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‘Smash’ casts spotlight on drama of creating a Broadway musical

On “Smash” Katharine McPhee Megan Hilty play singers vying for role Marilyn Monroe.

On “Smash,” Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty play singers vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe.

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‘SMASH’ ★★★

9 to 10 p.m. Mondays on WMAQ-Channel 5, starting Feb. 6

Updated: March 1, 2012 8:07AM

Not that long ago, a good way to get the door slammed in your face in Hollywood was to pitch a musical-themed TV show.

Broadcast networks started changing their tune after a little sensation called “Glee” stormed on the scene.

“If it wasn’t for ‘Glee’ we wouldn’t be here,” said producer Craig Zadan (“Chicago”), part of the seasoned Broadway team behind NBC’s ambitious new musical drama, “Smash.”

“When ‘Glee’ became a success, networks started to rethink it,” Zadan said. “Even through our show is radically different from ‘Glee,’ there’s that common element of music and dance in each episode.”

“Smash” pulls back the velvet curtain for a look at the behind-the-scenes drama that goes into creating a Broadway musical — in this case, a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The series follows the theater world’s dreamers and schemers, both professionally and personally, as they struggle to turn a kernel of an idea into a Broadway sensation.

The concept originally came from Steven Spielberg, an executive producer for “Smash.” It looked like the series might get picked up by the premium cable channel Showtime — at least a grittier, darker and undoubtedly more naked version of it. But it landed on the Peacock Net, whose fourth place standing has left it in desperate need of a smash.

The show premieres Feb. 6 after NBC’s singing competition “The Voice.” Hulu and began streaming the pilot last week.

“Smash’s” creators were tasked with more than just developing a TV show. They did double duty and churned out an original “Marilyn” musical, which will take shape over the course of “Smash’s” 15-episode season. (Producers are hoping that life does indeed imitate art, and “Marilyn” the musical eventually will migrate from the small screen to the stage.)

Debra Messing (“Will & Grace”) stars as Broadway hitmaker Julia Houston, who’s creating the show with her longtime creative partner, composer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle).

Oscar winner Anjelica Huston does a turn as a legendary Broadway producer who’s down on her luck and needs this show to prove she’s still a player. To that end, she reels in an irascible, womanizing British director-choreographer who’s chock full of talent, and himself (Jack Davenport).

Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee are the two songbirds duking it out for the role of Marilyn.

Hilty’s blonde bombshell character, Ivy Lynn, is sick of being stuck in the chorus line and thinks it’s her time for the spotlight. Standing in her way is Karen Cartwright (McPhee), a brunette ingénue with an intimidating set of pipes and a supportive boyfriend who doesn’t mind that she waits tables while waiting for her big break.

Karen is as green as the farm fields back home in Iowa, which she abandoned for the Big Apple. The naive, fish-out-of-water Midwesterner is a felony among cliché crimes, which “Smash” is guilty of on more than one occasion. (When Karen’s parents visit her in New York, they literally gasp at the prices on the menu.)

The stereotypes slow down in subsequent episodes, which grew more entertaining with each of the four I watched. The show became a little more playful, the characters a bit more nuanced. That’s especially true for Julia, who seemed like a slightly more mature version of Messing’s old character, Grace, during much of the pilot.

Things get a lot more complicated — and interesting — when one of Julia’s old flames returns. Her home life was already on shaky ground after she broke a promise to her husband, Frank, to take a year off work so they could adopt a Chinese baby.

“Our story is how domestic life butts up against professional life for both of us,” said Northwestern University theater grad Brian d’Arcy James, who plays Frank. “We’re having to navigate those waters, which is a really important story that goes on within the circus, the madness, the beauty and the awe involved with creating a Broadway show.”

Work-life challenges certainly aren’t confined to those in theater. A lot of the issues confronted by characters in “Smash” — betrayal, money problems, divorce — are universal in nature. That’s by design.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a niche show that appeals to theater lovers only,” Zadan said. “We wanted to please the theater lovers with the authenticity of the show, but we also wanted to please the audience who may not have any interest in musicals. If you fall in love with the characters, their day jobs just happen to be people who put on shows instead of being doctors or detectives.”

Being a fan of musicals isn’t a prerequisite for liking “Smash,” but it sure will help. Each episode has at least one original song for “Marilyn” as well as covers of popular hits. Both are delivered with gusto by the likes of Hilty and McPhee, whose rise to fame started half a dozen years ago on “American Idol” when she finished runner-up to Taylor Hicks.

Singing competitions like “Idol” attract throngs of viewers because they deliver some spine-tingling performances in a competitive setting — something “Smash” strives to emulate by keeping the audience guessing as to who will ultimately play Marilyn.

“We almost jokingly refer to our show as the scripted version of shows like ‘The Voice,’ ‘American Idol,’ ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and others,” Zadan said. “That excitement has never been in scripted form, until now.”

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