10 Years Later, We’re Somehow Living in an Episode of ‘Smash’
It’s been 10 years since the leading ladies of Smash implored us to let them be our stars. NBC’s musical series, which centered on the creation of a fictional Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe, started as a promising pilot that premiered after that year’s Super Bowl. But the show soon devolved into a soapy cautionary tale both onscreen and off, and ultimately, it lasted just two infamous seasons.
Yet despite its relatively short and largely reviled run, Smash has managed to tap-dance its way into the zeitgeist again and again. On the final season of Girls, a show that also premiered in 2012 and featured a pilot scene with our heroine’s mother played by Becky Ann Baker, Andrew Rannells’s Elijah sings “Let Me Be Your Star” to audition for a fictional White Men Can’t Jump Broadway musical. (Naturally, he nabs the role.) Much of the cast of Smash, including Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty, Debra Messing, and Christian Borle, has reunited over the years—in 2015 for a sold-out Bombshell concert and in 2020 for a COVID-era Zoom.
Even now, a decade after its premiere, Smash is curiously relevant. Living in 2022 feels a little like enduring the show’s jarring second-season retooling—a shocking outcome for anyone who assumed this incredibly niche series would fade from memory once the curtain fell.
What, exactly, do I mean: Let’s toss on one of Julia’s infamous scarves and examine the evidence:
All This Funny Girl Drama. Smash’s central storyline is the battle for the role of Marilyn Monroe, as fought between seasoned Broadway ensemble member Ivy Lynn (Hilty) and Iowa-born newcomer Karen Cartwright (McPhee). This war causes turmoil onstage and off for Bombshell—a struggle that’s apparently been mirrored by the actual Broadway revival of Funny Girl. Theater folk gasped when they learned that star Beanie Feldstein would leave the titular role earlier than expected and be replaced by Lea Michele. Of course, there are thematic parallels here—Michele’s years-long campaign to play Fanny Brice feels especially Ivy-esque, while questions about Feldstein’s experience place her closer to Karen territory. There’s also the matter of reported discord between Feldstein and her understudy, Julie Benko, as well as Feldstein and Michele apparently sharing the same theater agent, all of which seem like plotlines ripped from the Smash writers’ room.
There are also literal connections between both titles. Funny Girl’s director, Michael Mayer (who also helmed this year’s Michele-centered Spring Awakening reunion special), directed multiple episodes of Smash, including its pilot. Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the Funny Girl revival’s book, appears as himself in season two of Smash. And who could forget this incredible mention of Michele in season one, episode eight? “Lea Michele? Lea Michele?!” Jeremy Jordan’s Jimmy cries at the mere mention of her being cast in his show. Director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) replies, “You say it one more time, she magically appears.”
Marilyn Mania. Ms. Monroe has been a fixture of pop culture for decades, but Smash’s laser focus on the icon now seems almost prescient. This year alone has seen CNN’s Reframed: Marilyn Monroe in January, Netflix’s The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes in April, and—in September—the NC-17 biopic Blonde, starring Ana de Armas. Of course, Kim Kardashian also made headlines at this year’s Met Gala for donning (and destroying?) a gown once worn by Monroe.
More and More Movie-Inspired Musicals. “Revivals and movies—why doesn’t anyone do new musicals anymore?” Julia (Messing) opines in the show’s pilot. While her gripe was true in 2012, it’s only been cemented in the past decade. A number of revivals and film-inspired musicals have opened on Broadway since, including Rocky, Waitress (once led by McPhee), Pretty Woman, Mean Girls, and this fall’s Almost Famous. Smash may also have something to do with the onslaught of biopic musicals such as Diana: The Musical, The Cher Show, and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.