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The story of ‘Smash,’ a beloved hot mess of a TV musical turned cult favorite

Christian Borle and Debra Messing perform “Bombshell” from “Smash.” (Jay Brady Photography)
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In 2017, Lena Dunham’s HBO dramedy “Girls” paid tribute to NBC’s beloved but short-lived musical drama, “Smash,” in a scene that found Andrew Rannells’s character, Elijah, auditioning for a Broadway musical. Facing an apathetic panel, Elijah belts the final verse of “Let Me Be Your Star,” a song he explains — without a hint of irony — is “from the hit show ‘Bombshell,’ from the hit TV show, ‘Smash.’”

The memorable scene aired four years after NBC canceled “Smash,” and it captured the enduring enthusiasm fans have for the 2012 series and its Broadway show-within-a-show. In the series premiere, “Bombshell” takes shape when two veteran playwrights (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) decide to make a musical about Marilyn Monroe. Also taking shape? An intriguing rivalry between the show’s would-be Marilyns, Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty).

Critics had especially high praise for the series pilot (a rarity), which ended with McPhee and Hilty singing competing verses of “Let Me Be Your Star.” But the show — created by playwright Theresa Rebeck and based on an original idea by Steven Spielberg — was plagued by behind-the-scenes drama and steadily plunging ratings. NBC canceled the series after just two seasons.

The curtains didn’t close completely, though. Spielberg, “Smash” executive producer Neil Meron and former NBC Entertainment chair Robert Greenblatt announced in a press release Thursday that they are developing a musical adaptation of the TV series for the Broadway stage. There has long been talk of “Smash” (or “Bombshell”) coming to Broadway, and the TV show’s cast tested the waters in 2015, performing the once-fictional musical in a sold-out, one-night-only event.

To the delight of the show’s still-scorned fans, that performance streamed publicly Wednesday for the first time — paired with a live virtual cast reunion — to benefit the nonprofit Actors Fund during Broadway’s extended closure due to the coronavirus. The performance is still available to stream on, People TV and the magazine’s social platforms.

After his showstopping “Girls” scene, Rannells told Jimmy Fallon that he decided his “Girls” character should sing “Let Me Be Your Star” because he had connections with much of the “Smash” cast. Even in the Broadway community, the Tony-nominated actor told Fallon, “It was a show that everyone watched.”

For a few episodes, it was. “Smash” was a pet project for Greenblatt, who had brought the show to NBC from Showtime. “Smash” had Spielberg’s backing — DreamWorks produced alongside Universal Television — and NBC promoted the show heavily, airing several ads during Super Bowl XLVI. The pilot, which aired the day after the big game, drew more than 11 million viewers and managed to lead its time-slot despite viewership sloughing off in the last half-hour.

There was plenty to love about “Smash,” particularly for theater geeks unopposed to random bursts of song. The show’s music included original numbers by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the duo behind the “Hairspray” score), who wrote most of the “Bombshell” catalogue. (The pair is also set to write the score for the Broadway adaptation of “Smash.”) “Smash” also regularly featured pop songs: Karen auditions for “Bombshell” with Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”; in another episode, she and Ivy sing Rihanna’s “Cheers (Drink to That)” in the middle of Times Square.

Throughout its two-season run, “Smash” was peppered with Broadway mainstays including Jeremy Jordan, Leslie Odom Jr. and Will Chase. Celebrity guest stars — a list that included Nick Jonas, Uma Thurman and Liza Minnelli — were plentiful, as were cameos by prominent theater figures (Lin-Manuel Miranda played nemesis to Borle’s character, Tom, in a Season 2 cameo).

But as the Atlantic pointed out ahead of the show’s sophomore season, theater geeks unopposed to random bursts of song are a niche group. “To build the huge audience that NBC … seems to crave, they don’t need a better show,” Kevin Fallon wrote. “They need an entirely different one.”

As ratings fell, the network replaced Rebeck as showrunner, bringing in Joshua Safran (“Gossip Girl”) to helm the production. Ahead of the second season premiere, a BuzzFeed article declared the show “TV’s biggest trainwreck,” with several anonymous sources claiming Rebeck had been so resistant to input from writers and fellow producers that the “Smash” set felt, in the words of one Season 1 staffer, like a “dictatorship.”

For her part, Rebeck later said in an essay she was fired without cause and that the fallout led to several years of struggling to find work. “As the dust settled, it became clear that at the management level a lot of dastardly stories had been invented about my character,” she wrote in the essay, which was featured in the 2017 book “Double Bind: Women on Ambition.”

Rebeck also described power struggles that put her at odds with Greenblatt and Spielberg. “There was a strange dysplasia. They seemed to think that I was some kind of factotum, or typewriter even,” she wrote. “No matter how polite I was, it rocked everyone to the core when the typewriter talked back."

“Was it gender based? It sure felt like it.” Rebeck concluded. “The power structure included ten men and one woman, and, in spite of all their second-guessing and wrangling, the show was terrific until they fired the woman in charge.”

When Greenblatt left NBC in 2018, “Smash” was cast as a definitive low point of his tenure. But the veteran producer clearly still held out hope for the show, telling Variety earlier that year that fans probably hadn’t seen the last of the beloved series. “We’ve been thinking about different ways to think about a stage musical based on ‘Bombshell’ or ‘Smash,'” he told the outlet. “There’s an incarnation which could sort of combine both.”

According to a 2011 New York magazine feature, that was always the goal for Spielberg, whose initial vision for the show amounted to an anthology series focused on the creation of a new musical with each season. If the musical ended up being good enough, it would move to the stage.

In addition to producers and fans, there are other stakeholders who want to see “Smash” resurrected — redeemed even, as Monroe is in “Bombshell.”

“I think our ultimate dream is that the legacy has yet to be written, that maybe there is a chance that there is some avenue where the show gets to have a second life,” McPhee told Billboard ahead of Wednesday’s event. “Whether that be a miniseries, or whatever — we’re all game for anything, everyone loved the experience so much.”

In that and other ways, the “Bombshell” streaming event (and Spielberg’s well-timed announcement) brought the show’s legacy full circle. Comedian Julie Klausner, who hosted a fawning podcast during “Smash’s” NBC run, was on hand to interview cast members. And in a very “Smash”-esque move, Academy Award winner Renée Zellweger introduced the program — because why not?

Eight years later, “Let Me Be Your Star” is still as electrifying as it was in the “Smash” pilot — and in Elijah’s “Girls” audition. (He got the part, of course.)

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