If you've ever wondered how a Broadway show is born, check out Smash, where passions burn as fiery as the footlights – where players, schemers and dreamers chase their desire to create a musical based on the poignant life of Marilyn Monroe.
Debra Messing's acting is a joy to behold: she's the heavy when she needs the gravitas, but as loosey-goosey as her days on Will and Grace in her comic moments. As a writer, Julia Houston, she partners with the songwriter Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) – together renowned as the hit-making Houston-Levitt team.
Julia soon becomes obsessed with the project: "You know what (Marilyn) said in her last interview? She said: 'Please don't make a joke out of me.' There was something about her. How much she wanted to love and be loved. She glows with it. It reminds me of a saint ... I don't want anyone else to do her."
Julia struggles to balance the constant demands of the Great White Way with her family's needs. The return of her old flame, the musical theatre star Michael Swift (Will Chase), also throws a greasy banana peel on to her life's stage.
"There's a realism to the intention of Smash that's inspiring and delightful," writes Lily Sparks of TV.com.
In a roundabout way, the former American Idol contestant and eye-catching brunette Katharine McPhee's character, Karen, borrows a page from the life of Star Trek's Captain James T Kirk – both left Iowa to fly and warp among the stars.
While wannabe Karen may radiate the fresh innocence of a youthful Marilyn Monroe, she must tread the shark-infested waters of professional theatre to win the role of a lifetime against some blonde bombshell competition – the sultry stage vet Ivy Lynn (real-life Broadway star Megan Hilty). Can Karen maintain her integrity and keep her charms off the casting couch of the gifted but seductive bad-boy director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport)? If the pilot is any indicator, it would appear Karen's a quick study, able to dodge any curveball.
The Hollywood Reporter calls the pilot episode "excellent, a bar-raiser for broadcast networks" and rates it superior to Glee.
And what a delight to see that Anjelica Huston hasn't lost her touch for stealing a scene; the camera adores her face, so timeless and so full of mystique, framed in a jet-black Cleopatra coif that cries royalty. "There's a broken heart for every light on Broadway," says the statuesque Oscar-winner who, as the legendary musical producer Eileen Rand, knows how to glide as smoothly as her black silk down a geometric-tiled Art Deco hallway in a vintage Big Apple tower.
Driven by a passionate love of her art, Rand must masterfully stroke both the warring egos of her creative team and of her musical's skyrocketing budget – even as her cruel ex-husband Jerry (Michael Christofer) freezes her assets in an ugly divorce.
Rounding out the cast are Jaime Cepero, as the assistant composer to Levitt, and Raza Jaffrey as Dev, Karen's loving, supportive boyfriend who helps her keep the dream alive.
Auditions are brutal and breathtaking. They morph from drab audition spaces and desperate wannabes in sweats to moments of full-fledged Broadway spectacle in full costume and orchestra.
The idea for Smash hails from the executive producer Steven Spielberg; the pilot was written by the acclaimed playwright/screenwriter Theresa Rebeck (NYPD Blue), also an executive producer. Writing original tunes are the Tony and Grammy winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can).
One thing's obvious in Smash - theatre people know how to decorate an apartment, with interiors to die for. Credit goes to the production designer Cabot McMullen and the set decorator Andrew Baseman, for knowing that furnishings tell a story, too.
"We were asked (by Spielberg) to demonstrate the lifestyle of Broadway people that was honest and true," McMullen recently told The Los Angeles Times.
After viewing an episode, it will come as no surprise that NBC only days ago renewed Smash, its top drama in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, for a second season. The co-creator Rebeck, however, is now off the show. Whether she left or was pushed remains unclear – but she may well be wondering, as does her tunesmith character Tom Levitt:
"We are in an industry which is lousy with talent – is it too much to ask for kindness, too? Am I a crazy person because I still expect people to be, if not lovely, at least civil in this terrible business?"
Smash premieres on Friday and is broadcast on Fridays and Saturdays on OSN First HD, OSN First and OSN First +2.