Smash! Battle of the musicals

As Glee loses its lustre, it faces a challenge from a series about a Marilyn Monroe show, with Steven Spielberg among the producers

With the wheels starting to fall off the Glee juggernaut following a disappointing second season and the news that three of the show's biggest names won't return after the third season, the stage is ripe for the arrival of a new pretender.

Enter Smash, the let's-put-the-show-on-right-here tale of a Marilyn Monroe musical and the disparate band of losers, dreamers and outright schemers who hope to bring it to Broadway, which is arousing interest among UK television channels.

The new drama certainly boasts a top-notch pedigree: the cast includes Angelica Huston as a seen-it-all producer, Debra Messing as one half of a frazzled writing duo, Jack Davenport as a suitably saturnine director, the 2006 American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee as a hope-filled ingénue and Broadway star Megan Hilty as the musical's would-be-star.

As if that weren't enough it's co-produced by Steven Spielberg with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (the producers of Chicago and Hairspray), written by acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck (Omnium Gatherum, The Understudy), directed by Spring Awakening's Tony-award winning director Michael Mayer and will feature songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the duo behind the musical version of Hairspray).

Indeed, the American network NBC is so confident of success that it's not only already signed a record deal with Columbia for the soundtrack similar to the label's deal with Glee but has also handed it a prime launch date. Smash will start on Monday 6 February, the day after the network airs the SuperBowl, and it will no doubt use plenty of its precious SuperBowl ad space to remind viewers to tune in.

It's all part of a new confidence at NBC following Robert Greenblatt becoming president. The former president of cable network Showtime has a reputation for both turning around ailing television channels and supporting risk-taking drama, and since his arrival NBC has increasingly attempted to compete with the Fox network on its own territory.

Thus in January it launched singing competition The Voice, which deliber

ately positioned itself as a kinder, more genuine American Idol (and subsequently became a ratings hit). Smash will market itself as a grown-up version of Glee – and in the process hope to make inroads into the latter's domination of the music charts.

But can the new show, with its emphasis on musical theatre, truly hope to take on the broader, more populist Glee? Former Will & Grace star, Debra Messing, whose character juggles her desire for adoption with the demands of creating a Broadway hit, believes that there are huge differences between the two.

"Smash is similar in that there is singing but I think that's where the similarities end," she told Entertainment Weekly. "Glee is a comedy and ours is a drama. And Glee is in a fantastic sort of elevated world and Smash is completely naturalistic, a very real look at life in New York as an actor, producer, composer, lyricist, what have you."

Certainly the recently released preview, which does a deft job of introducing all the characters – in particular McPhee's likeable Karen and Davenport's world-weary Dere – suggests that Smash could be seen as A Chorus Line to Glee's Fame (the TV version, naturally) with a combination of sharp one-liners, entertaining characters and just enough Broadway schmaltz to win over those who feel that Glee has lost its sardonic sting.

That said Greenblatt was careful to sound a cautious note, admitting at last week's Television Critics Association event that the show might only appeal to real Broadway fans: "Smash is maybe the most adventurous show that we have, and ultimately it may be the most narrow show we do," he said. "It's hard to know where we're going to come out on the continuum there."

And what of Glee itself? The show's creator Ryan Murphy recently admitted it had become "too preachy" while Fox's programming president Kevin Reilly promised that after an erratic second season, season three would see a return to what it does best: mixing sardonic oneliners with show-stopping performances.

"It's a very back-to-basics year," Reilly said last week. "There's not going to be guest stars or tributes. We're going to focus on our core cast."

Yet whether or not this succeeds, the arrival of Smash in February, coupled with the return of The Voice, signals that NBC is increasingly serious about its battle for the musical hearts of America – and with the amount of talent involved in Smash it's not easy to predict who will win.

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