Ten Years Out, Let Us Reflect Upon the Smash Pilot

Photo: NBC

What’s your favorite part of the “Let Me Be Your Star” sequence in the pilot of Smash, or do you not have an opinion on one of the most enduring pieces of television made in the 2010s? For me, it’s the moment when the lyric “the past is on the cutting-room floor” plays as Anjelica Huston struts along a mirrored hallway, as if to specifically remind us that her character is divorced and angry. But there are many options to choose from: The way Megan Hilty, dressed as Marilyn Monroe and wearing pink headphones, hails a cab by crouching down; the harmony when Katharine McPhee and Hilty sync up on “choose me”; the fact that McPhee’s hair remains brunette even when the people watching her audition are imagining her as Monroe.

Not that I ever need an excuse to watch the Smash pilot, but this time around, I went back to watch it because, as of February 6, we’ll be ten years out from the airing of this momentous television event. Smash was, as covered thoroughly here on Vulture, one of the messiest shows to air on network television. NBC launched the series about the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical with great fanfare, including a haunted Super Bowl commercial that features more terrible men than you can count, and trumpeted the fact that it would bring all that Broadway glamour to television (Fox was airing Glee; it was a different time) with an impressive pedigree of producers (Steven Spielberg, far before he got into making West Side Story, embraced Broadway as an executive producer on Smash).

But things ran off the rails quickly: After the pilot, the show accelerates into convoluted plots about peanut poisoning and Debra Messing wanting to adopt. Creator Theresa Rebeck was fired after the first season. The second brought on Gossip Girl alum Joshua Safran and introduced a rival, Rent-like musical about pop stars. The show became more coherent, but also less compelling, and then it ended. Smash has since lived on as an object of cult fascination via a concert performance, numerous covers of its songs at places like 54 Below, and the constant threat that former NBC head Bob Greenblatt might turn it into an actual Broadway show.

We’re not here to try to sum up the whole cultural legacy of Smash but to simply discuss its pilot. Smash had a really good pilot! Divorced from all of what the show became, it alone is an effective piece of table setting for a compelling series. We start with Karen (McPhee), who is hustling to different auditions and singing “Over the Rainbow” (get it? Because she sang it on Idol) to uninterested casting directors. The show introduces a scarfed Messing and Christian Borle as Julia Houston and Tom Levitt, a writing duo à la Ahrens and Flaherty, who complain that nobody makes new music anymore. Their new assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), has been reading a book about Monroe while house-sitting for Tom and suggests they do a Marilyn Monroe musical. (Ellis has also chosen to put macaroni and cheese and meat loaf in the oven in advance of their arrival, a clear sign that things are gonna trend badly for him.) From there, we loop around to an introduction to Hilty’s Ivy Lynn as a toiling member of the ensemble of Tom and Julia’s vaguely defined angel-themed (?) musical. They enlist her to sing some of their Monroe song ideas, and Ellis leaks footage of this online. Theater gossipmonger Michael Riedel, name-checked constantly, ends up liking the leaked demos, and we’re off to the races.

By that, I mean somehow Julia and Tom immediately have enough songs and vague ideas for a musical — something that usually takes months, if not years — for Huston, in the midst of a divorce in which she’s fighting to keep 100 percent of her gigantic brooches, to call them up for a meeting and decide she is going to produce their Monroe musical. This is all a bit of TV sleight of hand to get everyone into a rehearsal room quickly, but it’s a sign of some of the fissures to come as Smash moves forward. Others include: Brian d’Arcy James (in a long series of screen roles in which he is cast adjacent to musical performances but not allowed to sing; see Hawkeye and West Side Story) and Emory Cohen (pre-Brooklyn! We didn’t know he was good yet!) are entangled in a whole plot with Julia in which she can’t work on the musical right now because she has to try to impress an adoption agency.

Then there’s the introduction of the bad straight boy of musical theater, Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), the director that Huston hires for the musical against Tom’s objections. He becomes obsessed with Karen’s go-girl, give-us-nothing performance of “Beautiful” and invites her to his apartment late at night in order to pressure her to have sex with him in exchange for the part. Karen sings a little “Happy Birthday Mr President” to him and then walks off, a scene that feels like a cut-down-for-network take on the Showtime version of the Smash pilot. How was this show ever going to accommodate Derek as a main character? Later on in the series, Smash tried to course-correct with Derek by having other women come forward against him, in a pre–Me Too moment of the kind that hasn’t really even materialized within Broadway itself, but it always struggled to figure out if it was painting him as a troubled rogue or just a monster.

Before you can think too hard about any of that, the Smash pilot launches into its indelible final sequence. There’s the twinkle of piano keys as Karen wipes her mirror and then “faaadddeee innnn on a girl.” Whatever inspired Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to pour everything they had into a big number for a fake Marilyn Monroe musical, I thank them, because “Let Me Be Your Star” just works. It’s supposed to be a solo but somehow works better as a duet, doubles as a song about Monroe and both Ivy’s and Karen’s own desperation, and really gets everything it can out of the rhyming on sound of “Norma Jean’s goonnnnne / She’s moving onnnn.” It’s a sequence that’s so good, and so thrilling, that, like a good act-one finale in a musical, it makes you want to stay right there in your seat and click play on the next episode.

Let me tell you from experience that you do not actually have to click play on the next episode. Just enjoy the Smash pilot (you can buy or rent it on Amazon Prime) as a beautiful artifact in and of itself. Well, maybe go watch clips of “Don’t Forget Me” and “They Just Keep Moving the Line.” Those are pretty good songs too. But otherwise, we can start mooooving on.

Ten Years Out, Let Us Reflect Upon the Smash Pilot