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NBC tries to make 'Smash' a smash again

Katharine McPhee portrays Karen Cartwright in the series

Katharine McPhee portrays Karen Cartwright in the series “Smash, which starting April 6, will move from Tuesdays to Saturdays on NBC. Credit: AP

"Smash" premieres its second season Tuesday (NBC/4 at 9 p.m.), and droves of viewers will likely tune in. With delight? Dread? Self-satisfied, snark-infested glee? It's anybody's guess.

The show debuted to much acclaim a year ago but soon lost ratings, spiraling into a morass of cliched dialogue, odd plot twists and the shlumpiest wardrobe imaginable for star Debra Messing. The descent helped spawn a new phrase -- "hate-watching" -- as countless viewers admitted to tuning in just to snipe.

No doubt NBC hopes "Smash" version 2.0 will change all that. They've got cast changes (yes, the odious Ellis, mopey teenager and Messing's faithful hubby are all gone). Plus popular guest stars (Jennifer Hudson plays a Broadway babe in a three-episode arc starting with the premiere; Liza Minnelli, Nikki Blonsky and Sean Hayes pop in later this season). Plus a new showrunner (Joshua Safran of "Gossip Girl" replaces playwright Theresa Rebeck).

"I'm a little fed up with the term hate-watching," says

Safran, sitting in his office near the set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. "I actually don't believe it's possible to 'hate-watch,' because if you watch, you have to care on some level. Somebody said that people may say hate-watching, but what they mean is hope-watching. I think that's true."



Much of the show's critical acclaim was due to the pilot's finale, a well-paced sequence of dueling divas (Katharine McPhee vs. Megan Hilty) auditioning for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a new musical that would soon be called "Bombshell." Their power ballad, "Let Me Be Your Star," with potent, pop-inflected melody, deft lyrics and peeling, belted high D's, propelled the episode to a rousing conclusion that had critics and fans jabbering with delight.

The delight faded.

"Some people are religious about musical theater and dedicate themselves to it in a way that's almost . . . well . . . let's just say dedicated," says Anjelica Huston, who plays producer Eileen Rand. "They have precise ideas about what they want to see -- which is great. At least people care."

The show's failure to jell was frustrating, given the talent involved (stars like Huston, and Messing, playing lyricist Julia Houston). It couldn't have helped that Steven Spielberg, who oversaw production, was working on several projects at once last year, including a certain presidential biopic.

Only one thing consistently satisfied most viewers and critics -- "Bombshell's" original musical numbers . . . interestingly, the element largely controlled by the show's musical theater vets ("Hairspray's" composer-lyricist team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and choreographer Joshua Bergasse).



This season the series will track the development of a second fictional musical, "Hit List," an edgy, pop-rock effort different from "Bombshell."

"I was nervous," Bergasse admits. "Hit List" numbers mix dance, hip-hop and parkour (a popular physical discipline inspired by obstacle courses). "Now I'm finding new creative juices flowing."

"Hit" not only provides an excuse for more of those popular musical numbers but also ushers in new talent: Multiple, up-and-coming songwriters supply the music; and "Newsies" star Jeremy Jordan plays Jimmy, "Hit's" stubborn composer with a mysterious past.

"He's dark, definitely the darkest character you've seen thus far," says Jordan. "You may not like him much -- at first."

The idea is to help the series "grow the audience younger, sexier, hip," says Bergasse.

Popular guest stars also may help, like Great Neck's Blonsky ("Hairspray"), who for several episodes plays a bubbly assistant to Eileen Rand's villainous ex-hubby, Jerry (Michael Cristofer).

Or, most notably, Hudson. The Oscar winner plays

Ronnie Moore, a former child star saddled with a "momager" (Uniondale-raised Tony nominee Sheryl Lee Ralph) and a desire to break free of her sweet kiddie image. Picture a cross between "Annie's" Andrea McArdle and "Purlie's" Melba Moore (Hudson sings the bejesus out of the "Purlie" hit "I Got Love" in episode 4).

"Somebody's always waitin' to take you down," says Ronnie, "but if the work's good, they won't be able to."

A lesson "Smash" writers learned the hard way.



In Safran's office, rows of DVDs line shelves, snatched from his personal collection -- all musicals.

So, what's his favorite musical?

Flash back to the same studio, a year earlier, when then-showrunner Rebeck was posed the same question.

Long pause.


She eventually mentioned "Sweeney Todd," then "Gypsy," but in a vague, unconvincing way for someone helming a groundbreaking new show about musicals. Granted, maybe she was tired.

Safran rattles off titles rapid-fire, from classics ("Cabaret") to obscure ("Good News"). He's played piano since age 4 -- and don't get him started on "The Pirates of Penzance," the first big show he was to see as a kid.

"I got mono and couldn't go," he says. His family went anyway, and he was so miffed his mother relented and took him after he recovered.

"This is like my dream show," he says. "I grew up wanting to do musicals."

Will his "encyclopedic knowledge" of the genre help? It can't hurt.

" 'Smash' is not a musical," he says. "It's a show about people who make musicals -- a concise but key difference."

He's not rewriting, just clarifying, the rules, he says. Musical numbers will generally stay onstage -- not burble up in bowling alleys (oh, the tweets on that episode). Stories will focus more on characters' careers than personal lives. And the strange, cynical emphasis on stardom -- last season's running theme that in show biz you're either a star or nothing -- also will be jettisoned.

"There's no more griping," says Safran. "Being in the ensemble is a huge accomplishment. Something to aspire to."

As for Messing's gypsy scarves? Ah,television history.

Let the tweeting begin.


For choreographer, it's in the numbers

'Five, six, seven and . . . boom bam ah-AHHH."

That's choreographer Joshua Bergasse, on the set of NBC's "Smash" in a Brooklyn studio one recent morning, leading a rehearsal with 14 fit young men and women in a dialect that can only be called "Dancerese."

"What are you doing -- bop bahh?" he asks a woman with pert ponytail and the abs of Michael Phelps.

"I'm more ha-AHH," she replies fluently.

"Yeah, keep it," he says.

Bergasse, a small, solid man, can be found on the set on any given day, shooting one number, rehearsing a second, mentally prepping a third. Each only gets about three days of rehearsal -- one with stars. Luckily, he says, series stars Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty have natural ability.

Each number is shot as if performed live onstage, from start to finish, take after take.

"The goal is to never say 'cut' in the middle," he explains. This saves time, rather than shooting bits piecemeal. It also gives numbers a "live performance" vitality, key to their success.

Bergasse learned quickly what camera angles make movements pop -- or look flat. "I love when you see dancers swiping past the camera," he says.

His efforts paid off -- he won an Emmy last year for his work on the series.

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