STAGE TO SCREENS: Katharine McPhee and Krysta Rodriguez, On and Off-Screen Friends in NBC's "Smash"
By Michael Gioia
Katharine McPhee and Krysta Rodriguez, who crossed paths during McPhee's time at Boston Conservatory, are reunited — and now play friends and roommates, Karen Cartwright and Ana Vargas — on the NBC musical drama "Smash."
"I went to Boston Conservatory for like three semesters," said "Smash" leading lady Katharine McPhee on the Brooklyn set of the NBC musical drama, as she began to explain her first encounter with Krysta Rodriguez, one of the many new cast members featured on the show's second season. "I dropped out early on because I wanted to start working. But it's so funny because [during] our freshman year of college…this guy named Jesse — this really talented guy — his girlfriend who went to NYU was coming into town to stay with him for the weekend. And, she was going to sing at one of the vocal recitals with him because they were 'madly in love,' and it happened to be Krysta Rodriguez!"
McPhee continued, "I remember [thinking], 'Uh! She's so pretty. She can sing so well!' … I saw her in Spring Awakening and saw that she was always doing really well in the theatre world, and then when they cast her in the show, I [said], 'I know this person.' And, she remembered me, so it was kind of fun."
Rodriguez explained that her audition process for the new season — run by former "Gossip Girl" executive producer and writer Joshua Safran, whom she worked with on the 2008 "Gossip Girl" episode "New Haven Can Wait" — moved unusually fast. "It happened very quickly for me. I had one audition, and then three days later they called and said, 'You start work on Monday,' which has never happened in the history of the world!" said the actress with a laugh.
Rodriguez, best known for her Broadway appearances in The Addams Family, In the Heights, Spring Awakening, A Chorus Line and Good Vibrations, plays the eccentric Ana Vargas, who was introduced to "Smash" audiences in the season's two-hour premiere. (Read the Playbill.com "Smash" Report, featuring commentary on the show; Rodriguez's character was seen reading Playbill.com in her first "Smash" appearance.)
"I am a performer; I am a dancer-singer-actress, and Kat [McPhee's character] and I knew each other from before, from our waitressing days," Rodriguez told Playbill.com, referring to her character's backstory. She explained that the "Smash" creatives cut a scene in the premiere episode that gave audiences a deeper slice into the life of Ana Vargas.
"We were about six minutes over in the episode," said Rodriguez. "But [my character] was on tour last season, which is why I wasn't around. And then when [Karen] breaks up with her boyfriend [Dev], I have a room open because my roommate goes on the Disney cruise, as I mention in the [premiere] episode."
She quickly added, "[My character] was on the West Side Story tour; I was playing Rosalia — FYI! … So we've been friends and then she moves in with me and we just sort of navigate theatre together, and I end up being in Hit List, which is the new show this season."
Hit List, one of the new fictional musicals featured on "Smash" — an edgy new work in the vein of Spring Awakening and Rent that will compete with the Marilyn Monroe-inspired Bombshell — is written by Brooklyn-born singer and songwriter Jimmy Collins, played by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, and book writer Kyle Bishop, played by Andy Mientus of Off-Broadway's Carrie.
"Karen tries to straddle — as I'm sure many people in the theatre community do — being a part of something that's going to Broadway, but also looking for the future," McPhee told Playbill.com on her involvement with the Hit List musical. While on set, McPhee, along with Jordan and Rodriguez, filmed "The Goodbye Song," a number featured in Hit List by real-life musical theatre songwriter Joe Iconis. The trio was heavily featured in the number, which took place in front of an "audience" of theatregoers. Could "Smash" audiences see the new musical on the fast track to success?
"It starts off as a Fringe show, gets a lot of traction, moves Off-Broadway very quickly, gets a lot of traction, and then we're hoping that it will move to Broadway and give Bombshell a run for its money," explained Rodriguez. "[The musical is] essentially about fame and what people will do to achieve it — in this era of Lady Gaga and Madonna and people who reinvent themselves to become famous. That's the over-reaching theme, but it's got some darker themes about love and death — all those sorts of things that those young, hip musicals have!"
With both Rodriguez and McPhee's characters involved in the pop-rock musical, a new competition on "Smash" may arise. "There also becomes a little bit of tension between [Ana] and Karen because they're friends and they're both performers," added Rodriguez. "I love that it shows a realistic view of — not being rivals — [but] being friends and also competing against each other and how you maneuver this delicate relationship in that way."
Aside from friendships, the shows — both "Smash" and Hit List — will also see new relationships. The relationship that begins to blossom — from the moment the season premiere aired on Feb. 5 — is the one between Jimmy Collins (Jordan) and Karen Cartwright (McPhee). "I don't think she knows exactly where it's going to go," McPhee told Playbill.com, "and I don't think she knows how she's going to feel for him. A showmance is what they call it, right? … I mean, I had one of those when I was in college!"
As for Ana, she prefers to find love — or lust — outside of the dramatic, and incestuous, theatrical scene. Rodriguez admitted that her character gets "in a little bit of trouble. You'll see me take home a couple [of guys]… I have a thing for musicians, and you'll see that kind of happen."
But, love lives aside, the heat is on in "Smash" as the second season makes way for the most anticipated theatrical event of the year — the Tony Awards. "You'll see the race to the Tonys," said Rodriguez. "I can't say, necessarily, if we are going to the Tonys, who's going to the Tonys — we don't know. They keep all of that under wraps, but there is definitely Tony conversation."
Last season, "Smash" audiences declared themselves as "Team Ivy" or "Team Karen." This year, the competing teams seem to be Bombshell and Hit List.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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