NEW YORK — On with the show!
“Smash” is back for its second season of sassy, sexy (and musical!) Broadway derring-do, both on stage and behind the scenes.
Last season, this series dramatized the blossoming of “Bombshell,” an exciting new musical about Marilyn Monroe, from its initial inspiration through the casting battle for the Marilyn role, with original songs and dance numbers emerging, then on to its preview engagement in Boston.
As the action resumes (with a two-hour “Smash” at 9 p.m. today on NBC), “Bombshell” is headed for the Great White Way. Or is it? Money, legal and creative problems all threaten to derail its ever reaching Broadway.
Of course, it should come as no surprise to any “Smash” fan (spoiler alert?) that “Bombshell” will indeed have its premiere. This was confirmed by a reporter during a December set visit to the filming of the opening night party for an upcoming episode.
It's a posh affair, shot in the lobby of a magnificent former vaudeville theater in Manhattan's Washington Heights. Dozens of partiers are dressed to the nines, ginger-ale-as-champagne is flowing, and performing for the guests is the Bombshell Girls Band — a six-piece female ensemble, two of whose pieces are men in drag as a clever nod to the classic Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis comedy “Some Like It Hot.”
The scene includes a brief rapprochement between the two at-odds actresses who vied to be Marilyn — Karen Cartwright (played by Katharine McPhee) and Ivy Lynn (played by Megan Hilty). They join forces for a full-out rendition of the pop standard “That's Life,” and, for its flashy duration, all is forgotten and all is well. That's what music can evoke in a joyous musical show, which this season “Smash” demonstrates as lavishly, rambunctiously (and musically!) as before.
Or maybe even more so, thanks to some judicious tweaking to the series since last season.
There's now a heightened focus on the Broadway world and a sharp cutback of “civilian” elements, such as the family life of “Bombshell” lyricist Julia (played by Debra Messing).
“This isn't domestic drama,” says Joshua Safran, the new “Smash” showrunner who's ushered in the changes. “It was really important to me to not have a lot of outside story, to keep everything revolving around the musicals and the world of musicals, so that even if the characters have personal issues, it's all about how those personal issues are impacting their work.”
This is a refinement endorsed by Christian Borle, who plays Julia's song-writing partner Tom (and who has real-life Broadway cred: He won a Tony Award last spring for his performance in the comedy “Peter and the Starcatcher”).
“As somebody who has devoted a lot of time to the theater, I think it's fair to say that your personal life becomes absorbed into that world,” Borle says. “So when you tell the dramatic story of the theater, you don't have to go far: it's all personal.”
Besides, the scope of “Smash” will extend beyond the single Broadway-bound show “Bombshell.”
“It will be about an entire group of theaters with shows and different actors and different composers and directors,” says Safran, “but in a tight-knit community that allows us to have stories that touch upon one another.”
Last season, “Smash” had a teeth-grinding effect on some viewers who found it cliched, preposterous or, worst of all, one-note. And, now, even after its rejiggering, it may still invite their snark. But other members of the audience will surely find it glorious.
The splendid cast includes the silver-throated McPhee and Hilty, along with Messing and Borle; Anjelica Huston as the never-say-die “Bombshell” producer; Jennifer Hudson in a multi-episode arc as a toast-of-Broadway singer; and Jack Davenport as Derek, the brilliant, womanizing director.
There are more original songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (whose credits include their Tony-winning score for the 2007 musical “Hairspray”). As the real-life song-writing team behind the on-screen Julia and Tom, they will have composed 31 tunes for the first two “Smash” seasons, including 22 infectious numbers for “Bombshell” itself, just released in a real-life cast recording as “Bombshell: The New Marilyn Musical from Smash.”
“We try to write a good song that fits the musical, while also trying to make it about the characters on the TV show. It's a real juggling act,” says Shaiman. “And a real Rubik's Cube: the amount of people who need to be in synch on this production is mind-boggling.”
Those people also include choreographer Joshua Bergasse, who, each episode, masterminds two dance routines.
“Sometimes you get an idea, you get into the (rehearsal) studio the next day, and you shoot it the next day,” he says. “Choreograph, shoot it, move on the next one.”
It all makes for a dazzling experience to watch. Elaborate production numbers are organically integrated into a melodramatic yet complex storyline. And unlike many eye-poppingly visual series, “Smash” can't rely on souped-up computer graphics.
“CGI is kind of easier,” says Jack Davenport, noting that CGI post-production is handed off to its own team of specialists to complete. “We have to do all our staging for real — an hour of television every eight days.”
With a little down time before his next scene, Davenport is chilling in his trailer dressing room, parked outside the theater on West 176th Street.
His character has been a party to the series' realignment, which calls for making things lighter, a little more comic than last year. On the premiere, take a look at how last year's imperious lady-killer Derek has been humanized in a hilarious musical fantasy: A troupe of sexy women in a bar gang up on him as a mass rebuke to his chauvinist ways, to the tune of the Eurythmics' “Would I Lie to You?”
But just because “Smash” isn't scared to have fun doesn't mean it isn't close to the truth.
“To the untrained eye, it might appear arch, high-camp, kind of over-the-top,” says Davenport with a laugh. “Not in the slightest. This virtually is a documentary.”
Furthermore, he notes, “Smash” is a perfect show for any viewer weary of TV violence.
“There is clearly a giant audience who loves watching people sift through the entrails of a murder victim,” says Davenport, “and to each his own. But there's not a day that goes by on this show that I don't say to myself, 'Nobody has a gun!'”
Clearly, “Smash” sings a different tune.