NBC’s ambitious new drama Smash follows the process of creating a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Vying for the lead role are stage veteran Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) and newcomer Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee).
Katharine McPhee was voted runner up on American Idol in 2007, and her debut album exploded onto the Billboard 200 chart at #2. She has also found success in films and television appearing in House Bunny and Shark Night 3D and on TV’s CSI:NY and Community.
Megan Hilty made her Broadway debut as Glinda in the musical Wicked and recently starred as Doralee Rhodes in Broadway’s 9 to5: The Musical.
Both actresses spoke of their new series, and playing rivals, at the TV Critics tour in Los Angeles.
Being a recording artist, what was it like performing all the new songs for this series?
Katharine: I love singing original songs by Marc (Shaiman) and Scott (Wittman). It’s definitely different because I’m usually singing songs that I’m hearing for the first time, and it’s such a fast pace that we’re on, and you don’t get a whole lot of time to sit with the songs and perfect them, as much as I would like to.
The series shows the drama that goes on behind-the-scenes of creating, rehearsing and bring a show to Broadway. How does it compare to your own experiences touring and being on stage?
Megan: The wonderful thing about the show is that there are so many people [involved] that come from this world that it keeps it very authentic.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been backstage, looking around, going, ‘Where’s the camera? There needs to be a camera here.’Because the drama that happens behind the curtain is way more interesting than what’s happening on the stage.
There are a lot of stereotypical themes in this such as the casting couch, backstabbing rivalry, working as a waitress, are those stereotypes there for a reason? Have you experienced all of these?
Katharine: I have worked in a restaurant. I’ve never personally experienced backstabbing, but maybe Ms Hilty has [some stories].
Megan: They’re going to be in the memoirs!
Katharine: I think there is more backstabbing in the theatre.
Megan: Yeah, I think the genius of making this idea into a series is that when you are a live performer. You’re giving so much of yourself and there’s so much at stake when you’re exposing yourself in front of hundreds of people.
That it naturally sets the tone and sets the stage for high drama, because the adrenaline’s going and the stakes are so high.
This show definitely taps into all of those things. And, yes, all of those stereotypes are there for a reason.
Is the life of Marilyn Monroe the perfect subject for a Broadway musical?
Megan: Absolutely. Her story is one of tragedy, heartbreak, glamour, love, and all the things that make for great drama, all the things that people want to watch and are intrigued by, which is why we’re still talking about her today, which is another reason to make the show.
What kind of research did you do for Marilyn?
Megan: I’m still doing it. I found every book that I could. I looked at any interview of hers where she was speaking as herself, anything I could get my hands on. I still try to keep it going as we’re shooting, just to keep that flavor in my mind. I continue to read biographies and look at pictures and interviews.
Was there any particular book that was most helpful?
Megan: Yeah, The Secret Life of Marilyn, the one that just came out. It’s a fascinating read. It covers a lot of her childhood which is really telling. It was heartbreaking.
Her relationship with her mother and hopping around from foster homes and not feeling loved or wanted anywhere carried with her throughout her life.
Are you still living in Los Angeles?
Katharine: No, I don’t live here anymore. I moved to New York for the show.
Do you like living in New York?
Katharine: I love New York City and Broadway. I’ve been going to Broadway shows and it’s really exciting for me. But of course, I’m a born and raised L.A. girl so I’m happy to be here now in the sun and the warmth.
It could have been very easy to make Ivy the cookie cutter, evil one, and yet we see many sides of her. Did that help inform her?
Megan: Absolutely, that’s a testament to the writing. You love each and every character for the good things that they do and the terrible things that they do, because that’s life. In life we don’t have villains and heroes, we all make mistakes and we all do wonderful things and I think you’ll love everybody because of that.
It’s Karen’s dream to be on Broadway. Are you living the dreams that you wanted when you were younger?
Katharine: This is better than anything I could have dreamt for myself. I wanted to be an actress. And I happened to go on American Idol because I was frustrated about where I was not getting through in the acting world.
But little did I know that I was going to have a record deal, and suddenly become a recording artist.
That was an amazing thing, but my focus after Idol too was to always go back to acting – but silently, because I know it sounds so cliché, ‘Oh, so now she wants to be an actress.’ For me I’ve always wanted to do the acting. I love theatre.
I studied theatre in college for three semesters before I dropped out. And this is just more than I could ever have imagined.
Smash airs Mondays from February 6, 2012.