Katharine McPhee on ’Smash’

by Fred Topel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday May 22, 2013

Smash has turned out to be the big gamble that didn't catch on, despite dramatic changes behind the scenes, heavy promotion, a new time and an additional narrative that focused on twenty-somethings putting on a show that would end up competing with "Bombshell" for a Tony. (The winner will be decided this Sunday in the shows two-hour swan song.)

But "Smash" barely made it to this second season, despite its pedigree of producers, which included Steven Spielberg and Scott Rudin. NBC decided to give the show a second chance, even though its ratings were only passable and each episode cost upwards of $4 million. But for "Smash" addicts, it was the behind-the-scenes drama that proved more interesting as the show ramped up for season two.

The show's creator, playwright Theresa Rebeck, was axed as the show-runner, and Joshua Safran (from "Gossip Girl") came in to give the show a new direction. Some cast members (including the devious assistant Ellis) were cut; others, including a trio of Broadway neophytes -- Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan), Kyle (Andy Mientus) and Ana (Krysta Rodriguez) - were added; as was the subplot involving a musical they were writing. And star power was added in Jennifer Hudson's recurring role as Broadway star Veronica Moore who is in the midst of career issues.

Dramatic changes

Over the season, the one character that went through the most dramatic changes was Karen Cartwright, played by Katharine McPhee, the girl from the Midwest who comes to New York to find show business success and, almost overnight, finds herself vying for a title role in a $10 million dollar musical. At the end of last season she was chosen to play Marilyn Monroe when "Bombshell" tried out in Boston; but after a legal hassle put the show on hold, this season McPhee lost the role to her rival - Ivy Lynn, played by Megan Hilty - who took the role to Broadway. (Ivy was also instrumental in Karen’s break-up with her boyfriend Dev in last year’s season finale.)

Not that Karen was without a project: she dived into an original musical, "The Hit List," being put together by Jimmy and Kyle that, over the season, becomes the downtown hit that could sneak onto Broadway and take the Tony Award from the bigger-budgeted "Bombshell." And as if their rivalry couldn’t get any more pronounced, McPhee is up against Hilty for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony - only adding to the tension between them.

Earlier this season Karen brought Jimmy and Kyle to the attention of British director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), who takes the team under his wing, but not without much drama from the temperamental Jimmy (the magnetic Jordan), with whom Karen complicated matters by dating.

Cautionary tale

For McPhee the story line offers a cautionary tale for those hoping to make it in New York theater, one for her that recalls the Golden Rule. "I think there’s definitely an important lesson for people who can be incredibly talented and maybe don’t necessarily have the best attitude," McPhee said earlier this year at a press event for the show. "That only gets you so far. There are some exceptions to the rule I suppose, people who are incredibly talented but don’t always treat people in the best way. I would say for the most part, your chances are a little bit better when you are super talented and then you have the respect that goes with it. That’s what I like to live by at least."

McPhee, the "American Idol" alumnus and recording star, came to "Smash" a bit green as to the rigors of making an hour-long network drama, especially one punctuated with elaborate musical sequences as this one. "I’m a little bit more used to it," McPhee said. "Last season was crazy. The whole thing, just the schedule was crazy, loving every moment of it but it was crazy. It was definitely something different. This season I think I’m a lot more used to it."

One welcome change for McPhee was that the musical load didn’t all fall on her and Hilty as it did in season one. Early on, Hudson performed regularly; as did the Tony-nominated Jordan (who came to "Smash" from the current Broadway hit "Newsies"); even Tony winner Christian Borle and guest-regular Bernadette Peters (another Tony winner) got vocal time.

"I think with the new addition of characters, I found it easier to have a little bit more time, because as you can see, not all of the numbers are between me and Megan. We have several people to split the numbers up with, so that’s been good. I think any TV show has a demanding schedule. For me and Megan and some of the other characters who do all the musical numbers, we spent our days off in rehearsals and in recording studios which was a nice breath of fresh air to do something different than just being on the set every day. It’s definitely not a complaint. I love my job. I keep saying that I love my job."

Hilty is Marilyn

Her rivalry with Hilty over the Marilyn role subsided when she took the part in "The Hit List," a pop-oriented musical with a "Rent"-sensibility. (It even echoes that show with the untimely death of its librettist.)

While she enjoyed her on-again/off-again relationship with playing Marilyn, she feels if a real "Bombshell" were to appear on Broadway, the role would belong to Hilty, "If there was a Marilyn musical to come out, I would put my money on Megan Hilty, but that’s just me. So I think I’m much better off in a more contemporary musical."

Singing original "Bombshell" music and covers of hit songs in between kept McPhee on the iTunes charts as fans download songs the day after episodes airs. It kept her music playing between her albums, but McPhee actually feels a new album is long overdue.

"I would say this music doesn’t represent me as an individual artist. If anything, it’s actually been more challenging to find the time with this kind of a schedule, to work on my own personal music. Hopefully I think 2013 I’ll actually finally get a chance to have my own personal music out, but it’s been really difficult with the schedule and I say that in a good way, because the show is obviously the first priority, just contractually. You can’t focus on anything [else]. I thought in the beginning I’d be able to split my attention, on weekends I’ll go record and I’ll just work Monday through Friday on the show. I just find it incredibly challenging and just really wasn’t good at splitting my attention between my own personal music and the show. It’s too challenging."

A pop artist

McPhee’s personal music is perhaps less show tune-y. "I still see myself as a pop artist but it’s a very broad thing, pop music. I’m still sort of determining. I definitely know much more about myself as an artist, as a personal musician but as far as all the specific sounds that will be in this album that will come out in 2013, this is definitely the year that I’m going to put out a personal record and hopefully it will be not too soon after Smash is completed."

As for "American Idol," which concluded its twelfth season this past week, McPhee reflected that "it’s such a different show now than when I was on the show. I mean, they get so many more things than we ever did, just in terms of earpieces and things like that, the rehearsal time that they get that we didn’t have when we on the show. It’s just a very different show.

"And I would just say, I guess, I really did not know myself when I was on that show, I mean in terms of as a musician. It’s one thing if you can sing, that’s great. Good for you. But you really should know who you are as a musician because what was a big challenge for me was that I wanted to be an actress...

"I had no idea I would do as well as I did. With that came huge record contracts and all that stuff. I didn’t realize that I was going to suddenly have to have an identity as a musician, and I wasn’t ready for that. So if you’re not ready for that, you really should probably try and figure out who you are as a musician first."

The finale of Smash airs Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 9pm.


  • , 2013-05-23 04:23:38

    smash was a good show until they turned it from a story to support her singing / musical skills to a gay promotional video. Homosexuality took over the storyline in a lot of shows, and while I am happy to accept gays I certainly don’t want to promote their lifestyle, and the writers clearly had that agenda.

  • , 2013-05-28 16:05:31

    you’re referring to glee.

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