Music for Screens: Spring 2012

Smash,” NBC’s Broadway-themed Monday-night drama, has won raves for its songs by theater vets Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. But will critical success also translate into album sales when the “Smash” soundtrack debuts May 1?

NBC has aggressively marketed the music from “Smash,” making available at least one and sometimes as many as three new songs on iTunes the day after each fresh episode airs. Columbia is expected to release two versions of the “Smash” album: a standard version with 13 songs and a “special edition” containing five more.

But for fans desperate for every note of the original songs by the Tony-winning “Hairspray” tunesmiths as well as the many pop covers sung by series regulars, “all of the (nearly 40) commercially viable songs” will be available on iTunes May 15, the day after “Smash’s” season finale, says Shelli Hill, VP of consumer products for NBC.

Columbia’s deal (both digital and physical music rights) was sewn up last summer, as was a solo recording deal for “American Idol” alumna Katharine McPhee, who plays one of two actresses vying for the lead role in a Marilyn Monroe musical being written for the Great White Way.

The Sony-owned label, which has managed to sell more than 11 million albums from Fox’s weekly musical “Glee,” may have sought similar success. But, by early April, “Smash” had only managed to sell 235,000 digital tracks, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

By comparison, says senior media analyst John Robinson of media measurement company BigChampagne, a third of the 500-plus “Glee” cast songs have ranked within the top 100. “Smash” viewers, he says, are not yet “rushing to their computers to purchase that evening’s soundtrack songs in nearly the way or quantity that ‘Glee’ fans have gotten into the habit of doing.”

NBC execs caution against too many “Glee” comparisons. “The two are completely different,” says Kim Niemi, senior VP of consumer products. “Certainly they are musical shows, with musical performances, but ‘Smash’ is its own thing, with its own vibe and its own feel.”

And the Peacock’s faith in the series — NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt not only championed the show, he’s been “very, very involved,” says Shaiman — suggests that it hopes “Smash” will gradually build into a popular hit, perhaps exploring the gestation of a second or even third Broadway musical.

Prior to shooting the pilot, explains Wittman, “we sat down and mapped out a Marilyn musical,” writing half a dozen songs that might work. But as production began on the 15-episode first season, adds Shaiman, the challenge also became “to try and make each song somehow mirror what was going on in the episode.”

Classic example: “Let Me Be Your Star,” the pilot’s show-stopper that reflected both the Marilyn story and those of budding stars Karen and Ivy (McPhee and Megan Hilty). That, and four other Shaiman-Wittman tunes from the first five episodes, will be on the album. (It’s also the bestselling iTunes track to date at 48,000 downloads.)

All the music is produced in New York, with Shaiman and co-producer Scott Riesett in charge of the original songs and pop-music vet Andy Zulla (who has worked with Rod Stewart and the Backstreet Boys) arranging and producing the pop covers.

As Zulla points out, the pop tunes for each show must be chosen, rights cleared, arranged, recorded and shot in a matter of days: “You’re creating the music from the ground up, making sure you have the right song, the right key, the right arrangement, but then also making sure that it’s mixed right and it works sonically within the episode as well as producing a competitive-sounding modern recording for iTunes.”

For the season finale, as the Marilyn musical is in Boston for an out-of-town tryout, life imitated art as Shaiman and Wittman were asked for a last-minute rewrite on a song they had penned (“we need a song for the second act tomorrow!” quipped Wittman, in time-honored theatrical tradition).

Could life further imitate art with a real Marilyn musical for the theater? Or even a “Smash” musical about the creation of a show?

“Anything could happen,” concedes Shaiman. “What we’ve written for the show is a very good first draft of a Marilyn musical,” including 19 songs. And when executive producer Steven Spielberg pitched them the series concept, adds Wittman, “that was part of his scheme, to do a show on Broadway.”

Niemi agrees that it’s too early to speculate on possible “Smash” spinoffs: “All of those ideas are in very early discussion stages. Right now, it’s about closing the year out, and getting the soundtrack out.”

As for season two, adds Shaiman, “What’s going to happen has not really been discussed. How much longer will the Marilyn musical be the focal point? Will a new musical start right away? That has yet to be figured out.”

Behind the Scenes: The Music of “Smash”:

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