For cynics, TV taking on the musical format represents elitist myopia — an assumption that people patronize Broadway in sufficient numbers to support primetime television. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like in “Smash,” a new NBC drama chronicling the launch of a show about Marilyn Monroe, and the various parties — including two appealing ingenues vying for the lead — drawn into its orbit. Though clunky in places, at its best the series captures the essence of what the movie version of “A Chorus Line” didn’t, providing an illuminating window into the creative process. Although everyone might not “get” musicals, most can understand people’s need to harbor hopes and dreams.
Of course, to live up to its name — even by the standards of a network that hasn’t caught many breaks of its own lately — “Smash” will have to thread a rather daunting needle. Fortunately, subsequent hours (in a cable-like maneuver, NBC made four episodes available) are every bit as strong as the first, establishing solid soap opera elements around the key characters — and, crucially, managing to inspire empathy for the two young women, played by Megan Hilty (“9 to 5: The Musical”) and “American Idol’s” Katharine McPhee, making it tempting to root for both.
They are, naturally, only part of the show’s machinery, which includes a writing team (Christian Borle and Debra Messing) hungry for a hit, an imperious director (a perfectly cast Jack Davenport) and a producer (Anjelica Huston) who has just split from her philandering husband (“Rubicon’s” Michael Cristofer).
Although among the bigger names, Messing’s character quickly emerges as one of the weaker links, especially concerning a “who cares?” subplot involving her stay-at-home husband (Brian d’Arcy James) and their efforts to adopt a baby from China.
By contrast, the core competition for the central role — the potentially career-making opportunity to play Marilyn — proves compelling, and both McPhee and Hilty unleash the kind of Broadway belts that in a theater, anyway, can send chills running up the spine.
Yet if the show is about their yearning — and as the episodes progress, no small amount of their insecurity — there’s also the little matter of the cost associated with what they do for love, whether that’s being asked to make a latenight trip to a director’s flat or (in episode two) disappointing a boyfriend when his work function suddenly conflicts with her audition.
Similarly, in a later episode, McPhee’s character visits her native Iowa, where she encounters supportive friends and skeptical parents, with a fine guest turn by Dylan Baker.
Created by Theresa Rebeck and featuring a mix of established songs as well as original ones from producers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”), “Smash” will draw inevitable but misguided comparisons to “Glee.” That’s because the tone is completely different, mostly in flattering ways. And if that means less likelihood of appealing to teenage girls, it does offer some hope of attracting (and retaining) more discerning older viewers.
How many remains the rub, and despite no shortage of promotion, this could easily be another one of those classy-looking network shows with caviar credentials and basic-cable ratings. Like a big Broadway show, it’s a gamble, with no certainty of paying off — and no out-of-town tryout period.
Nevertheless, given the talent that occasionally bursts off the screen, if “Smash” can sustain the high notes struck by McPhee and Hilty, one would hope (to borrow a favorite show tune) there’s a place for them, somewhere.