Plenty of reasons to sing and dance about Smash

The cast of <i>Smash</i>.
The cast of Smash.
Debra Messing as successful Broadway lyricist Julia Houston and Anjelica Huston (right) as producer Eileen Rand.

Debra Messing as successful Broadway lyricist Julia Houston and Anjelica Huston (right) as producer Eileen Rand.

Channel Seven, Tuesday, 9.30pm

What's it all about?

Struggling network NBC was desperate for a hit when it made a risky and expensive commitment to this grown-up musical, which was formerly in development at a cable channel and had the heavyweight backing of Steven Spielberg.

Essentially, it's a backstage musical that follows the trials and tribulations of a group of giddy Broadway producers, songwriters and ingenues staging a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. It was designed as a comeback vehicle for the talented Debra Messing after the milestone sitcom Will & Grace and the non-starting Starter Wife.

As befits the subject matter, silver-screen talent like Anjelica Huston, Uma Thurman and Bernadette Peters round out the ensemble and supporting cast. The songwriting team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) and choreographer Joshua Bergasse were recruited to give the show's musical interludes a classic Broadway polish. They've succeeded.

Our view

Here's what we learned in the first three minutes of the opening episode of Smash.

1. Showbiz is a bitch. There's the gorgeous singer channeling Judy Garland with a spine-tingling rendition of Over The Rainbow, but the casting director kills the magic of the moment and scotches any chance the ingenue had for landing the role by perving down her backside and then taking a call on her mobile.

2. If you work in the industry and are male, you're supposedly gay and keep your kitchen drawers tidy and organised.

3. Just like newspaper hacks who bemoan the death of quality journalism while paying the rent churning out TV recaps, showbiz types with integrity and talent dream of making the types of musicals to which Rodgers and Hart put their names, while paying the rent on jukebox musicals that maybe Justin Bieber will sign up to.

Okay, that's a scary amount of cliche packed into a short period of time, but Smash has a knowing sense of what it's working with and what its intended audience expects.

As the episode progresses, we get to know a lot about who the main players are. Messing's Julia Houston is a high-functioning and successful Broadway lyricist who, with creative partner Tom (Christian Borle), are responsible for a string of hit shows. But they both yearn for more, professionally and personally. They hit upon the idea of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe - suggested by Tom's housekeeper/assistant/potential love interest Ellis (Jaime Cepero), who also has ambitions of his own and would have stored away for later Tom's throwaway remark that Marilyn "was your idea". Feted producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), conveniently enough, needs a hit to fund a bloody divorce from her philandering husband.

Enter, stage left, brown-eyed ingenue Karen (Katherine McPhee), a naive gal from Iowa with stars in her eyes, a doting boyfriend and a good shot of landing the role of a lifetime as Marilyn. Enter, stage right, brassy bombshell Ivy (Megan Hilty), already a Broadway star, who is also vying for the part.

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night", Bette Davis famously said in All About Eve, the ultimate homage to showbiz intrigues. For that part of Smash's equation, we have sought-after Broadway director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), a hot-shot with the Midas touch, a reptilian personality, a chequered past (he and Tom have a failed business relationship in the past), an eye for the ladies and a killer apartment in mid-town - where another hackneyed convention of the backstage musical, the casting couch, also gets a workout, albeit with unexpected results. "Gay men piss me off," Derek tells Eileen, indicating that hetero men are also going to get some good campy lines in Smash.

After two set-pieces that wouldn't look shabby put up against Bob Fosse's legendary choreography in films like All That Jazz and Sweet Charity, the episode ends with a montage of Karen and Ivy belting out songs and the audience wanting to know who will get the role.

In a sentence

A classy backstage musical that pulses with the spirit of Broadway, classic American movies and the transcendence of Marilyn Monroe.

Best bit

Karen and her boyfriend Dev watching Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. She's wearing a gown that the film's director Billy Wilder said was "almost nothing there" and seducing Tony Curtis, only to be summonsed to Derek's apartment where a similar scene may or many not play out.

Worst bit

An awkwardly scripted and unconvincing scene in which we learn that Julia and her husband hope to adopt another child (they already have a teenage son) and that the prospective "Mr Mom" resents his wife's career.

Worth watching again?


Grade: A. Now, in your best Ethel Merman voice, sing, "Let's go on with the show".

This story Plenty of reasons to sing and dance about Smash first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.