Cover Story

Winter TV Preview: 'Smash'

The show that everybody wanted to love -- and everybody loved to hate -- is back. And guess what? IT'S GOOD. EW had an exclusive backstage pass to the making and remaking of ''SMASH'' 2.0.

Premieres: February 5, 9PM, NBC

Jennifer Hudson is having déjà vu on the Brooklyn set of Smash. The actress, who is appearing in the second season of the theater drama, has been spending this July morning shaking and shimmying on stage as Veronica Moore, a Tony-winning Broadway diva starring in a 1960s-set musical called Beautiful, about the first African-American supermodel. Decked out in a glitzy gold gown, Hudson belts the tune ''Take a Picture ... It Lasts Longer'' as dancing paparazzi swirl around her. The lavish production number could easily be mistaken for a big-budget Oscar-bait movie musical. Enthuses Hudson, ''This is such a Dreamgirls moment!'' Unfortunately, viewers will probably never get to share in Hudson's proud moment.

Three months later the Oscar winner is back filming a new opening performance for her character. ''Take a Picture...'' has been cut and replaced with a jazzy swing number, ''Mama Makes Three.'' Beautiful is now about an Etta James-style singer in the 1960s, not a supermodel. ''We all realized that maybe that [original] introductory number did not service Veronica Moore's arc as well as this,'' says new executive producer Joshua Safran, who adds that the original scene may still pop up in a future episode. ''We went back and retrofitted a musical that closely mirrored Ronnie's emotional landscape with her mother.''

These days changes are as inevitable as stray sequins on the set of Smash. Expensive production numbers scrapped. Actors let go. Wardrobes overhauled. The ambitious NBC drama is undergoing the most involved reboot of the TV season, and no change is too big or too small when it comes to molding Smash into the blockbuster that NBC and the show's phalanx of producers hope it can be. Admits exec producer Neil Meron, ''We want the ratings to go up. We want the continued critical acceptance. We want the music to be out there and be popular. We want it all. With a show like Smash, we should have it all.''

After a tumultuous first season that made the Two and a Half Men set seem stable in contrast — it culminated in the departure of creator and showrunner Theresa Rebeck, along with several cast members — NBC is attempting to retool the Broadway drama under the guidance of Safran (Gossip Girl). His plan: more star power (Jennifer Hudson! Liza Minnelli!), more ambitious plotting (dueling musicals!), and more original music. Basically, this season could be retitled Smash 2.0: Go Big or Go Home. But lofty goals also mean even greater risks. ''Some things you'll fail with because being audacious doesn't always fly,'' says NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. ''But I think we have to be audacious or we're dead.''

A lot of people have a lot of hopes riding on Smash 2.0, first and foremost the show's 10(!) executive producers, including Hollywood's biggest director, Steven Spielberg; Meron and Craig Zadan (the Oscar-winning Chicago); and Tony-winning composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray). This impressive pedigree made Smash the most high-profile premiere of 2012, and the series started strong with a stellar pilot, which followed the team behind a new Marilyn Monroe musical called Bombshell, including the two starlets vying for the lead, Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty).

Then something went wrong. Actually, several things: The tone whiplashed from heartfelt drama to camp, the plotting verged on the ludicrous (egad, someone poisoned the leading lady with a nut-spiked kale smoothie!), and episodes took regular detours to Crazytown in the form of musical fantasy sequences, such as Karen hallucinating a Bollywood-style production number while dining at an Indian restaurant. ''People will criticize the Bollywood number, but in all honesty you don't really know [while you're filming],'' says McPhee. ''You think, 'Well, on the page this could work.' There's a lot of things you think are going to work beautifully, and they don't.''

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