'Smash' premiere: Chicago's early peek at NBC's Broadway musical drama

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Image Credit: NOLAN WELLS for EW

NBC chose a nice but rather nondescript venue for the Chicago premiere of the show often described as the network’s best hope for ratings salvation this midseason. Last night, executive producers Neil Meron (pictured, below right) and Craig Zadan (below left) joined star Bryan d’Arcy James (below center) at Chicago’s new Showcase Icon movie theater for one of nine premieres that took place in cities across the country. Although the Chicago event was missing some of the flash and red carpet pizazz of Hollywood, it did have one thing: a dedicated theater crowd. And that’s one group expected to fall in love with Smash, a musical drama about the production of a Broadway show based the life of Marilyn Monroe.

James, who plays Frank Houston, husband to Debra Messing’s songwriting character, Julia, is actually a Windy City alum (he studied at Northwestern University and started his professional career in Chicago). He emphasized the attention Smash pays to every aspect of putting on a musical, right down to the arduous audition process and glamor-less rehearsals. “From a producer trying to get the legal rights to an idea, to what’s in a room when someone auditions — what does the table look like, who’s there, who’s opening the door to bring people in — all of the connective tissue of that world is very accurate and it’s very non-sexy in a way.”

Of course, “Music + TV show” makes comparisons to Glee impossible to avoid (at least before you’ve actually seen the far more dramatic Smash), and producers Zadan and Meron were emphatic during the Q&A session Monday night in giving credit where credit is due, thanking Ryan Murphy’s show for proving that a TV show with singing and dancing could be a commercial success. “Thank God for Glee,” Zadan remarked. “If it weren’t for Glee, we couldn’t be here. Glee has given us the opportunity we never would have had.”

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Image Credit: NOLAN WELLS for EW

But Zadan and Meron also emphasized how Smash is different. For one, Smash is the first television series featuring original music. The show will feature one or two contemporary pop songs in each episode, as well 15 original songs for the Marilyn musical — around one per episode (and naturally, the music will be available for download around the time each episode airs, with plans for at least one album, though those details have yet to be finalized).

Zadan thinks Smash, and its focus on auditioning and performing for experts wielding the up-or-down thumb of approval, is actually more comparable to competition reality shows. “There’s an element that’s present in American IdolThe Voice, So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With the Stars. There are all these talented people competing against each other. So this is the first scripted show that deals with that wish fulfillment.”

Another tie to the reality TV world: Katharine McPhee, who stars as Broadway hopeful Karen Cartwright. If the applause from the Chicago audience was any indication, McPhee could be poised for a major breakout this midseason. Assuming, that is, that the show resonates with a broad audience. James is confident it will. “It’s about how people respond to success, how they respond to failure, attempting to live their dreams, going out and taking a shot, how people rise or fall,” he said. “That’s the thing that’s gonna make people watch. The people and how they behave, in good ways and bad.”

The curtain goes up on Smash on Monday, Feb. 6 at 10 p.m.

Click through for more images from the Chicago premiere of Smash.

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