How the SmashBombshell Concert Became the Most Successful Theater Kickstarter Campaign Ever

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Photo: NBC

NBC’s musical series Smash was widely panned and only lasted two seasons, but two years after its final episode, its small but devoted contingent of fans are just as invested in its future. Earlier this month, the Actors Fund announced it would put on a Broadway benefit concert performance of Bombshell, the Marilyn Monroe musical workshopped over the course of Smash’s season that gave stars Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee space to catfight and belt to the rafters. A Kickstarter for the show, which will play at the Minskoff Theatre on June 8, has now raised over $300,000, making it the most successful theater Kickstarter campaign ever. 

“We had no idea people wanted this to happen,” says Scott Wittman, who, with Marc Shaiman, wrote the majority of the songs on Smash, including all of Bombshell. “I knew there were a lot of female impersonators doing the numbers in nightclubs across the country, but …” 

The push to bring Bombshell to Broadway began in December, when Smash producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan brought the idea of a one-night-only concert version to the Actors Fund as a potential fund-raiser. “We said, ‘Wow, sounds great,’” says Thomas Exton, the Actors Fund’s chief advancement officer. “But it’s not an inexpensive thing to do, putting on a show in a Broadway house.”

The influx of funding came thanks to Hilty, who, during a show on a Playbill cruise in Puerto Rico (yes, Playbill cruises are a thing), mentioned the benefit. “Within 24 hours, over 5,000 people had come to our website wanting to be added to our email list, so they’d be the first to hear how to get tickets,” Exton says.  He launched the Kickstarter, which, in 18 hours, raised over $200,000. The goal was $50,000 to cover production and theater rental costs; all surplus would be donated to the Actors Fund.

Kickstarter and the Actors Fund will not reveal details related to donors. But a large number — many followers of Shaiman’s on social media — clearly donated small amounts in droves, independent of one another, simply to get an early ticket alert (which came with a $25 donation). “I have a friend from Toronto who’s going to fly down for this,” said Mike Taylor, a 33-year-old marketing director in New York who also attended Smash’s more plot-driven “Hit List” musical performance (a kind of rival to Bombshell) at 54Below in New York and previously had donated to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter. “I was like, ‘I gotta get those tickets.’”

It’s Smash's music that seems to be the selling point — even fans acknowledge the plot's shortcomings. “The show itself maybe faltered a bit with the story,” Taylor said, “but the music and performances were solid. Jennifer Hudson sang a song from Smash at the Oscars this year — I would have never expected that. And why did it happen? Because it’s great music.” (And maybe also because Meron and Zadan are Oscars producers.) Amy Poe, a 31-year-old public-school-theater teacher in the Washington, D.C., area, was an early donor who heard about the concert on Twitter. “Glee to my kids was like an after-school special; they’re like, ‘That doesn’t really happen in high school.’ But showing the slow progression of theater like Smash did, that’s real to them.” Many of her students also donated, and she says they now watch Nashville because it stars Smash’s Will Chase.

Though rumors circulated during Smash’s run that Bombshell could potentially make a Broadway transfer, that was never the plan. The songs for Bombshell had to serve both the needs of the musical within the show and what was going on in the characters’ lives. As such, Bombshell never had a real book, and Shaiman and Wittman still don’t consider it viable as a stand-alone musical.

“We assumed it was never going to be a complete ‘Marilyn’ from beginning to end [when we were writing],” Wittman says. Shaiman’s Facebook followers often ask him, ‘We want to put on Bombshell, can we get the rights?”  “And I say, ‘Well, there is no Bombshell …” Shaiman says. He and Wittman, in fact, have only ever heard Bombshell’s songs beginning to end once: the day the two finished mixing the Smash cast album at a house upstate. “Scott hadn’t heard a lot of the finished mixes, and I said, ‘Well, can you brave me putting it in right now and driving to Manhattan? It’ll be the perfect amount of time to listen to the whole album,” Shaiman says. “At the end, we’ll drive off the George Washington Bridge,” Wittman added with a laugh. “We were kind of gobsmacked by it, to hear all these songs and to remember how fast we had to write them, how many hoops we had to jump through,” Shaiman says. “We were really proud of it.”

The Broadway benefit will include most of the Bombshell songs — Shaiman notes they will likely axe three songs to cut down on length. Scott Wittman and Josh Bergasse — who choreographed Smash — are directing the concert; Chase, Hilty, Katharine McPhee, Christian Borle, and Debra Messing are all confirmed to appear. “A lot of the talented people who worked on Smash had roles that didn’t require any singing, but we’re going to try to involve them,” Shaiman says. “There might end up being a Marilyn song sung by men. Also to give Megan and Kat a chance to catch their breaths. We don’t want either of them to die. Or for their throats to start bleeding.”