounds, from “American Idol” to film royalty to Broadway, with veteran theater performers Hilty and Bernadette Peters (in a recurring role as Hilty’s mother) playing versions of their real-life acting selves. In one scene, the pair face off so intensely that Peters asked that a reporter and crew members leave the room during the shoot.
Hilty, who played the lead in “Wicked” on the Great White Way, said she has found her stage experience useful on “Smash.” “There’s no tougher acting job than the Broadway stage,” she said on the set. “No matter how long a day I’ve had here, it’s still easier than doing eight [Broadway] shows a week.”
McPhee can draw from her own life. Having attempted for years to transition from a recording career to an acting one, she said it didn’t feel like much of a stretch to play an aspiring performer. “There’s a lot about this character that connects to my own career,” McPhee said. “It’s the frustration of, ‘People see me a certain way, and why won’t they take a chance on me as an actor?’”
And the art-imitating life trend continues behind the camera. Rebeck, along with Meron and his producing partner, Zadan, each currently have shows on Broadway — Rebeck the literary dramedy “Seminar” and Meron and Zadan the hit musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Although Rebeck said that for “Smash” she fashioned fictional composites, creators allow that their experience informs the series.
For instance, one plot element about financiers demanding a big-name movie star (played later in the season by Uma Thurman) comes from Zadan and Meron’s own Broadway experience.
“The story lines are not ripped from the headlines. They’re ripped from our lives,” Zadan said.
Huston, meanwhile, quipped that she based the Eileen character on “every producer I’ve ever worked with,” a comment that could prompt a good portion of Hollywood to shudder.
But while there are many opportunities for in jokes a la “30 Rock,” NBC’s other scripted peek behind the showbiz curtain, “Smash” wants to walk a finer line.
“We’re cognizant of not trying to be too inside, but we are behind the scenes of this business and we don’t want to apologize for that either,” said Robert Greenblatt, NBC’s president of entertainment.
“Millions of people go to Broadway shows every year, and I think a lot of them are curious about what goes on backstage,” Greenblatt continued. The executive waved aside rumors that the pilot cost upward of $7 million to produce — an eye-popping sum — or that the series in general was expensive. “It’s a very reasonably priced show,” he said. “It cost about the average or a little below average of most one-hour dramas.”
No matter the budget, those who’ve created “Smash” admit it presents some hurdles. “The challenge of the show is how do you keep it authentic and represent the theater as it is, but also make it universal so that it doesn’t feel like a niche show,” Zadan said. “We don’t want this to be ‘Entourage.’”