For most of its two-year run on NBC, the series Smash was pretty much a hot mess. Ostensibly about the creation of Broadway musicals, it only tangentially resembled the real thing. And its plots and characters got soapier and soapier as the show went on.
Still, I recorded every episode on my DVR, if only because the program offered a weekly glimpse of some of the finest musical-theater actors on the Broadway stage — among them Megan Hilty, Christian Borle, Jeremy Jordan, Krysta Rodriguez, plus occasional guest stars like Bernadette Peters — singing and dancing. It also featured location shots from right in the heart of the theater district.
NBC pulled the plug last season, though, and that, I thought, was that. But a few weeks ago came the announcement of a concert version of Hit List, the Rent-like musical from the show's second season, with some of the actors from Smash starring in it. It turns out I wasn't the only one curious to see it; the three performances sold out in half an hour.
Last week, I attended a press preview at 54 Below, the swanky cabaret where the show was to be presented, and got to meet some of the performers as well as Joshua Safran, the showrunner for Smash's second season. The first season was centered on a fictional Broadway show called Bombshell and the two actresses vying for the lead role of Marilyn Monroe. But Safran, who replaced Smash creator Theresa Rebeck, wanted to shake things up.
"So much of the process of Bombshell had been seen," he says, "from the initial idea to the workshop to an opening out of town. And, obviously Bombshell's journey wasn't done, but you also couldn't repeat those moments with Bombshell, because it had moved past it."
Safran found inspiration in the documentary Show Business, which looked at four musicals of the 2004 season — not just the big hit, Wicked, but the little engine that could, Avenue Q (which eventually bested Wicked in the Tony Awards), as well as the Boy George flop Taboo and Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, or Change.
"So that was where the idea of having a second or competing musical came about," Safran says. "And we wanted to make the sound of the second musical and the tone of the second musical completely different."
Where all of the retro-by-design songs for Bombshell came from the Tony Award-winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), Safran recruited a bunch of up-and-coming musical theater writers, among them Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story) and Joe Iconis, to write tunes for the competing show, Hit List.
"I knew I wanted the other musical to sound like a rock musical, like Rent, like Next to Normal," explains Safran. He listened to Iconis' tunes "Broadway, Here I Come" and "The Goodbye Song," and knew it was the tone he was looking for.
"So, in a very strange way, those songs actually created Hit List," Safran says. In fact he had a few weeks in the schedule before he had to even come up with a plot for the fictional musical.
Tony-nominated actor Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) was brought in to play Jimmy, the angst-ridden songwriter with many secrets, for Smash's second season. His character was also Hit List's composer and star and had a tortured love affair with actress Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee).
Jordan says that somewhere around the middle of the season, he and the other actors began to have an inkling of what the fictional Hit List was about. "But for the purposes of Smash," he says, "I think it was more geared towards forwarding the story for the characters in Smash."
And, apparently, as the second season of Smash continued, that plot became kind of flexible, says Krysta Rodriguez. She played Karen's roommate, then Hit List cast mate, then bitter rival.
"It was more important to know how the songs related to the [TV] plot that everybody was watching, rather than the plot of Hit List," Rodriguez says. In the concert version, though, "we get to bring out what we originally intended, and that means that songs that were sung by [certain] characters are now being sung by different characters, because that's how they would fit in Hit List and not how they worked on Smash."
The idea for the concert version came from Jennifer Ashley Tepper, program director at 54 Below and a self-professed theater geek who was a big fan of Smash. She contacted Safran, "and we started having a conversation about doing it live. We just wanted to show the songs in order, and what the show would be, if it was something you went to see at the Winter Fringe."
She got enthusiastic responses from many of the Smash cast members, including Andy Mientus, who played Hit List's doomed book writer, Kyle.
"It's been so sweet," he says. "I feel like it's our 10-year reunion, but it's only been six months. But in television that's 10 years! It's a really sweet, joyous experience."
So a couple of days later, I joined an enthusiastic audience of Broadway babies and Smash fans to find out just what the fictional musical Hit List actually is. Safran had told me that "Hit List really deals with the power of fame these days in the music industry or the arts. And the idea that in order to be somebody, you have to pretend to be somebody else."
Which is probably the best way to describe the convoluted plot of the show, which has a wannabe American Idol-type singer, Amanda, stealing the songs of her Brooklyn boyfriend, Jessie, and running off to California, where she squares off with The Diva, a Lady Gaga-esque singer. Fame is found, even as hearts are broken and lives are shattered. And lots of songs — 19, in fact — are sung.
The show got an energetic reading, with a rock band that also featured a violin and cello, and a superb singing cast. Jordan played Jessie, a character not that different from the one he played in Smash, with vocal aplomb. Mientus, as his friend Nick, also rather charmingly contributed stage directions.
Rodriguez slunk through the audience and onto tables as the very sexy and completely unhinged Diva. And in the McPhee role, Carrie Manolakos, who did many of Hit List's original demos, had a chance to show off her considerable pipes.
So, would Hit List actually be a smash in the real world? I'm not so sure, but there are some genuinely impressive contributions from the young songwriters Safran hired.
Pasek and Paul wrote several of those contributions, including an excellent power ballad, "Caught in the Storm," sung by Jordan at the end of the first act.
And Lucie Silvas, a British songwriter I wasn't previously familiar with, contributed two superb numbers: the energetic Act 2 opening, "Calling Out My Name," and a lovely duet, "Heart Shaped Wreckage," that Jordan and Manolakos sang late in the show. If they make a cast album of this concert version of Hit List, I'd definitely buy it.