Musical theater is getting a lot of Hollywood exposure in 2012 between the launch of NBC’s making-of-a-musical series Smash and the upcoming release of the star-studded Rock of Ages movie. Keith Kühl, a veteran of four Broadway shows, has a part in both. In Smash he’s one of the dancers in the Marilyn Monroe musical that’s being developed. Or more accurately, since the Marilyn project is Smash’s show-within-a-show, he portrays one of the dancers in the musical. In the first episode, Kühl was among the dozen chorus boys who performed “The National Pastime” with Megan Hilty as Marilyn (actually, as the actress portraying Marilyn). “You guys were delicious,” Debra Messing’s songwriter character, Julia, commented to them afterward.
Coming up in episode 5, Kühl performs in another Marilyn number with Hilty—one called “Let’s Be Bad” that’s a show-within-a-show-within-a-show, as it depicts a drugged-up Monroe while she’s being filmed. And later in the season, when Uma Thurman guest-stars as another actress coveting the musical’s lead role, he’s in a beatnik-style production number with her. There’ll also be a Bollywood number featuring the full cast. “Smash is the job of the century,” Kühl says. “This is the best job a dancer could ever have: a recurring dance job on a TV show.”
The heavily hyped new series is, according to Kühl (pronounced cool), a boon not just for those in musical theater but for television audiences as well. “It is such an eye into our world that the general public doesn’t know, and it’s fascinating,” he says. “The writing on the show is so good, you could take out all the singing and dancing and it’s still phenomenal. It’s an extremely well-scripted, well-produced drama, and the season from where it starts to where it ends is very dramatic, and very entertaining.”
While Smash’s premiere season airs, Kühl is awaiting the big-screen release (scheduled for June) of Rock of Ages, starring Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Julianne Hough. In that movie, he’s in the scenes at the strip club run by Mary J. Blige—whose role, Justice, has been expanded from the stage version.
Kühl has been in other film adaptations of Broadway musicals: Susan Stroman’s The Producers and the made-for-TV productions of Annie and Cinderella, both choreographed by Rob Marshall. Kühl’s screen credits also include the Meryl Streep rom-com It’s Complicated, the Jim Carrey-as-Scrooge animated A Christmas Carol and episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, Monk, 30 Rock, American Dreams, Judging Amy and Mad About You. On stage he’s been in Broadway revivals of Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises and on the Contact tour.
But none of that was what Kühl had originally aspired to. Born Keith Kool (he changed his spelling to the family’s Old World name, thinking Kool looked made-up), he wanted to dance because of the music videos of the late ’80s and early ’90s. “I watched Madonna, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson and said, ‘I want to do that,’” he explains. And when he met Abdul at the 2010 Tonys, where she presented the award for best choreography and he performed with the cast of Promises, Promises (a nominee in that category), “I did go up to her and tell her the reason I’m a dancer is actually the ‘Cold Hearted’ video,” he says.