Music for Screens: Summer 2011

There’s no denying that musical television is having its day in the sun. With shows such as “Glee,” “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “Dancing With the Stars” among the most popular in primetime, it’s no surprise that networks are greenlighting more music-based programming.

Buzzed about in the coming fall season is NBC’s “Smash,” which boasts a team of heavy hitters behind it, including Steven Spielberg as co-executive producer along with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (producers of “Chicago” and “Hairspray”), renowned songwriting duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Broadway’s “Catch Me if You Can,” “Hairspray”) and playwright Theresa Rebeck, who also is head writer.

The show, which will begin airing midseason with “The Voice” as its lead-in, goes behind the scenes of a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and stars Debra Messing and Christian Borle as the musical’s creators and songwriting team. “American Idol” alumna Katharine McPhee plays an aspiring young actress-singer vying for the title role, and Anjelica Huston stars as the musical’s producer.

“It’s essentially a workplace drama and the center of it is about the making of a musical,” explains Rebeck, who is mining her own life as inspiration for Messing’s character. “It’s a very dynamic, interesting and complicated world. I think it’s a world that has a lot of interest for America. It’s sort of like ‘The West Wing’ with music because that world had really intelligent, passionate people in it.”

Wittman adds: “It’s about the theater and people who inhabit it and surround it. It’s a new arena and an interesting inside look that people may not know about … warts and all.”

The pilot is in the can, and includes three original songs by Wittman and Shaiman, as well as a tune by Christina Aguilera, sung by McPhee’s character at her audition for the “Marilyn” musical.

According to Shaiman, popular songs will play as large a role in the show as original tunes. “The slots for existing, contemporary songs will be as important in the storytelling as the original theatrical songs,” he says. “All of the songs presented each week will inform or comment on what’s going on emotionally with the characters.”

Deals for “Smash” soundtracks as well as a solo deal with McPhee are in place with Columbia Records, which also has the rights to “Glee’s” soundtracks that have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Columbia Records chairman Steve Barnett says it’s a natural fit given the label’s successful track record with platform soundtracks. “I think ‘Smash’ is part of a new trend in music television where the music drives characters and storylines as opposed to being a part of the background color,” he notes. “The songs co-star with the actors and the narrative, so this is an opportunity for us to expose great songs of the past and present from all genres to a broad TV audience.”

Rebeck believes series like “Glee” have helped open the door for “Smash.” “We owe a great debt to those shows, which paved the way to being able to do something like this,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is meld the musical form to an hour-long drama. ‘Glee’ was a great precursor … we’re basically building a slightly different dramatic universe around the idea that songs can coexist with drama in a television show.”

Wittman adds that “Smash’s” theme will appeal to a broad demographic. “Theater encompasses old pros and new upstarts so it cuts a wide swath,” he says, before chuckling, “And hopefully we can even get Anjelica Huston to sing. That’s our goal.”

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