Don’t call Smash a backstage musical. Please. The new hour-long drama is NBC’s last hope for a big scripted hit in a season where most of its shows have bombed. But the one thing the network feels a need to downplay is the fact that it’s about the world of Broadway theatre, where the characters are trying to put on a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. “In a lot of ways, it doesn’t matter that this is the theatre world,” creator Theresa Rebeck told the Los Angeles Times. “The way I think of the show is as The West Wing—an adult workplace drama, only they’re not in the White House.” Musicals about the world of show business used to be incredibly popular in the 1930s and beyond; Jane Feuer, author of the book The Hollywood Musical, says the majority of film musicals have been backstage musicals. But now Smash is trying to revive a whole genre and a way of thinking: it wants to make us care about theatre people for the first time in decades.
Back when musicals first started being filmed, nobody had this problem; audiences loved to see theatre or film actors as the lead characters, and Feuer says musicals were usually about “a Broadway show or some other form of live entertainment like vaudeville.” On TV, shows like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show took us backstage at the making of nightclub performances and variety shows, while on the stage, one of the longest-running musicals was the backstager A Chorus Line. The pilot of Smash, which has its premiere Feb. 6 on NBC and CTV, follows so much in this tradition that it can seem almost indistinguishable from a backstage musical made in the ’30s; there’s the songwriting team that writes a show and gets it produced with unrealistic ease, the innocent would-be actress (American Idol’s Katharine McPhee) propositioned by a director, and all the other elements that have less to do with real theatre and more to do with theatre as Hollywood imagines it.
The main reason why most film and TV musicals are backstagers is simple: it provides a ready-made excuse for people to sing. Just like a movie such as 42nd Street, Smash is a musical where most of the original songs (by the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) are performed either as part of the show within a show, or as fantasy sequences where the characters imagine themselves performing. “I always think of backstage musicals as musicals for people who don’t have the balls to make a musical,” says classic film historian Scott Eyman (author of Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille). “The backstage musical came about because a lot of people then and now had a problem with people breaking into song within an ostensibly realistic setting. Where does the orchestra come from? In a backstage musical we’re on stage, so that’s not a problem.”
But if backstage musicals have the advantage of realism, they also offer lots of unrealistic glamour. Feuer says audiences used to love “seeing what performers’ lives are like when they’re not on stage.” One of the models for Smash is the movie All About Eve, which played on the popular idea that theatre people are “a breed apart,” as one character puts it. That Oscar-winning film was just the culmination of a long line of backstagers where ordinary people could thrill to the sexy, bitchy world of actors and directors. “There’s always been this idea that theatre people, on the one hand, are kind of immoral,” Feuer says, “but on the other hand, they have more fun than we do.”
By focusing on the excitement of making a Broadway show, Smash could also stand out in a TV landscape where nearly every drama—on broadcast or cable—is about crime. The producers are loading the show up with time-tested elements of backstage drama, like a songwriter (Debra Messing) whose work leaves her with too little time for her family and, of course, a newcomer competing with a more experienced actress for the big lead role. Robert Greenblatt, the president of NBC, is so enthusiastic about Broadway musicals that he produced one in his spare time (9 to 5, with songs by Dolly Parton), and he seems to think that viewers will share his fascination with theatre. As he told Variety: “There is nothing that gets people galvanized and excited quite like a musical. Everybody involved has to be energized about it.”
But audiences aren’t as energized about backstagers as they used to be, something NBC knows from experience. After years of Emmys and acclaim for 30 Rock, its comedy about the people who make a late-night comedy show, it has never been able to turn it into a full-fledged popular success. And 30 Rock was luckier than NBC’s drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s follow-up to The West Wing, where he mistakenly assumed that viewers cared about what went on behind the scenes of a modern variety show. Backstage shows aren’t even doing well in the theatre; plans for a revival of Funny Girl, about the behind-the-scenes life of theatre star Fanny Brice, were cancelled when the funding collapsed.
It could be, as Feuer says, that the fascination of behind-the-scenes stories has been replaced by modern “celebrity culture”; people are happy to read about show-business people in gossip magazines, but they don’t want to know about their struggles to create art and raise money. Smash is hardly a realistic portrait of what it takes to make a musical today; the songwriters get to go into production with only three songs and an outline, and a single producer (Anjelica Huston) can get the show going on her own. But it does assume that we care about things like the audition process, or the fact that the producer’s attempt to revive My Fair Lady fell through. And no one really knows if that interests today’s audience. “Show-business people are fascinated with show business, but I don’t know that ordinary people are,” Eyman says. He points to the disappointing box office of Hugo, a movie that assumed people were interested in French filmmaker Georges Méliès. “Who’s the audience for this except me and 20,000 other people who are really into the preservation of film?” Eyman wondered. The worst-case scenario for Smash is that it could turn out to be of interest only if you know who New York Post critic Michael Riedel is and why the characters are obsessed with him.
Still, the producers of Smash may have seen signs lately that the backlash against backstagers has been reversed, and that audiences are interested in performers as characters. Glee has slipped in popularity this year, but is still one of the most successful hour-long dramas, and it’s about a bunch of people who only live to sing and dance in front of an audience. The Artist, a tribute to silent films that also heavily borrows from old-fashioned backstage films and musicals, is a favourite to win an Oscar or two. NBC’s own competition show The Voice has proved that audiences are still fascinated by singing contests—and the network is capitalizing by playing up that aspect of Smash, promoting it as if it’s a contest to see which character will get the big part.
And a show like Smash has one thing going for it in Greenblatt’s quest to turn the flailing NBC around: if it succeeds, it may have cross-generational appeal. As Feuer points out, the backstage musical has been a chance for young people to wallow in glamour while their parents relive their youth. “A lot of musicals, if you look at the show they put on within the film, often it’s an older form of entertainment. So it gives you a chance for nostalgia for the older people in the audience.” Smash is almost straining to get the broad audience that has eluded most of NBC’s shows: the pilot has an American Idol alumnus for young people, Marilyn Monroe references for older people, and even a bit of baby boomer nostalgia when McPhee sings a Joni Mitchell song at an audition. “They try to have this multi-generational appeal,” Feuer says of backstagers, and that could be exactly what NBC needs right now.
But to bring in those different generations, Smash will have to prove that millions of viewers are still interested in theatre, or at least a backstage musical’s fantasy of what theatre is like. And that may not be as sure a thing as it was in 1929, when backstage movie musicals took off. “People used to actually go to live entertainment all the time,” Feuer says, but today, the theatre world “has a more limited appeal.” The question for Smash is whether a story that’s been told over and over in film and TV—the story of putting on a show—still has popular appeal. If it does, it could revive the whole network. If it doesn’t, well, as Greenblatt told a gathering of TV critics, “we’re not going to go into receivership.”