Maybe we shouldn’t have to say it, but when you’re a big musical TV series premiering in a post-Glee world, you kind of have to draw the distinction. At the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month, the cast and crew of the buzzed-about NBC series were happy to spell it out.
“When Ryan Murphy did Glee he broke a great barrier,” said producer Craig Zadan. “I don’t think that any of us feel that the show is like Glee, but we feel grateful to Glee for opening that door.”
Smash is more grounded in Broadway than in high school: It tells the story of two young women vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a new musical based on the actress’s life. But it’s also about the production of the musical—the songwriting, the casting, the promotion.
“The first season, the plan is to take Marilyn all the way to an out-of-town tryout, so it’s her first really public presentation,” explained creator Theresa Rebeck. “And then the second season will be Marilyn—if we’re lucky enough to get there, would be Marilyn comes to Broadway. How does the show fare in New York?”
The dueling Marilyn hopefuls are played by former American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee and Broadway star Megan Hilty. While these are the first major television roles for both, Hilty has plenty of experience with the real-life world that Smash depicts.
“The wonderful thing about the show is that there are so many people here that come from this world that it keeps it very authentic,” Hilty noted. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been backstage, looking around, going, ‘Where’s the camera? There needs to be a camera here.’ Because the drama that happens behind the curtain is way more interesting than what’s happening on the stage.”
McPhee has had acting roles before—she guest-starred on Community as Pierce's ex-stepddaughter Amber and appeared in The House Bunny—but she’s primarily known for her pop music career. That persona provides an interesting contrast to the more musical theater-based Hilty, both in terms of their voices and the characters they play.
“It is different because for me, I think of myself as more of a pop artist,” McPhee reflected. “And Megan here has got, like, the big Broadway voice. So I’m always trying to balance the two so that they are kind of cohesive together, that it makes sense in terms of the show.”
Smash's supporting cast is rounded out by a bevy of notable actors, including Debra Messing, Jack Davenport, and Anjelica Huston. Huston is just one of many significant cinematic talents making the move to television—and like all the others, she was asked to speak to that transition.
“Because [Smash] is beautifully written,” she said. “It’s a fantastic cast of actors, a phenomenal team of people behind the scenes. We’re working with the best of the best. I’d be a fool not to participate.”
Here’s another question: Why Marilyn? After all, the writers could have gone with a less high-concept musical-within-a-show. As it turns out, they did mull over several options—Rebeck actually had her eye on Victorian literature. But in the end, they decided Marilyn Monroe was the perfect icon to build the show around.
“Her story is one of tragedy, heartbreak, glamour, love, and all things that make for great drama,” Hilty said. “All things that people want to watch and are intrigued by, which is why we’re still talking about her today.”