'Smash' returns: Season two has new characters, plots
by David-Elijah Nahmod

Andy Mientus of Smash. Photo from NBC

Initially well-received by critics and viewers alike, the NBC musical drama Smash premiered last year to strong ratings. Presented in serialized format, Smash seemed like it was destined for success. However, the initially good word of mouth took a left turn as the season progressed, and the ratings nose-dived.

It was a show people wanted to like, and it came with quite a pedigree: Steven Spielberg as executive producer. The main storyline showed great promise: the creation of a new Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe's stormy marriage to baseball great Joe DiMaggio. Naturally, there was as much drama behind the scenes as there was in Marilyn: The Musical's book. And there was star power: Debra Messing, late of Will and Grace, signed on for the leading role of Julia, half of Marilyn's songwriting team. Her co-stars included Oscar winner Anjelica Huston as Eileen, Marilyn's producer. Uma Thurman appeared in a few episodes as a Hollywood star who hoped to make her Broadway debut as Marilyn.

As Marilyn slowly came together, there was onscreen bed-hopping aplenty. There were rivalries, backstabbing, lively musical numbers and, of course, openly gay characters. (This series was set in the New York theater world, after all.) As Tom, Julia's songwriting partner, Christian Borle, himself a seasoned Broadway vet, had a sex life that was as active as anyone else's. As season one progressed, Tom dated a handsome attorney and flirted with a chorus boy.

Then there were Megan Hilty as Ivy and Katharine McPhee as Karen. Both newcomers to episodic television (McPhee was an American Idol runner-up, Hilty was in Broadway's Wicked), they sparred beautifully as rival chorus girls who both won, and lost, the role of Marilyn at various points in the story. Both have powerful sets of pipes, which brought some of that old-fashioned Broadway razzle dazzle to the table.

But something went wrong. By the third episode, viewers were complaining of cliched, cartoonish characters and awkwardly staged musical numbers. Reports began to emerge of on-set turmoil. In spite of a viewership decline, Smash's numbers were respectful enough to warrant a second season.

It was a slightly rebooted Smash that premiered its second season episode on Feb. 5. (That episode remains available for online and on-demand viewing.) Although most of the lead players returned, a number of supporting players (and their accompanying subplots) were gone. New characters and cast members were on board, most notably the Oscar-winning vocal powerhouse Jennifer Hudson as fictional Queen of Broadway Veronica Moore. Hudson's duet with McPhee on the premiere episode is a classic example of why we love musicals. As she prepares to face the paparazzi and autograph-seekers, Veronica turns to Karen and says "This will be you in six months." It's a magical moment—Smash was indeed back.

Also joining Smash are Andy Mientus as Kyle and Jeremy Jordan as Jimmy. Kyle and Jimmy are two Broadway hopefuls, best friends and songwriting partners. In a lovely nod to the changing world we live in, Kyle is gay while Jimmy is straight. Their differing sexual identities are a non-issue, never discussed. They are who they are, and it's accepted by all as a given.

"It's a really cool approach," Mientus told Windy City Times of Kyle and Jimmy's friendship. "Their sexualities don't impact the friendship. It's realistic and sensitive."

The actor personally identifies as bisexual: "My life has been colorful and varied, though I'm now in a long term relationship with a man. There's no visibility for bisexual people. I hope to use my modicum of renown from the show to be one more voice for visibility."

Mientus is also a strong advocate for LGBT youth. "I have a long history with The Trevor Project," he said. "So many of us have backgrounds of being bullied for being queer. My work with Trevor is fun but it also means a lot."

The Pittsburgh native was studying theater at the University of Michigan when he answered an open casting call for the touring company of the musical Spring Awakening. He got the the job. "It's an amazing show," he said. "It's my generation's Rent. To be involved in it was my best possible introduction into the theater world."

After the tour, Mientus moved to New York City and, as theater people say, "made the rounds." Although he worked off-Broadway, he hasn't yet made it to the Great White Way. With Smash, he finds himself working with star performers for the very first time.

"Smash is my first time on TV," Mientus said. "It's the big leagues in the biggest way possible. The cast was so welcoming and supportive. We newcomers had each other to hang out with, but the stars were welcoming too. It was inspirational hanging out with Anjelica Huston—I realized that no matter where you go in life, people are just people."

And yet, stardom isn't Mientus' ultimate goal: "This is my medium as an artist. I just love doing it."

Season two of Smash is currently airing on NBC. Season one is available on DVD in a deluxe four-disc box set, which includes deleted scenes.

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