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July 28, 2014

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TV: Broadway drama ‘Smash’ is tuneful and smart

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McPhee (left) and Hilty go blonde head-to-head.

The Details

Smash
Three and a half stars
Mondays, 9 p.m., NBC.

It’s a little surprising that it took until halfway through Glee’s third season for another network show to come along and capitalize on the musical dramedy’s huge success. But it’d be a disservice to NBC’s Smash to call it a Glee rip-off, since other than incorporating big musical numbers into its narrative structure, it’s a completely different show. Glee often pays lip-service to musical-theater fans while actually having nothing to do with musical theater, but Smash is steeped in Broadway traditions and the let’s-put-on-a-show storylines of old-fashioned musicals. It’s a well-written character drama with snappy musical numbers, not a vehicle for Kidz Bop-level reinterpretations of pop songs.

There are pop songs here and there in the first two episodes, but they’re secondary to the original songs written by Broadway veterans Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, all created for a fictional musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Smash chronicles the production of that musical and all of the related backstage drama, with the songs mostly showing up as part of that process. Creator Theresa Rebeck and director Michael Mayer deftly blend fantasy with reality in the musical numbers, showing how flashy set pieces begin as simple rehearsals. The original songs are believable as potential Broadway hits and fit into the structure of a Marilyn musical, but also do a good job of capturing something about how the characters are feeling when they sing them.

At this point at least, Smash isn’t a show about people breaking into song every time they have something to express; the singing is primarily done by the two singer/actresses vying to play Marilyn, wide-eyed Midwesterner Karen Cartwright (American Idol’s Katharine McPhee) and Broadway lifer Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty). Both have excellent voices, but they’re also interesting, well-rounded characters, as are the musical’s writers (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) and struggling producer (Anjelica Huston). The egocentric, womanizing director (Jack Davenport) is more of a showbiz cliché, and there’s a rather tired plot device in the second episode involving Karen’s torn loyalties, but overall, Smash is smart about its characters and insightful about the industry it portrays, one that hasn’t had much exposure in TV drama. Glee fans will show up for the singing, but everyone else should be on board for the mature, engaging drama around it.

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