Without the freaks and geeks of "Glee,"who made long-skeptical network executives suddenly receptive to prime-time characters singing and dancing, there would be no "Smash."But NBC's eminently watchable and shrewdly crafted new drama series, which premieres Feb. 6 after a heavy marketing campaign, is not about high school drama but the actual grown-up business of Broadway itself, otherwise known as freaks and geeks with bigger budgets and training, but the same insecurities.
"Smash" has been made not by breakout young unknowns with a hot idea, but by deeply seasoned Broadway veterans craving, as needy theater people so often do, the respect and the backing of the very medium they so often claim to dislike, because they know it's the only real way to push their beloved but oh-so-small Broadway milieu into mainstream cultural discourse.
One imperative was the need to score A-list Broadway talent by creating a savvy, witty, showbiz procedural that can pass muster with insiders and superfans. Thus "Smash" not only pays admirable attention to authenticity but goes out of its way to feature a bevy of Broadway insiders, of varying on-camera chops, playing themselves. The show has even co-opted the famously caustic New York Post Broadway columnist Michael Riedel, and thus craftily defanged one of the show's potentially more damaging critics. Time and again in the first episodes, you see a show that borrows from real Broadway war stories, but is clever enough to operate on more than one level.
But the bigger imperative here (if "Smash" is to return next season) is to forge a mainstream network entertainment with a plot just soapy, sexy and mainstream enough to interest those who know not and care not about the difference among a workshop, an out-of-town tryout and a full-blown opening night. So it goes here. To its credit, though, "Smash" probes further. It allows the theater business, where the stakes are never as high as those therein like to think, to function as a metaphor for any collective creative endeavor. And — and this is what I like the best — it offers a frequently moving picture of what it costs the people of Broadway to pursue their dreams — in money, love, sanity — and, even more important, how much so many of them rely on long-suffering but unselfish partners and parents outside the business. Those scenes, and there are many, are when the show is at its best.
The conceit of "Smash," with a script by creator Theresa Rebeck, one of Broadway's savviest craftswomen, and songs by the "Hairspray" duo of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, is that we are following the making of a fictional musical (about the life of Marilyn Monroe) all the way from the first germ of an idea to (I presume) its eventual opening on the Great White Way, although the first season is, I'm told, to end with a troubled out-of-town tryout in Boston.
There are many conflicts, drawn no doubt from the actual inside-the-theater experiences of the creators, including a divorce-battered producer (Anjelica Huston) struggling to raise enough money, a songwriting duo (played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle) dealing with a complex working relationship, including an invasive personal assistant (Jaime Cepero) and the desire of Messing's character to adopt a baby with her outside-the-business husband (Brian d'Arcy James), even as she obsessively babies her new show to Broadway.
But the main event is the rivalry between the two actresses up for the leading role of Marilyn: a blond Broadway veteran called Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) who is trying to get out of the chorus before the chorus gets her for good, and a green-but-gorgeous newbie from Iowa named Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee),who waits tables, juggles her worried parents and her supportive but needy boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey) and tries to simultaneously attract and repel the brilliant British director (played by Jack Davenport), whom the kids in the chorus like to call the Lord of Darkness. If you think of the logic of a series, it's hardly a spoiler to reveal that one girl gets the role at first, but the other sticks around to get in her way.
Each of the first four episodes contains one or two songs from the musical, all of which are staged as they would be rehearsed in an actual Broadway rehearsal room (unlike "Glee," the characters in "Smash" follow the standard musical-comedy rules for breaking into song; there has to be a narrative reason). But the show, borrowing from "Glee" and no doubt mindful of the limited appeal of show tunes, also includes standard pop songs. That requires some tortuous leaps — these characters spend a lot of time in karaoke bars and the like — but it was a smart move for a show that will need to play in Peoria.
The gorgeous McPhee, an"American Idol"alum, proves an engaging star with softness and steel, not least because her voice is at ease doing pop as Broadway, while the wide-eyed siren Hilty adds striking vulnerability to a character that could be bereft thereof. The other performances are, with only slight variance, effective to very effective, with the standout Huston starting to function as the moral conscience of a piece that needs one. "Smash" is no caustic satire, and the battle between these two kinds of potential star is, of course, a war of familiar archetypes. But "Smash" is lucky, because it's about musicals that helped forge those very archetypes and thus it has cover.
It's the same with all the sexual intrigue and showmances: You'll probably start to reject them as ridiculous, unless you have been in a show and watched what happens. Especially out of town.
You can easily predict the trajectory if things go well for "Smash": A tweaked group comes back to do another show (hopefully with a more progressive and fresher topic than Monroe); the songs of "Marilyn" (there will be a full show's worth by the end of the first season) are first recorded, and then the entire musical is staged on Broadway itself, ideally with the original stars of the TV show about its making. The meta possibilities are endless. You can imagine everyone involved lying in bed at night, drooling and dreaming just like the characters that draw on themselves, and wondering if, come next week, anyone will care.
9 p.m. Feb. 6, NBC