NEW YORK — Marilyn Monroe, lit by a lone spotlight, is onstage at the United Palace Theater singing her heart out.
Before the last triumphant note fades, a well-heeled audience leaps to its feet in an enthusiastic ovation.
And then, over the next three hours, they’ll cue up the playback and do it 11 more times.
It’s a musical number shooting day in late December on the NBC drama “Smash,” and every angle of the performance must be captured by the many cameras scattered in the aisles beside and behind the audience of well-behaved extras.
The vintage showplace is abuzz. Official-looking people with headsets, clipboards, and cellphones mill about. A director talks to camera operators about shot composition. Costume designer Joseph Aulisi is asked to look at a dress for an upcoming scene. The show’s primary songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman confer with the actress between takes. A few of the other actors sit in the audience out of shooting range to cheer on their castmate. If it takes a village to craft a Broadway musical, it takes an even bigger village to craft a TV show about making a Broadway musical.
And although this Washington Heights theater is a wee bit north of the Great White Way, all involved with the series say, in its second season, which kicks off Tuesday at 9 p.m., that’s exactly the direction “Smash” is headed.
In its first 15-episode season, the show attempted to chronicle the journey of “Bombshell,” a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, from page to stage. But along the way it got bogged down in tangential family and romantic dramas and took the singing out of the theater and into bowling alleys and bar mitzvahs in ways that strained credulity, even for a show about musicals.
In an attempt to right the ship, new show runner Joshua Safran (“Gossip Girl”), who replaced creator and celebrated playwright Theresa Rebeck, has plumped up the theatrical element while shaking up the cast.
This season, drama with “Bombshell” ’s path to Broadway will continue while another musical by a different songwriting team will try to find its feet.
“I think what this season does is deliver on the promise that we’re a show about the nuts and bolts of making musicals,” says Christian Borle, who plays “Bombshell” composer Tom Levitt, and who himself knows a thing or two about Broadway success, having won a Tony last year for his role in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” “I think that’s what people were craving more of.”
Much of what people weren’t craving, or more accurately were gleefully nitpicking with a brutal passion on the Web, or by telling the actors on the street — “They have no problem telling me exactly what they think,” Megan Hilty, who plays “Bombshell” actress Ivy Lynn, says with a laugh — has been jettisoned for the second season.
Out are the husband and son of Debra Messing’s songwriting character, Julia Houston; Dev (Raza Jaffrey), the aspiring politician fiance of “Bombshell” actress Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee); and, most importantly, the scheming producer’s assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero).
“He’s such a sweet kid and he suffered such derision,” says Borle of Cepero. “But there was an interesting dynamic about it because people were so adamant about [their complaints] but there was, underneath it, a caring and real passion.” Hilty agrees. “I think it’s great because it means, either way, they’re invested in the story and the characters.”
Rebeck’s departure was tough for all, but this troupe understands better than most the concept of the show going on.
“We all owe so much to her because she created this, she created Ivy,” says Hilty. “It was really shocking to me. But I, myself, have left things or been replaced. It’s an unfortunate part of the business but luckily we’re in good hands with Josh and we’re moving forward.” McPhee agrees, saying Safran understood that she wanted to take her character to a more mature, polished place. “When I met him it was a perfect marriage.”
In addition to character growth, an infusion of fresh blood comes in the form of Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”) and Andy Mientus (“Spring Awakening”) as an aspiring Broadway composer duo as well as a long list of guests including Jennifer Hudson, Sean Hayes, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Liza Minnelli, and the return of Bernadette Peters. “It’s like gay heaven,” says Shaiman, chuckling, of the all-star roster.
The dynamic duo of Shaiman and Wittman, the Tony Award-winning composers of “Hairspray,” promise everything will be bigger and better this year.
“There’s a huge injection of new characters and there’s a new sound because of the other show,” says Wittman. “There’s a lot more music than there was last year.”
That’s music to McPhee’s ears. She says her own biggest complaint during the first season was that often there was only one musical number that would happen late in an episode “and I just found that to be inconsistent with how they were advertising the show. Not every episode is going to be full of musical numbers, you’d have to have an endless budget. But I think that’s really what I was hoping for in this new season and it wasn’t just Karen standing on a stage in a karaoke bar. I think Josh has been very creative as to how to integrate music in a musical theater way and a non-musical theater way through fantasy.”
For his part, Safran, in a separate interview at the recent television critics press tour, says he was a big fan of the first season and hopes to keep intact the elements that viewers did enjoy, especially the musical numbers like the one shooting on this day for the 12th episode of the 18-episode season.
“One of the fun things in the second season of the show is that we do have more original music, more musical sequences per episode, more diverse musical styles,” he says. “When you look at Broadway right now, there’s shows that take place in the 1800s. There’s shows that [take place] today. It really is a bigger worldview, and I just wanted to find a way to represent that Broadway on ‘Smash’ as well.”
As the cast and crew break for dinner in the lobby, Borle reflects on his “string of ‘pinch me’ moments” on “Smash,” critical barbs and all.
“Yesterday, I walked up on stage to do a quick thing with Bernadette Peters,” he says with a smile. “Turning to her and saying, ‘So how have you been since last I saw you?’ That is not something I’ve gotten used to.”