Debra Messing is determined to bring Broadway to the North American viewing public, one show tune at a time.
The Emmy-winning star of Will & Grace returns to network television on the much-anticipated midseason series Smash. The brainchild of Steven Spielberg, the show is being dubbed a Glee for grownups, and getting major media buzz.
Messing plays the lyricist who co-writes a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe and then inherits all the headaches and heartaches that come with mounting any Broadway production.
She spoke to The Globe during a recent stop in Toronto.
How do you attract viewers to Smash when 99 per cent of your audience have never seen and will never see a Broadway musical?
That's turned out to the best thing about this show: It's structured as a full ensemble drama with other characters and stories for the viewer to care about besides the musical aspect. We give just a taste of what it would be like to sit through a three-hour musical. The one Broadway song they experience each episode is like the cherry on the cake.
Did you once hold musical-theatre ambitions?
From the time I was 3, I desperately wanted to be a singer and dancer. I took the singing lessons and the dancing lessons. I went through auditions for summer stock. Eventually I learned I wasn't good enough to be a musical star on Broadway. In recent years, I've been given opportunities to be on Broadway and sing, but it's generally because I'm more well known now and for more comic roles. But I still love to sing.
How does one prepare to play a lyricist?
It's a world in which I have no experience, but I wanted it to be authentic as possible. I've read several books about famous lyricists, including Betty Comden and Ira Gershwin. It's been interesting to see how much love of poetry plays in songwriting. I also bought a rhyming dictionary.
Does the fate of any Broadway musical hinge on the composer-lyricist relationship?
I think it does. In some ways it's like you're shackled to each other. You can't do what you love to do without this other person. It's like a marriage in that sometimes you just want to say to your partner: Get out of my face.
Any hesitation about diving back into the grind of a weekly series?
At this stage in my life committing to a TV show is a pretty complicated thing. I gave birth to my son during the sixth season of Will & Grace and he's 7 now. I've been grateful for the privilege to not work, but at some point it always kicks back in that I have to act. Nothing else in my life can fulfill that specific need.
You've had multiple sitcom offers in recent years. Why a drama?
I always said I would never do a drama because of the hours you have to work. It's like a movie that never ends and it's nearly impossible to have a balanced life. But on Smash there are 11 characters that need to be serviced, so in a perfect world I can work less, hopefully just a few days a week. I can be an active mother and still be satisfied creatively when I get to work each day. At least that's the plan.
There's a strong American Idol vibe to the first episode of Smash. Are you a fan?
Oh, I am completely obsessed with all those talent shows. Specifically the ones that highlight new and extraordinary talent that would otherwise never be seen. I don't watch Dancing with the Stars, but So You Think You Can Dance and American Idol I am positively obsessed with. When I watch those shows sometimes I see my younger self.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Smash launches Feb. 6 on NBC and CTV.