Broadway is a busy avenue that stretches from the southern tip of Manhattan all the way north and then keeps on going.
But the Broadway that has occupied an important slice of America’s cultural pie for more than a century lies in the center of Manhattan, also known as the theater district. It’s the Broadway where plays and musicals are made or broken and where every kid who dreams of theatrical stardom hopes to land one day.
Show biz Broadway provides the fulcrum for Smash, the NBC dramatic series that kicks off its second season on Feb. 5. The show, which lists Steven Spielberg as one of its producers, is built around the perennially popular exhortation, “Hey gang, let’s put on a show.”
More specifically, let’s put on a musical, that gloriously complex Broadway creation that is America’s greatest contribution to theater in the last century.
In Smash’s first season, its various characters — a composer, a book and lyrics writer, a producer, a director and several performers — all collaborated to create Bombshell, a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. For this show within the show, there were storylines involving auditions, money woes, catchy songs, elaborate production numbers, a star who didn’t cut it, out-of-town previews in Boston, new songs and last-minute scenes and all the usual tsuris of a real Broadway musical. There was also an inordinate amount of backstabbing, bed-hopping, drink throwing, financial finagling and even a poisoned health shake.
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The show started off at midseason last year with impressive ratings (11 million viewers for the debut episode) and critical applause. It lost both as the season progressed. Ratings dropped — the final episode drew just 6 million viewers — and fans became disenchanted with several characters and plot twists. More than one regular viewer owned up to conflicted feelings about the show, describing their relationship to it in online fan forums as “hate-watching.”
"Smash" was chockablock with talent, much of it with Broadway experience. The show was created and run by Theresa Rebeck, a veteran Broadway playwright (Mauritius, Seminar and most recently Dead Accounts). The songs for Bombshell were written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the talented team behind Hairspray. The cast included Debra Messing (Will & Grace), Anjelica Huston, Tony winner Christian Borle, American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee and Broadway up-and-comer Megan Hilty.
The Broadway depicted in Smash was a place of glamour, filled with penthouse parties and bar gatherings, where chorus kids spontaneously burst into song. The show offered up a romantic depiction of life in the theater, a Broadway that once was but no longer is.
It can’t afford to be. A major musical is capitalized at millions with the hugely successful Book of Mormon costing $9 million and Wicked coming in at $14 million. (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark cost possibly as much as $75 million, according to The New York Times, by the time it finally opened in 2011 after a long and difficult birthing process.) There’s no time or spare funds, when that kind of money is at stake, for the dithering and bad behavior that happened while putting together Bombshell in Smash.
More to the point, Broadway is no longer central to the national consciousness the way it once was and as it is portrayed in Smash. Yes, when tourists come to New York they take in a show, grumbling all the while about the $100-plus cost of a ticket. But only a few Broadway offerings make a big enough splash to grab national headlines and become must-see experiences for everyone. (Spider-Man is the exception, a show so expensive and so problem-plagued that the question of whether it would ever open and what its fate would be became a national obsession.)
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It wasn’t always like this. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and '70s, every single Broadway production and most off-Broadway productions were reviewed in Time and Newsweek. Life magazine ran frequent cover stories on Broadway stars and shows. The late-night talk shows were all based in New York and Broadway stars regularly dropped by.
Equally important, Hollywood relied on Broadway for inspiration, routinely adapting dramas and musicals to the screen. And stars were made first on Broadway — think Marlon Brando, Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand — before traveling west to Hollywood.
Flash forward to now: While the lights may be brighter on Broadway thanks to technological improvements, metaphorically its wattage has dimmed considerably. Today, Broadway looks to Hollywood for inspiration, recycling such movies as Sister Act, Footloose, Mary Poppins and The Lion King into musicals. And every Broadway producer knows that the only way to sell tickets is to rope a genuine Hollywood name, whether it’s a movie or TV star, into appearing in your show for a limited run. Among those treading the boards now or in the recent past: Hugh Jackman, Matthew Broderick, Scarlett Johansson and Katie Holmes.
Having said all this, there are a few reasons why I’m still looking forward to the new season of Smash. It’s going to feature revamped storylines and a reconfigured cast (Jaime Cepero, who played conniving Ellis, the single most annoying character on the entire show, is gone). Josh Safran (Gossip Girl) has replaced Rebeck at the series’ helm as its show runner. And joining Smash for limited arcs this season are Broadway vets Liza Minnelli, Sean Hayes, Jesse L. Martin and Jennifer Hudson.
It all sounds promising, but everyone is always hopeful when the curtain rises. Depending on how this second season of Smash plays out over the next 13 weeks, it’ll soon be clear whether the show must go on.