Featuring a number of openly gay producers and execs, including David Marshall Grant, the new musical TV series “Smash” aims to be just that when it premieres next week. The series debuts at 10 p.m. Feb. 6 on NBC.
Set in the world of Broadway theater, “Smash” stars Debra Messing as Julia, half of a songwriting team who is in now in the process of adopting a child. When her colleague Tom (Christian Borle) talks to her about staging a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, the idea of writing a hit show leads Julia back to the work grind she thought she had put behind her.
As auditions for the Marilyn musical unfold, the top two candidates for the lead role become newcomer Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee), fresh from the Midwest, and Ivy Bell (Megan Hilty), who looks the part and seems a shoo-in for the role. As the season progresses, the producers try to decide which of the two gets the role.
After the pilot had been filmed last year, Dreamworks Television and producer Steven Spielberg realized they needed to hire a staff. Grant, known for both his TV work (“thirtysomething,” producing “Brothers and Sisters”) and theater work (nominated for a Tony for his role in “Angels in America”) was contacted, flown to Los Angeles, and shown the pilot.
“I was blown away by it,” Grant says.
He was hired as a writer/producer and joined a team that includes gay collaborators and life partners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the composers of Broadway’s “Hairspray,” and Craig Zadan and his professional partner Neil Meron of the musical film versions of “Chicago” and “Hairspray.”
Much of the action from the series will be the competition between the two performers vying to play Marilyn and the soap opera behind it – and Grant thinks that dynamic is part of the fun.
“Katharine McPhee (from TV’s ‘American Idol’) is America’s sweetheart, and her character – Karen — has some naivete,” says Grant. “There is a competition between the two professionally. Ivy has paid her dues and worked her butt off and thinks this is her time to move out of the chorus; this is the role for her. They clash on many levels.“
The cast also includes Angelica Huston as a producer going through a nasty divorce who joins the collaborative team. Future episodes will feature guest stars such as Bernadette Peters, Nick Jonas and Uma Thurman.
The actor, who is also a playwright, thinks despite its New York setting and environment, the series will be universal.
“I have been in theater all my life and what I love about this is that it is so specific,” he says. “I think what will make it accessible, though, is that people come from all over the country to see a Broadway show. In each episode we have that – we do a Broadway number each week in your living room.”
The character of Tom is gay in the show and gays and lesbians will certainly be in the mix, says Grant.
“The world that the show inhabits — nothing is as gay friendly as New York theater,” he says. “The sexuality of some of the characters is beyond a given.”
The character of Derek Willis, a director-choreographer played by Jack Davenport, is not gay-friendly, though.
Grant realizes that some people will compare the series to “Glee.” He acknowledges that “Glee” opened the door but thinks “Smash” is different enough to succeed.
“We have definitely benefited from them — they have been an astonishing game changer,” he says. “But we are not set in high school but in the American theater.”
Top photo: ‘Smash,’ the new musical series on NBC, focuses on the competition for the leading role in a musical about Marilyn Monroe. (Publicity photo)