With a Tony nomination in his pocket and years of experience in theater, you'd think Broadway veteran Christian Borle would have all the tools to star in NBC's musical drama "Smash."
Borle is missing one thing on his resume that his character, composer Tom Levitt, isn't: Borle can't play the piano.
"If those keys weren't muted, people would be horrified by the sounds," he told me during a chat on the "Smash" set at Eagle Street Stages in Brooklyn earlier this month.
Borle took piano lessons while growing up in Pittsburgh, but he didn't stick with it. Between filming the "Smash" pilot and starting to film the series, he took lessons again but admits, "I realized it's wasn't going to happen."
So he fakes it. Yes, his piano-playing scenes are a bit of TV magic. The show's real music composer and co-lyricist, Marc Shaiman, sometimes will play off camera and watch Borle's hands while he plays. Borle wears an earpiece so he can follow along to the music. "We'll play kind of together, which is really fun dance," Borle said.
If Shaiman's not on set, Borle "plays" to a prerecorded track and later, Shaiman actually might change the song to approximate what Borle did on film. "It's kind of a 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' thing sometimes," Borle joked.
Borle's trickiest piano scene takes place in "The Cost of Art," airing at 9 p.m. Feb. 27. At a loft party thrown for guest star Nick Joans's character, Tom accompanies several of the characters as they sing one of the numbers from the "Marilyn" musical being written by the characters played by Borle and co-star Debra Messing. That took a little more work, Borle said.
"I'm kind of Jerry Lee Lewis-ing out on the piano," he said. "They really, really wanted that to be pretty accurate. So I had a big coaching session and practice, practice, practice."
Borle, who was nominated for a Tony for originating the character Emmett Forrest in "Legally Blonde," and I talked more about his co-stars, living in New York City (he's lived there since 1995) and his return to Broadway during the "Smash" hiatus. Watch the short video interview above and read more below in the Q & A.
Are we going to get to hear you sing?
Yes. I think they’ve figured out a very fun and clever way to do it while staying true to the rules that they’ve made. I think the rules are going to bend over the course of 15 episodes, but it’s good.
So it won’t be at a karaoke bar?
No, it will not.
And are you happy about that?
I am, yes. And it makes sense. Tom is a composer and I think an extrovert as well, and proud and he probably used to be a performer. On the set they asked me for old photographs of me growing up. I gave them a picture of me in “A Chorus Line” before I got my equity card in West Virginia, and I was playing Mark and I've got the hat and everything. I figure at some point Tom was a performer, so it makes sense.
So that photo will show up on your piano or your desk?
I think if you squint it’s somewhere way, way in the background.
How did you come to the role?
Really just having an incredibly, wonderful agent and friend who just wore them down, because I think they had been looking for a very long time and were looking for Tom to be a little older. My agent just wore them down and I got in that room and then luck prevailed.
I can’t imagine him being older after having seen you do it.
Yeah and there are a lot of really young composers out there right now. A lot of my friends are composers on Broadway, so I have a lot to draw from in terms of all that, but these are really young guys who just happen to be brilliant in the head.
So you can use them, and of course your own theater experiences.
It’s not necessarily even something that is conscious. Luckily, coming from this world we just know the terms. Like Megan [Hilty, who plays Ivy] and I, who come from the theater. There’s a comfort level. Do you know what I mean? You know what a rehearsal room feels like when you’re doing a vocal rehearsal. Just the basic dynamics. So it’s just kind of in the bones now, but yes, I copy Marc Shaiman’s piano playing style, the crossing my right foot over my knee, which actually seems to be counterproductive because it’s the peddling foot, but he doesn’t seem to care.
Right foot over the knee.
Yeah, right foot over left knee.
How is it working with Debra Messing?
She’s unbelievable. When I tested, which was my second audition, she was there and obviously I knew of her and was a little bit intimidated just because I had never done television before and she immediately put me at ease.