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Made-for-TV musical Bombshell gets a Broadway debut, sort of

NEW YORKBombshell lives!

Well, kind of.

Less a musical-for-television than a musical-made-up-for-television, Bombshell existed as 20-odd numbers scattered across 32 episodes of Smash, the NBC dramatic series created by Theresa Rebeck, chronicling the intense struggle to bring an original musical to Broadway.

A victim of low ratings, Smash was cancelled in 2013 at the end of its second season. But the songs — performed by such series regulars as Megan Hilty, Katharine McPhee, Will Chase and Brian d’Arcy James — survived robustly in the memories of the show’s fans. (Also, on a soundtrack, The Music of Smash.)

Many of those Smash enthusiasts showed up on Monday night to pack Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre for a truly one-of-a-kind event: a concert version of Bombshell, a musical that now lives in a weird creative limbo: it’s unfinished but well known; it has a backstory, but it lacks a plot. On TV, it is real. In the real theatre world, however, it doesn’t yet exist. But since television rarely takes Broadway seriously anymore, the series does occupy an authentic place in the affections of many musical lovers.

So anyway, an abiding craving for this fictitious musical, about a real movie star, the doomed, misunderstood sex symbol of the 1950s and ’60s, Marilyn Monroe, led to an unusual venture. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron asked the original cast to come together for a benefit for the Actors Fund and sing as much of Bombshell as songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of Hairspray fame) have committed to paper. The event, it was announced, raised $ 800,000 (U.S.).

Though reviewers were asked not to render a verdict, they were treated, along with more than 1,500 other theatre geeks, to the score’s soaring pastiche, represented in jazzy pseudo-standards and torchy ballads. The “show” still lacks a book, the spine that would give the characters words to say and the songs a narrative context. So for the concert version, directed by Wittman and On the Town choreographer Joshua Bergasse, biographical interludes about Monroe were added. These were narrated by, among others, Debra Messing, who on Smash played Bombshell lyricist Julia Houston, professional partner to composer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle).

Tonight you’re going to hear the score that we wrote,” Messing joked, introducing the proceedings with Borle.

Hilty and McPhee, who played the actresses vying through gnashed teeth and tears for the role of Marilyn, carried the melodic brunt Monday night, accompanied by an onstage, 30-member orchestra. Hilty delivered sultry renditions of “The National Pastime” and the Act 1 finale, “They Just Keep Moving the Line,” while McPhee suavely handled “The 20th Century Fox Mambo.” Chase, who played the actor playing Bombshell’s musical’s Joe DiMaggio, at one time married to Monroe, joined Hilty in the romantic duet, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” while Jeremy Jordan, a cast member added in Season 2, opened the concert’s Act 2 with a powerhouse “Cut, Print . . . Moving On.”

Together, Hilty and McPhee sang the opening and closing numbers, “Let Me Be Your Star” and “Don’t Forget Me,” songs that conjured the strong female pairings in other musicals, such as Dreamgirls and Side Show.

Other series regulars — among them Ann Harada, d’Arcy James, Leslie Odom Jr. and Wesley Taylor — got their musical moments, and each was greeted by the audience with an excitement usually reserved for returning astronauts and Olympic champions. (There were no sightings in the Minskoff, by the way, of Bombshell producer Eileen Rand, portrayed on all 32 episodes by Anjelica Huston.)

With this kind of fan base, could Bombshell’s creators be considering future audiences? As one prominent Broadway pro remarked at intermission, the evening did indeed smack of another hallowed Broadway tradition: the backers’ audition.