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Debra Messing Misses the Theater

The star of NBC's Smash discusses her return to New York, her favorite musicals, and the part that got away.

Debra Messing
(© Tristan Fuge)
Long before Debra Messing became an internationally famous, Emmy Award-winning television star on NBC's Will & Grace, she toiled happily Off-Broadway with roles in Four Dogs and a Bone, The Naked Truth, and most notably, Collected Stories, in which she originated the role of the young writer Lisa Morrison.

Messing is now returning to television as musical theater writer Julia Houston in the highly anticipated new NBC series Smash, which premieres on February 6. (The pilot is currently available for digital download.) At the recent Television Critics Association conference in Pasadena, she spoke about the show, her love for theater, and returning to New York.

THEATERMANIA: Your character is so passionate about the theater. Did your personal experience affect your portrayal of Julia?
DEBRA MESSING: I wanted to be a musical theater star from the time I was four. That was my original dream. I wanted to be onstage singing and dancing. To this day nothing thrills me more than sitting in an audience watching someone have the courage to stand onstage and sing and dance.

TM: You can sing, so why take the role of a writer rather than an actress on Smash - or returning to the stage?
DM: First, the part of Julia was the best one for me. Second, I have been offered stage roles, and there was a time when I was trying to work out a schedule to actually star in a musical. I will get there someday. Right now, it's very hard to be on a TV series and be able to negotiate a shorter contract on Broadway.

TM: Smash is being shot in New York. What came first, the decision to move back to New York or the job offer?
DM: It was entirely Smash. Moving to New York was a very challenging and scary proposition. I love New York. I went to New York University. I was born there. But I have a seven-and-a-half year-old son who is very well entrenched in Los Angeles with all of our cousins and all of the relatives, so moving back was a very big deal.

TM: Have you seen any Broadway shows since you've been back?
DM: Yes. I just saw Follies and it was so magnificent. Bernadette Peters came on as a guest star on Smash (as Megan Hilty's mother) and sang acapella. I felt like it was one of those seminal moments in my life. And then to go and see her in Follies was just the icing on the cake.

TM: What are some of your favorite musicals of all time?
DM: I've been seeing plays since I was seven. Annie is the reason I became an actress. Funny Girl is a play that got away; the one I never got to do. If I could do anything, I would do that. Les Miserables pierced my heart. And Dreamgirls made me desperately want to be African-American. I sang all those show tunes all the time. In fact, I sang every tune to every Broadway show.