Real-life drama creates trend for theatre shows

Ashley Ball knows the struggles of being an actress in New York City: running from one audition to the next, praying for callbacks, waiting by the phone and agonizing over what the writers, producers and directors want from her.

 Ball, a Calgary-born actress, understands the struggles depicted on NBC’s new theatre-based television show “Smash.” The show, which premiered on Feb. 6, explores the hardships that come from being in show business.

“Anything that promotes the industry, gets people interested and creates more jobs is a beautiful thing,” Ball said.

And promoting the industry is what this new breed of show is doing – for better or worse.

Like “Glee,” “Smash” is a music-driven show deeply routed in the New York City theatre scene and is part of television’s newest trend. More so than any other time in the past, there is a strong presence of Broadway talent and musical-based shows on the small screen.

“Smash” features original songs by Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of “Hairspray.” The show also displays veteran Broadway talent like Megan Hilty from “9 to 5: The Musical,” Christian Borle from “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and Brian d’Arcy James from “Shrek the Musical.” A New York City taxi flies down Broadway displaying a poster for NBC’s new show “Smash.”


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

“Smash” follows two composers who are creating a new Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. After acquiring a producer and a director, all that’s needed is a star – this is where the drama ensues. Two struggling actresses must now do what they can to get the coveted role.

“Sometimes the industry can be painfully random,” Ball said. “You never know what is going to resonate with the audition panel.”

And although the show has a grasp on the stress that the creation of a musical can cause, she believes that it’s only a partial portrayal of the business. Some of the story lines in “Smash” are beyond the norm of the business.

“Generally, and thankfully,” Ball said, “sleeping with the director/producer/head usher/dog handler is something that TV invented to make things seem more interesting. It just doesn’t happen.”

Jean-Pierre Fournier, the senior theatre performance instructor at Mount Royal University, sees a more accurate portrayal of the industry in the new show. Fournier said that a situation very commonly found in the theatre community is where two actors are offered the same part. It then becomes a struggle to figure out who will be given the role.

Dramatic occurrences, “bizarre as they are,” Fournier said, are drawn from real-life situations.

“We draw on what we know,” he said. “These things actually do happen.”

“Generally and thankfully, sleeping with the director/producer/head usher/dog handler is something that TV invented to make things seem more interesting. It just doesn’t happen.”
— Ashley Ball

It’s not difficult to see how such a competitive business makes good television, but why have these shows just recently hit the small screen?

Justine Baker started watching “Smash” because she was a fan of the show’s star Katharine McPhee from American Idol, but has since become a fan of Broadway musicals. Seeing a Broadway musical in New York City, she said, is on her bucket list.

“Perhaps it’s the surge of pop music in musicals,” Ball said. “Like every other industry in a recession, musical theatre needs to go to great lengths to sell their product and pop music seems to be a successful way to do that.”

Combining traditional theatre music, by composers like Shaiman and Stephen Sondheim (“Sunday in the Park with George” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”), with contemporary hits is drawing attention to this struggling industry, she says. So far, this strategy seems to be working,

“A lot of my friends in the theatre industry had really positive things to say about (the show),” Ball said. “In New York, we’re all one or two degrees of separation from people who are working on the show directly, so obviously we’re cheering for it to be wildly successful.”

NBC reported that the premiere of “Smash” garnered 11.8 million viewers in the United States. In comparison to the successful “Harry’s Law,” which premiered in the same time slot last year, “Smash” had a 1.03 per cent increase. This is the highest rating NBC has experienced since the premier of “Heroes” in 2006.

skingsmith@cjournal.ca