PASADENA, Calif. -- Pittsburgh connections to NBC's "Smash" continue to grow as the show enters its second season. In addition to Christian Borle (he grew up in Fox Chapel and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1995) and Megan Hilty (a 2004 CMU grad), Leslie Odom Jr. (a 2003 CMU grad) returns as Broadway actor/singer Sam for the new season that debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WPXI.
Ross native Andy Mientus, a 2005 North Hills High School grad, joins the "Smash" cast as the show broadens its worldview to encompass more Broadway shows while narrowing the focus to show business, shedding extraneous, soapy plots.
At its core, "Smash" remains the story of Julia (Debra Messing, "Will & Grace") and Tom (Mr. Borle) as they work to bring the Marilyn Monroe musical "Bombshell" to Broadway with ingenue Karen (Katharine McPhee) and stage stalwart Ivy (Ms. Hilty) vying for the title role.
Actors talk about NBC's 'Smash' and Pittsburgh connections
NBC's musical show "Smash" boasts a number of actors with connections to Pittsburgh. (Video by Rob Owen; edited by Kalea Hall; 2/3/2013)
As season two begins, Mr. Mientus is introduced as a character not that dissimilar from himself. "Smash" marks the young actor's first major on-camera role, and he's playing Kyle Bishop, half of a writing team that's putting together a new rock musical, "Hit List."
Outgoing Kyle works with brooding Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan, Broadway's "Newsies") when they're not punching the clock working at a restaurant/bar. Through a series of chance encounters, the pair's "Hit List" finds itself on a fast track to Broadway.
"Kyle brings to the show an authentic youthful excitement," Mr. Mientus said last month in an interview after an NBC press conference for "Smash." "He's completely starstruck by the theater people around him that he's idolized, and he's tickled about the way his life has turned out as it has, which is easy for me to play going through what I'm going through and coming from where I'm coming from."
At North Hills High School, Mr. Mientus was involved in theater productions, including "Crazy for You," "Inherit the Wind" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
"I was famously Tevye in 'Fiddler,' and if you see me, I'm not much of a Tevye," he said, "but I did my best and had a great fake beard and a weird accent and gave it my all."
His mom, Jean, still lives near Ross Park Mall. His brother, Joe, lives in Shadyside.
Mr. Mientus performed in shows at Act One Theatre School and attended the now-defunct Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, whose absence he decries.
9 p.m. Tuesday, NBC.
Andy Mientus, Leslie Odom Jr.
"Let's get it back because it was really important," he said. "From sunup to sundown every day we'd just work on acting, really graduate-level work but in high school. ... To be around all of that made me take what I'm doing seriously as an art, not just a hobby or activity. It's why I do this for a living."
After high school, Mr. Mientus attended the University of Michigan. He left after his junior year to appear in the national tour of the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening," which stopped in Pittsburgh in May 2009. With work off-Broadway in the time between "Spring Awakening" and "Smash," he's been too busy to return to college to complete his degree. If "Smash" is successful in its second season -- and if his character sticks around -- he might be waiting a while longer.
Mr. Borle said he doesn't have many scenes with Mr. Mientus this season, but he has been impressed with how the show's new young cast members adapt.
"What's shocking is these young people are almost without fear," Mr. Borle said. "They come in totally ready to go, and I have not seen nerves on any of these people. Meanwhile, my palms are sweating as we speak. They don't need me; I'm watching them."
Although Mr. Mientus is an actor and a singer, his "Smash" character is not a singer. But Mr. Mientus gets an opportunity to sing on "Smash" in fantasy sequences "that reveal Kyle's inner life, what's going on behind his grin."
Mr. Mientus said he's particularly pleased with how "Smash" is depicting Kyle as a gay man.
"It's not really dealt with in a way that's on-the-nose," he said. "He's not flouncing about and making gay minstrel jokes. He's not some stereotype, and it's not something he's upset about or hiding. He's just a modern, young gay guy who has a straight best friend and that friend is totally comfortable with it. So it's a refreshing relationship for network television. Having auditioned for so many gay friend characters, this is not just the gay friend. He's gay but that's all there is to it. That's not the focus of my arc or who he is, so it's very cool."
Leslie Odom Jr.
When "Smash" started its first season a year ago, Mr. Odom was not initially a part of the cast -- but he could have been.
"There was interest in me for the pilot for the role of Ellis, but I got another show I loved that didn't end up getting picked up," Mr. Odom said. Ellis was played by Jaime Cepero, and the character quickly became a lightning rod for the show's creative missteps. The character has been pretty much written out of the series in season two. "I think I would have done something different. Nothing wrong with Jaime's portrayal, but I would have brought something completely different to it. ... I'm glad things worked out the way they worked out."
When producers came calling for Mr. Odom again around episode four, it was for the role of Bobby, one of the "Bombshell" chorus members, that ultimately went to Wesley Taylor.
"The races were switched. They were auditioning black guys for Bobby and white guys for Sam and at the last minute they decided to switch it," Mr. Odom said. "So I didn't find out much about [Sam] until I got the script."
In season one, Sam struck up a romantic relationship with Tom, Mr. Borle's character.
"He and Tom are still together. They're going through the ups and downs of love and making a relationship work," said Mr. Odom, a Philadelphia native. "We're halfway through [filming the new] season now. We've already seen him be a good friend to Ivy and his boyfriend, Tom, but he's starting to question his ambition and what he wants for himself. So we start to see Sam going after his own hopes and dreams."
This season Sam gets his own musical number as "Smash" undergoes creative retooling with Josh Saffran replacing series creator Theresa Rebeck as showrunner.
"The focus has turned to all musicals, all the time," said Mr. Borle, who won a Tony Award for his role in the Broadway play "Peter and the Starcatcher" in between the first and second seasons of "Smash." "So these new characters who are introduced are in the world of theater, so no matter where you turn, you're getting hit by someone who's in the business in some way, which is very smart and it's super focused."
Mr. Odom said he'll always be grateful to Ms. Rebeck for giving him the opportunity to play Sam.
"I sent her flowers in the middle of the season last year because I loved the way she took care of Sam. Beyond just hiring me, she continued to write for me and show people what I'm capable of," Mr. Odom said. "But things change, and Josh is a wonderful energy and presence. He brings the experience of long-range planning for these character arcs, how to drop seeds and develop them over time."
As for negative reactions to some of last season's plot turns, Mr. Odom has no regrets.
"I'm an artist and I like art that gets people talking, good or bad," he said. "Criticism is good, too."
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published February 3, 2013 5:00 AM