SMASH – A TV Series of Making a Musical about Marilyn Monroe

Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul*

In SMASH everyone wants to be a Star !

Co-produced by Steven Spielberg with creator and acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck, the American television drama ensemble series SMASH, of making a Broadway musical about the life of the blonde ‘bombshell’ Norma Jeane Mortensen Baker aka Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962), hit the screen this year and has just completed its first season. From initial casting to completion, and its first show on stage, the cast and crew of this ‘smash’ hit show must all juggle the personal with the professional, which is not always an easy ask. Especially when they are nearing final production and the cast is virtually put into lockdown during a ‘Tech’ period, when all the details of the staging – lights, camera and action on stage, must be worked out and completed.

Boyfriends in meltdown, dreamers and schemers, heartbreak and hope, marriages on the rocks, gay love affairs, manipulative back-stabbers, super stars and their tantrums, hardened Broadway battlers, poisoners, as well as people coveting what they can’t have, SMASH is a TV series that some would say has it all. It certainly showcases the extremes of the creative life, particularly in the competitive world of the stage, where lines can so easily become blurred as life swings from fantasy to reality and back to fantasy again.

A musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe you might ask? Well why not, after all she was involved in many sensational musicals herself. With show stopping moments in How to Marry a Millionaire and the sensational Some Like it Hot, the lovely Marilyn steamed up the big screen from 1948, when she got her first contract with Columbia pictures, until her very tragic death at home alone in 1962, aged only 36.  Hers was a life lived to the full, one full of confusion, despair, doubt and unhappiness with hopefully, some lighter moments.

Whatever was happening Marilyn always gave the impression to the public that deep down she was a very lonely, fragile, frightened and very vulnerable person who need protecting, which was also a huge part of  her mass appeal. She epitomized what we can all feel on a daily basis. This was in part due to being brought up in foster homes where love and stability is what a child needs, and very often doesn’t receive. Her life was like one great soap opera that ranged from Hollywood to the White House with controversy and fans clamouring to see her everywhere she went.

Her sexy rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for President John F Kennedy, with whom she reputedly had a continuing love affair, just like her romping rendition of ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’, were both iconic moments for history and for Hollywood.

Dreaming about being an actress, is more exciting then being one*

The TV series has Debra Messing, successful in Will & Grace for years, as playwright Julia Houston who is married to Frank with one teenage son called Leo. She has an affair with the actor brought into play di Maggio in the musical, threatening her marriage and whole livelihood.

It is her collaboration with the gay songwriter that loves her Tom Levitt, played by Christian Borle, that brings forth both the script and the songs for the show, which they call ‘Bombshell’, which doesn’t really seem a likely name for a Broadway hit in New York, but there it is.

The song and dance routines are in the main show stopping, performed by the cast gathered around them. This includes some formidable Brits.

Jack Davenport plays the Director of the show Derek Wills, who seems on the surface to be a pretty shallow character, who beds all the leading ladies so that he can make them feel as if they are needed, a syndrome they nearly all seem to suffer from. Does he really know what love is?

He is decidedly dishy to look at, although unless he’s better than a Latin lover between the sheets, you may want to pass as one hopeful bravely does. But has she made the right decision?

What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course*

Raza Jaffrey studied at the old Vic at Bristol and was the creator of the dance-show spectacular RED. He knows his way around the dance floor as we find out in one dream Bollywood sequence, despite being a public servant in the New York Mayor’s press office. He’s playing Dev Sundaram, who is sharing a house with one of the hopefuls wanting to play ‘Marilyn’, Karen Cartwright aka Katherine McPhee. She was herself a struggling actress trying to get a break before coming second on American Idol in 2002. So she truly understands what it is like.

She plays second fiddle for most of the show to two other Marilyn hopefuls. There is the guest star Uma Thurman’s character Rebecca Duval, who is a movie star with more than a few moves of her own. At first she also has a very poor singing voice and is clearly too old to play the part, but being a star everyone bows down before her instead of telling her, as I wanted to, please get off the stage.

The extra recurring supporting cast and dancers all keep time, tap and dance in tune and, to a man, they all seem to be involved in a great deal of action in the bedroom, which makes us all realize that this is one place where there is a whole lot more than just loving going on.

The steely Ivy Lynn is played well by the lovely Megan Hilty. Ivy is actually a Marilyn look alike, who has for most of her life immersed herself in the stories and legend of the famous star, so she desperately wants to play her on stage. She will do anything to get the part, including sleeping with the Director.

Ivy is a complex personality,  the daughter of a famous musical star Leigh Conroy, played by Bernadette Peters, who hugs the limelight when she comes to town to visit her aspiring daughter, imposing herself into a scene of which, as a mother, she should really take no part. Thank goodness she realizes it and exits stage left.

The producer of the show Eileen Rand is played by Anjelica Huston, who loves great character roles and revels in them right up to the hilt. She is being divorced from her husband Jerry, another producer, who is as jealous as all get out about her ability to choose a show and succeed without him on Broadway, usually a man’s ‘negotiating’ world. The running gag of throwing a cocktail in Jerry’s face is a clever one. Every woman watching would want to do the same. What a creep. Thank heavens Thorston Kaye pops up playing her ‘bit of rough’ love interest, a well-connected bar owner named Nick. Then there is the mystery man Nick Jonas as Lyle West a young man with great potential. But will he return for series two? Would be great if it he did.

Other support roles, such as that of Deborah Messing’s husband Frank Houston, played by Tony award nominated Brian d’Arcy James and Michel Swift played by Will Chase, who is cast as Joe di Maggio in the show, may be minor but are well drawn, although d’Arcy James often seems wasted. He gives the impression of being so much better than the words he is given to deliver.

All of them, without knowing it at least so far, are being totally manipulated by Ellis Boyd, the fresh new face kid on the block, who jumps at every single opportunity to ingratiate himself into all their lives.

He is revealed to those watching as a behind the scenes back-stabber with a beguiling grin and winning way. He is meant to confuse issues, and does so in a very annoying way. You just want him to be found out so that he can be fired. So much so some critics in America have questioned his being there at all?

One critic suggested ‘NBC could have reversed its financial decline by selling off the chance to write Ellis out of the show’**. However if you have worked in show business his character is definitely based on a real life person, the one we all love to hate. And yes, he is sent packing in the end, but under threat and my guess is he may be back in Season 2 to upset a few more apple carts before he exits stage right.

Debra Messing’s character cannot stand him, and I had to admit I was on her side.Why couldn’t someone have poisoned him instead of him trying to poison the star Rebecca with peanuts. And why if a famous star is nearly poisoned, weren’t the police investigating? Sweeping stuff like this under the carpet in this day and age just means the writers look like they are out of touch with the rest of the world’s reality.

This show has had some really rave reviews and some really awful ones as well. No one can really seem to make up their mind whether to love it or to hate it.

However it is interesting to note that they all felt compelled to watch it through to the end, which says something, although I am not really quite sure what?

It’s easy to take this sort of series very seriously, instead of seeing it for what its trying to be, just sheer enjoyable entertainment.

Some felt disappointed that it failed to live up to the potential they saw it as having, which was originally sighted in an initial preview of the show by NBC. After 15 episodes it has been given a second season so it remains to be seen whether it can be revived. If you base that on the last episode of the series you would have to say yes, they are in with a chance.

Maybe the problem lies in the fact that many of the characters never seem to learn from their mistakes as we would expect them to do? They are all meant to be grown ups involved in the production of a show going to Broadway, but they seem to spend a great deal of time being entirely unprofessional. Viewers are left feeling they cannot all be that dumb surely, because they are all meant to be successful at what they do. One critic unflatteringly called them ‘migraine inducing’.

The interesting aspect is that despite wanting to make Ivy out as a villain what happens by the end is that she turns out to be the character most people would feel empathy with and want to see become Marilyn. It helps too that she has the looks and talent for the performance.

Katherine McPhee and all those wolves who like to howl...

But in the finale for the season, which turns out to be the best episode since its critically acclaimed pilot. Director Derek just keeps on seeing Karen (Katherine McPhee) in his head as Marilyn. As he is mighty successful at his job he demands that it is his choice and he finally wins out in the end.

There was my name up in lights. I said, ‘God, somebody’s made a mistake.’ But there it was, in lights. And I sat there and said, ‘Remember, you’re not a star. ‘ Yet there it was up in lights*

Despite a few hiccoughs Karen gains the role of Marilyn. Her opening night performance, put together in one day is a complete triumph.

What a voice Katherine McPhee has. Absolutely fabulous. She was sensational doing the number ‘I never met a wolf that didn’t have to howl’ with some of the boys wearing fatigues.

It is a highlight of the finale, as is the simply fabulous knock your socks off number Don’t Forget Me, which is the new closer for the show and deserved a standing ovation.

As the curtain comes down on Karen, she with the sensational voice, is all set to become a ‘star’.

“Fade in on a girl with a hunger for fame and a face and a name to remember. The past fades away…~

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

Watch the Trailer


“Smash” is a musical drama that celebrates the beauty and heartbreak of the Broadway theater as it follows a cross-section of dreamers and schemers who all have one common desire — to be a “Smash

Created by Theresa Rebeck

Debra Messing
Jack Davenport
Katharine McPhee
Christian Borle
Megan Hilty
Raza Jaffrey
Brian d’Arcy James
Jaime Cepero
Anjelica Huston

Series Writing credits
Theresa Rebeck (16 episodes, 2012)
Garson Kanin (15 episodes, 2012)
Scott Burkhardt (14 episodes, 2012)
David Marshall Grant (2 episodes, 2012)
Jason Grote (2 episodes, 2012)
Julie Rottenberg (2 episodes, 2012)
Elisa Zuritsky (2 episodes, 2012)

Theme music composer
Marc Shaiman

Marc Shaiman
Scott Wittman
Chris Bacon

Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee) and Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), rivals for the lead role of Marilyn in ‘Bombshell’ – Smash A TV Series on NBC

*Quotes: Marilyn Monroe  ** Maureen Ryan, HuffPost TV ~ words from opening number of ‘Bombshell’.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.