Theresa Rebeck has terrific time-management skills. She is the creator and show-runner of Smash, the highly touted new TV series about the making of a (fictitious) Broadway musical. In the five months it's been in production, Rebeck has found time to premiere a (real) Broadway comedy, Seminar starring Alan Rickman, and two other new plays in prominent regional theaters, Poor Behavior and Dead Accounts. Each of them, like most of her twenty-five or so other projects over the past two decades, has its merits but her career is most admirable in the aggregate. Steady and reliable, Theresa Rebeck gives professionalism a good name.
Her Smash pilot script works, appropriately, like the effective book to a Broadway musical. It sets up the milieu and wide swath of characters with economy and precision. It builds adroitly to the musical numbers and – the true showstoppers in TV – the commercials. On the downside, Rebeck treats the theater world with the same hazy focus as the musical's creators approach their subject, Marilyn Monroe.
Cliches start accruing from the first shot. The fresh-faced ingenue from Iowa opens the pilot singing “Over the Rainbow.” The louche director-choreographer Derek invites her to his loft for a late night “audition,” and she's surprised when he asks her to show him “everything she's got.” There's much talk about how we're all just dreamers, but sometimes our dreams don't mix with reality. Monroe is referred to twice as “fresh and innocent.” Debra Messing as the lyricist calls her a saint. All this sweetness and light is not found in the teleplay's original draft and comes across as the type of pandering found in Broadway shows aimed at the tourist market. Eighty years ago, 42nd St. had more grit.
Whether a viewer's taste runs towards Sondheim or away from any musical, the talent behind and in front of the cameras provides ample pleasures. One shorthand moment of movement in which Messing and Tony-nominee Christian Borle as her writing partner cross their legs in tandem limns a long-standing relationship. Each episode features at least one original song by Hairspray's Tony-winning team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. So far they're good and well-handled. In contrast to Glee, they're grounded in reality – cutting a demo, presenting a workshop, prepping for an audition – and flow sinuously into visual fantasy with much less self-consciousness than the producers' own movie musical, Chicago.