Why Katharine McPhee’s Role On ‘Smash’ Is A Total, Um, Smash

Oh hey, fans of musical theater! (You don’t like musical theater? Your loss!) I’m Sam Lansky, and this is my column, Pop Think,” dedicated to exploring the best and brightest luminaries in the pop culture scene. Up this week? Well, you’ll have to excuse me if I seem delirious, because I’ve been sick lately: With a McPheever. A bad one. And while that’s nothing new — I’ve been a fan of Katharine McPhee since she first appeared on “American Idol” way back in 2006 — her new direction, with a starring role on the new show “Smash,” gives her a whole new opportunity to flex her acting and vocal chops.

But what I’m really excited about is the music that’s coming out of “Smash,” specifically, a little song called “Touch Me,” which has been a cogent reminder of just how killer Katharine McPhee’s vocals really are as well as her not-insignificant contribution to the realm of popular music. (Also, I kinda want to make up for the time when I saw her at a party and wanted to go say hi to tell her how much I love her, but I was too nervous to do so — so if you’re reading this, Katharine, hey gurl!)

My McPheever just keeps on rising, and I don’t think there’s any remedy in sight. Got a problem with that?

Is there any argument that Katharine McPhee was robbed on the fifth season of “American Idol”? Not to throw any shade at the illustrious Taylor Hicks. But seriously, Katharine always had incredible vocal talent and undeniable charisma. And she’s been putting both to good use in the years since “Idol” with two excellent studio albums and now a whole new life starring in the NBC series “Smash,” which, if you haven’t been watching, is kinda like a grown-up “Glee,” with even more attitude and some sensational pop songs.

Not that the “sensational songs” thing is new for Katharine, since her self-titled 2007 debut is an excellent mainstream pop LP; it spawned the top 40 hit “Over It” and packed a number of major pop tracks, including the excellent single “Love Story” and, of course, the unforgettable ode to shoes, “Open Toes,” which fits nicely among other shoe-devoting songs like Jennifer Lopez‘s “Louboutins” and Ashanti‘s “Switch.” (I’m not saying I have a “Songs About Shoes” playlist, but I’m also not saying that I don’t.) Her second album, 2010′s Unbroken, was a mellower affair, with adult-contemporary tracks like “Terrified” and “Had It All,” which showed a sweetness and lovely sophistication with more organic instrumentation and mature lyrics.

See why Katharine McPhee’s role on “Smash” is her best role yet after the jump.

But it’s Katharine McPhee’s part on Smash that I’m really excited about, since it gives her an opportunity to set her chill-inducingly powerful voice to a diverse new collection of original songs. The show, which follows the development of an original Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe, sees Katharine playing Karen Cartwright, a struggling actress from the Midwest who lands a spot in the production’s chorus line. But diverting fantasies see Karen taking the starring role in showstopping musical numbers. Katharine is a strong actress and has proven herself to be surprisingly deft on the dance floor, so it’s no stretch to imagine that she could play the part of Marilyn in the show (which may well happen as the plot develops).

The songs of “Smash,” though, are really where the magic happens. Most of the songs in the first few episodes have been go-to musical-theater numbers — highly listenable, but far from radio fare. But “Touch Me,” the first single from the upcoming “Smash” soundtrack album, was written by my girl Bonnie McKee (Katy Perry‘s “Teenage Dream,” Britney Spears“Hold It Against Me”) and Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic and Beyoncé‘s “Halo” fame), and it’s a shimmering, gorgeous dance track with a major chorus and attitude to spare. It starts out with a very de rigueur house beat and Katharine’s gorgeously dusky, feline take on the clever lyrics (“So c’mon turn me on/Baby be my Marlon Brando/Take a good snapshot/Get me from my better angle”), over crystalline instrumentation. It’s an unexpected turn from the show, which has been engaging so far, but gave no indication that it would be producing the kind of song with chart-topper potential. Oh, and and it’s probably Katharine’s best song yet. (Again, I kinda know WTF I’m talking about when it comes to the McPhee oeuvre.)

As far as I’m concerned, Katharine has always deserved more commercial success than she’s received. But now, it seems that’s about to change. When the “Smash” promos first came out, with the slightly inexplicable wording of the credit “Introducing Katharine McPhee,” I thought, “Introducing?” She was runner-up on the biggest talent show in the world, released two major albums and starred in a handful of films. But I’m beginning to think they were more accurate than anyone realized. This show is introducing a whole new side of Katharine — and I’m so ready to see where it takes her.

Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, “Real Housewives” GIFs and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.

Photo credit: Mark Seliger/ NBC