On Monday night, NBC is set to launch what is arguably one of their most-anticipated shows of the entire season in “Smash” — a show based almost entirely around the construction of a Marilyn Monrie-themed Broadway musical. The production is examined from all sides, whether it be the stars, the crew, and of course the people putting money into the musical in hopes of turning it into a success.
In showing this panoramic look at the characters, we are also introduced into their personal lives — and thus, we meet Brian d’Arcy James‘ character of Frank., the husband of one of the musical’s primary lyricists in Debra Messing’s Julia. The stage veteran James (who ironically is not on stage during the pilot) has appeared in a number of productions including “Carousel” and the title character in “Shrek the Musical,” and is really just one of many actors on the show familiar with how Broadway works both on stage and off.
I recently sat down with James to find out some of his thoughts about the new series.
Matt Carter: First and foremost, congratulations on the show! The pilot is quite good.
Brian d’Arcy James: Thank you.
So I’m curious what the experience is like for you, going from working on Broadway to starring on a show about Broadway. Is it surreal?
Yeah. If there was ever a show to jump into and have a limited amount of research to do (laughs), it was this one for me. That’s a credit to all the people who hired the cast the way they did — they were very mindful of people’s experience in this world, which I think to a great degree is going to add to the authenticity of what the world is.
You say the word ‘authenticity,’ so I’m curious just how accurate you found the show’s depiction of starting up a Broadway show to be versus your own experiences.
I think it’s very accurate. Obviously you have to pump it a little bit — or as [star] Anjelica Huston has said, “put a shine on it.” For the most part, I like that this first season is about the workshop stage — which is putting up a show in a barren rehearsal room with tape on the floor and [basic set pieces] — [it’s] the very slow and interesting process of watching something evolve into a full theatrical production. They’re being very true to that trajectory, which I really appreciate.
That kind of answers what was one of my other questions in what we were going to see play out through the first season — so it’s going to be the road to opening night?
[Creator] Teresa [Rebeck] has explained it — and we’re getting close to finishing our 15 episodes. It’s going into a workshop stage where Anjelica Huston, the producer, is trying to raise money from people interested [to put on] a $200,000 workshop where she can attract more investors. They begin the casting process, hire the actors, and the workshop process is deemed worthy enough to move to a production stage in Boston for what is lovingly called an out-of-town tryout. That is still a tradition today in the theater, especially for musicals. It’s not the rule — some shows skip that for all kinds of reasons, but this is how our first season ends with our show going in for an out-of-town tryout.
So for people who are getting ready to watch the premiere, how would you describe your character?
Frank is a stay-at-home dad who is married to an extraordinarily successful lyricist in the Broadway community. Her passion is the Broadway stage, and my passion was that of [being] a teacher. However, I haven’t been teaching in quite a while — and when you meet Frank, he is considering going back to that road and finding out he may want to satisfy his desires and pursue his dreams … on top of that, they’re trying to adopt a child. They have a 17-year old, but Debra [Messing]’s character is considering doing another musical — which will severely impact that process.
You get the opportunity to work a great deal with Debra, someone who I and many others are such fans of. What has that experience been like?
She’s iconic. What she has achieved in her work — particularly with ‘Will & Grace’ [as] an incredible comedienne — what I love about this role for her is that it’s not necessarily that. It’s a different kind of character. Rougher around the edges, I suppose.
Working with her is really quite incredible, because like yourself I’m really a huge fan of her. Like all great stars, she made herself completely available and open and gracious upon our first meeting, and really set me at ease and [told me] that we were doing this together. That’s all I really needed to be set at ease. The rest is just fantastic work — and I’ve learned quite a bit from her in watching someone who is so steeped in television and how that process goes. It’s a new world for me, so I’ve had not only the luxury of getting to know her as a person, but watching her as a professional.
You guys have some great guest stars coming up in Nick Jonas (someone with stage experience), and Uma Thurman — what do you think is making these sort of stars drawn to this project? Do you think it is the opportunity to combine a little bit of the stage and screen?
I think it’s the quality of the storytelling. Obviously Nick Jonas, Bernadette Peters [are] people who have achieved great things as actors in their own right, but also as musical actors, they get to exercise that on this show for television. I think for anybody who has been able to achieve that or has that in their pocket, it’s such a great platform to strut their stuff … I think the attraction there is pretty visible.
I have to [believe] that the door is opening wider and wider on TV for stories to be told with the inclusion of music as a means to tell a story. That’s exciting to me as a person in the show, and as a person who watches television.
Over the past five years, we’ve probably seen more success with musical television than the two decades before it combined. You guys are getting to come on NBC after a popular show in “The Voice,” and also the day after the Super Bowl. So what is the mood of the cast and crew? Are they excited? Hopeful about success?
I’ll speak for myself, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that everyone is feeling appreciated and comforted by the fact that NBC and [network programming head] Robert Greenblatt and everyone who works for the network is behind the show. I’m coming at it from a different perspective — my job is to come in and act, and to hopefully do a good job. We’ve done the bulk of our work with the exception of three more episodes to shoot. We know what we’re doing and the marks we’re trying to hit — so we feel really good in that sense.
As for the rest, it’s like opening a big present on Christmas morning. I’m so excited! I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
So one last quick thing for you — let’s say there are people on the fence about watching the show. What do you tell them to convince them to tune in?
It’s really two things. It’s wish-fulfillment, and it’s really anyone who ever dreams of achieving something — this is what this is about. The context is Broadway, but it’s really about taking a chance on something that they love. I think people can relate to that.
Secondly, I think what’s going to draw people back on a weekly basis hopefully is the relationships between the characters and how they respond to success and failure. You are watching people in the midst of great success, great crisis … watching the things that life throws at them, in this case Broadway is the context and you achieve high highs and low lows in this world. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how people respond to that.
If you haven’t seen any footage of “Smash” yet, you can check out the trailer to the left of this article.