Julia Houston (Debra Messing)
- 10-Minute Retirement: Starts out the series this way, having promised her family to take time off but almost immediately getting drawn back in by the idea of a Marilyn Monroe musical.
- Author Avatar: Rumored to be an avatar of sorts for series creator Theresa Rebeck (leading to some controversy surrounding her character after Rebeck's departure).
- Betty and Veronica: The Archie to Frank's Betty and Michael's Veronica, and vacillates between her conflicting attraction to them both for most of Season 1.
- Big Sister Instinct: In the surrogate family that is the Bombshell team, Julia tends to act as the protective big sister. She and Tom, in particular, tend to toggle back and forth over who is the reassuring older sibling and who is the mess of a younger sibling at the moment. She also develops a motherly or sisterly fondness and protectiveness for Kyle in Season 2.
- Broken Pedestal: From her son Leo, following his discovery of her affair with Michael.
- Comfort Food: Her go-to foods include marshmallow fluff (straight from the jar, natch) and dim sum.
- Deadpan Snarker: Julia, following the rehearsal in which everyone finds out that Rebecca Duvall can't sing.Eileen: What we need is a constructive solution!beatJulia: Group suicide?
- Dysfunctional Family: Between their adoption struggles, the strain Julia's career is causing, Leo's rebellious stoner tendencies, and Julia's affair, the Houston household is anything but smooth sailing.
- Easily Forgiven: Averted. The fallout from her affair hurts her family, her work family, and the production as a whole, and no one pulls any punches about reminding her of that.
- Fiery Redhead
- Happily Married: To Frank, at the beginning of the series. It doesn't last.
- Love Hurts: Falling for Michael leads to nothing but trouble for her family life and even bleeds into her professional life, due to their working relationship.
- Love Triangle: With Frank and Michael Swift. The finale implies she and Michael get back together.
- Mama Bear: Drops everything if Leo is in trouble, and goes to over-the-top lengths to find out where he is when he runs away.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Julia (like series creater Theresa Rebeck) is a playwright.
- One-Hour Work Week: Averted; Julia and the rest of the team spend a realistically large proportion of time either at rehearsals or working on the musical.
- Platonic Life-Partners: With Tom.
- Scarf of Asskicking: Not so much. Julia's perpetual choice of unflattering scarves is even lampshaded during Season 2.
- Starving Artist: Averted; we meet Julia at the point in her career where she is already a successful writer.
- Shipper on Deck: Goes so far as to actually make reservations to force Tom and Sam to go on an actual date instead of just flirting in the rehearsal space.
- Tears of Fear: When her son, Leo, runs away from home.
Derek Wills (Jack Davenport)
- The Alcoholic: Often turns to drinking when having problems. All he does for several days just before the Tony awards is sleep and drink.
- Amicable Exes: Settles into this with Ivy for parts of Season 2. By the end of the series the two do reconcile, and after Ivy reveals she's pregnant with his child, the two get back together.
- The Atoner: After his mistakes catch up with him, he spends the last few episodes of the series trying to do everything in his power to make up for it.
- Badass Longcoat: Derek has quite a few. They resemble like those of another famous Brit.
- Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: A moody workaholic who finds himself attracted to both the naive Karen and the placating Ivy.
- The Casanova: Has a reputation as quite a playboy, particularly when young and pretty performers are concerned. Hooks up with multiple characters on the show, and is stated to have had many other affairs off-screen.
- Casting Couch: Sleeps with two of his three Marilyns, and comes thisclose to the third, as well as several others (which eventually comes back to bite him in a big way). He genuinely does fall in love with Ivy, though.
- Deadpan Snarker: Has a dry comeback for every occasion, particularly directed at Tom and/or Jimmy:Jimmy: Lea Michele? Lea Michele?Derek: If you say it one more time, she magically appears!
- Handsome Lech: More than happy to use his rakish good looks to bed a pretty chorus girl or leading lady.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Used to be this with Tom, apparently.
- Insufferable Genius: Derek is an in-demand director and choreographer and knows it.
- Jerkass: Derek appears to have a reputation for being talented, but a massive jerk:Tom: HE IS A TERRIBLE HUMAN BEING!
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: YMMV, but Derek's "jerk" behavior is just managing show business. When he's speaking to Ivy as a human being (as opposed to a director), he's fairly tenderhearted and supportive. He's not a bad or uncaring person. He drives people hard (and/or manipulates them) to create the best art he can.
- Love Confession: Acknowledges his love for Ivy at no smaller event than the Tonys.
- Love Triangle: Attracted to both Ivy and Karen, but ends up in a full-blown romantic relationship with Ivy while settling into a friendlier muse-director relationship with Karen.
- Mean Brit: A harsh perfectionist to the point of outright cruelty towards his cast, and sometimes even his fellow creative team members.
- Only Sane Man: Tends to think he is, given he is less emotional than his colleagues, but is a bit of a mad genius in his own way.
- Nepotism: Accepts the idea that a critic once praised him because said critic was a longtime family friend. Tom reveals that in fact the critic was sleeping with Derek's father.
- Perma-Stubble: Generally well-kept, but grows into a full-on Beard of Sorrow during his pre-Tonys disaster.
- Working with the Ex: When his stint as director and Ivy's stint as Marilyn overlap. Also blackmailed into it with Daisy Parker.
Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee)
- Aesop Amnesia: Her fellow ensemble members point out to her that she needs to tone it down and learn to blend into a group rather than stand out. Cue musical number in which Karen is in full-on center-of-attention mode.
- Artistic License Music: In real life, no musical theater actress would audition (for a major role, no less) with a pop song; she would likely choose a song from musical theater canon that would allow for character work similar to that of the hoped-for role.
- Audience Surrogate: A fairly generic, nice character who serves as the audience's window into the theater world.
- Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: The Gentle Girl in her dynamic with both Derek and Jimmy.
- Country Mouse: The more experienced cast members tease her about being this, although technically she's more like a "Midwest suburban mouse".
- Friendly Rivalry: She and Ivy eventually settle into this, with Karen visiting Ivy's dressing room and congratulating her after Ivy's star-making opening night for "Bombshell", and Ivy inviting Karen to sing with her during the opening night afterparty of "Bombshell".
- The Ingenue: Sweet, naive, inexperienced, yet talented.
- In-Series Nickname: Her castmates call her "Iowa," at first as a derogatory shot at her inexperience and Midwestern upbringing, later as an Affectionate Nickname.
- Modesty Bedsheet: When she's performing "Touch Me" she has a sheet barely wrapped around her that she wears as a dress.
- The Muse: Karen claims to be this for Derek in the Season 2 series premiere, following several scenes in Season 1 in which he hallucinates her as Marilyn.
- Naïve Newcomer: A Midwesterner with essentially no showbiz experience, she finds herself in way over her head and has no idea how to navigate the professional and sexual politics of the theater world.
- Stranger in a Familiar Land: No longer feels at home when she returns to her hometown, particularly with her parents' well-intentioned but unhelpful worry over her career prospects.
Tom Levitt (Christian Borle)
- Berserk Button: Don't call Tom's music "boring".
- Deadpan Snarker: Probably the snarkiest character aside from Derek.Tom: Art without torture. I don't think it's possible.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: With Derek, pre-series.
- I Did What I Had to Do: With regards to hiring Leigh Conroy- he agreed to do what was best for the production, but at the expense of what it might do to Ivy.
- Instant Expert: Subverted. When he takes over as director of Bombshell, his attempts to be "nice" and open to suggestions backfire spectacularly, and he clearly struggles to maintain control and give useful notes.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Tells Sam to take a gig touring with The Book of Mormon even though it will mean being away from him.
- Love Triangle: A subdued version for a few episodes while he's dating John but growing closer to Sam.
- Nice Guy: Has his diva moments like the rest of the cast, but generally tries to treat everyone kindly and respectfully (except Derek).
- Platonic Life-Partners: With Julia.
- Secret-Keeper: For Julia's affair with Michael.
Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty)
- Ambition Is Evil: Initially presented as an antagonist for the simple fact that her ambitious career goals put her opposite Karen.
- Amicable Exes: For the most part, she and Derek maintain a surprisingly decent (though still complicated) relationship. By the end of the series, the two reconcile, and after she reveals she's pregnant with his child, the two get back together.
- Alpha Bitch: Ivy behaves like this towards Karen by being rude to her or passive aggressively trying to get her thrown out of the workshop. She gets a little better.
- Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: While not "gentle" exactly, Ivy is usually the sane voice to Derek's work-obsessed brooding.
- Depending on the Writer: Gets hit with this hard in Season 1. Depending on the episode, Ivy is portrayed as either a pathetic victim, a vengeful diva, or a genuinely hard-working actress. Season 2, fortunately, evens her out.
- Deuteragonist: Karen is the point-of-view character, but the story is driven almost equally by Ivy's arcs.
- Driven to Suicide: Suggested, then averted. The first season finale ends on a cliffhanger with a rejected Ivy holding a large handful of pills. She doesn't take them.
- Dumb Blonde: Averted. Ivy is one of the most pragmatic characters in the entire show.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: And how. Ivy suffers through an emotionally exhausting workshop process, an insensitive boss/boyfriend, losing two jobs in quick succession, a suicide attempt, a show in which she does well closing immediately, and turmoil with her mother. By the end of the finale, however, she has reunited with Derek, is expecting a baby that she's decided she does want, and has won a Tony.
- Easily Forgiven: After sleeping with Dev, after a tense confrontation from Karen, the two quickly slip back into their Friendly Rivalry relationship from before.
- First Girl Wins: Out of all the women Derek is romantically linked with, she is the one he ends up with.
- Friendly Rivalry: She and Karen eventually settle into this, with Karen visiting Ivy's dressing room and congratulating her after her star-making opening night for "Bombshell", and Ivy inviting Karen to sing with her during the opening night afterparty of "Bombshell".
- Inadequate Inheritor: Struggles with feeling unworthy to follow in the footsteps of her famous, acclaimed mother.
- Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Invoked and subverted. When Ivy becomes pregnant, Sam asks if the father could be anyone but Derek. She immediately answers in the negative.
- Mommy Issues: Her mother was (and still is) a huge Broadway star who enjoys the spotlight and can often be insensitive, leaving Ivy with no small amount of confidence issues.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: A female variant. Despite her successes, Ivy's mother has a knack for making her feel incredibly inadequate, and Ivy desperately seeks her approval even while being frustrated by it.
Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston)
- Benevolent Boss: Despite being technically in charge and very no-nonsense, Eileen treats her co-workers and employees with respect.
- Deadpan Snarker: Along with the rest of the Bombshell team, has a very dry sense of humor.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Finds herself unexpectedly on the receiving end of this trope.
- Mama Bear: Do not mess with her daughter (particularly if you're said daughter's father). She's even willing to sacrifice the good of her musical if it means keeping her daughter out of the media fray.
- Only Sane Man: As the non-creative partner, tends to be the most levelheaded and business-minded
- Team Mom: Spends a fair amount of time wrangling the rest of the creative team and trying to work out their differences.
- Uptown Girl: Well-off, successful Broadway producer who falls for a rough-around-the-edges bartender.
Sam Strickland (Leslie Odom Jr.)
- Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: To a degree. His parents are more worried than embarrassing, but that doesn't stop them from questioning his career choice in front of his boyfriend, nor does it stop them from whooping and teasing upon seeing Tom and Sam kissing on the porch.
- Gayngst: Solidly averted. Despite his fairly traditional family and his staunch religiosity, seems to be completely comfortable in his sexuality.
- Let's Wait a While: Gently but firmly rebuffs Tom's initial advances when they first start dating, explaining that he wants to wait until it will really mean something.
- Only Sane Man: Among the actors, Sam is by far the least prone to drama and the likeliest to tell it how it is.
- Put on a Bus: Takes a role in a national tour early in Season 2.
- Real Men Love Jesus: To Tom's surprise, Sam reveals himself to be a Christian, and puts a hold on having sex until the two are in a real relationship.
- Straight Gay: He doesn't want to have to wear a label, but his massive love for sports and lack of any stereotypical gay mannerisms make Michael Swift comment that, if he wants to get a date with anybody, he might literally have to.
- Twofer Token Minority: Subverted, as he's both gay and black but he's also a big sports fan and a regular churchgoer, two traits not often found among actors/dancers. The actor who plays him downplays his sexuality in interviews, saying it shouldn't matter.
- Working with the Ex: Briefly, in Season 2. It doesn't go well.
- Ambiguously Bi: Has a girlfriend, but is perfectly willing to flirt (or more) with men to carry out his schemes. It's left ambiguous if he's just that goal-focused or if he is actually bisexual.
- It's All About Me: He honestly believes that his comment on Marilyn is what created the musical, everyone owes jobs to him and that he's key to the show. When he snaps to Eileen on his supposed skills and he should be named a producer, she fires him.
- Hate Sink: A downright sociopath, who's obsession on making "Bombshell" his, leads him to outright poison the competition, to ensure Ivy gets the lead. His hatred came to be so much, his only appearance in season 2 was as Tom's literal Nightmare Fuel, where after feeling he began selling his soul to make "Bombshell" a hit, Tom gets back in bed, only to find Ellis there, grinning evilly back at him, leading to Tom waking up in a cold sweat.
- Jerkass: Ellis, what with his constant squabbling with Julia and poisoning Rebecca Duval in an attempt to put Ivy in the role of Marilyn.
- Karma Houdini: Outside of being fired by Eileen, and most likely blackballed out of the theater community, he never really gets whats coming to him, like being arrested after not just fully admitting, but bragging about poisoning another human being.
- Professional Butt-Kisser: Towards Tom, Derek, and Eileen.
- Put on a Bus: Following extremely negative fan reaction, was fired at the end of Season 1 and completely written out for Season 2.
- The Scrappy: Ellis, for Julia in-universe (And for many fans as well)
- Small Name, Big Ego: Summed up when he rants to Eileen on how he's done so much and "I deserve to be named producer" when he has zero theater experience and nothing more than the lowly gopher.
- The Sociopath: Has no morals to speak of, and willing to cross whatever lines, going so far as to poison a well known celebrity in his twisted minds way of ensuring "Bombshells" success, and proudly brags about this act to Eileen.
- Butt-Monkey: His career ambitions tend to collapse more often than not, leaving him at the whims of his rivals.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Progressively gets more and more suspicious and disapproving of Karen's career, particularly her growing bond with Derek and with Rebecca Duvall.
- I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Despite his huge mistake costing him his engagement and future with Karen, he is still present at her premier in Boston, and proudly smiles watching her accomplish her life long dream.
- The Obstructive Love Interest: Professes support for Karen's career but tends to hinder her more often than not.
Frank Houston (Brian D'arcy James)
- Berserk Button: The fastest way to make him angry? Bring up Julia and Michael's affair and/or how it was common knowledge among the cast and creative team.
- Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Frank teasingly serenades Julia in one episode, and the effort of a Tony-nominated actor to simulate "bad" singing is fairly obvious.
- House Husband: Stepped away from his career as a high school science teacher to take care of things while Julia worked. Eventually goes back to work partway through Season 1.
- Love Triangle: With Julia and Michael; later revealed that Julia has emotionally felt torn between them for much longer than she let on.
- Nice Guy: All-around decent, kind, supportive husband to Julia, despite his misgivings- until he finds out about her affair
Michael Swift (Will Chase)
- Anguished Declaration of Love: Makes a habit of these, with nearly every time he expresses his feelings for Julia being full to the brim with angst and heartache and drama.
- Back for the Finale: After disappearing for all of Season 2, Michael reappears when Julia shows up on his doorstep at the end of the finale, presumably to rekindle their relationship after being referenced a few times in the previous few episodes.
- The Bus Came Back: Reappears in the series finale, hinting at a possible renewal of his relationship with Julia.
- The One That Got Away: Seems to view Julia as this, and the feeling is mutual.
- Put on a Bus: For Season 2, explained by him "doing a favor" for the Bombshell team by stepping in for the out-of-town tryout but not wanting to continue with the show, for reasons personal and professional.
- Reality Subtext: In-Universe, his defense of DiMaggio as a character and a love interest for Marilyn mirrors his romantic entanglement with Julia. Carried to its logical extreme in the scene where he and Julia improv a Joe/Marilyn scene that is really about their own relationship ending.
- Tenor Boy: Both In-Universe and for the show, though with considerably more moral ambiguities.
John Goodwin (Neal Bledsoe)
- Gay Conservative: Tom is (comically) horrified to discover his boyfriend is a Republican.
- Hello, Attorney!: Tom is unenthusiastic about going out with the lawyer his mother set him up when. Once he sees him? "Yay, Mom."
- Nice Guy: Generally sweet, patient, and perfectly understanding about Tom's insane life.
- Satellite Love Interest: John hangs around for a few episodes, helps Leo out with his legal issues, and gets dragged along to a few events before dumping Tom over his obvious attraction to Sam. That's about it.
Leigh Conroy (Bernadette Peters)
- For Your Own Good: How she justifies her constant pushing of Ivy from the time she was a little girl.
- Living Legend: Leigh is a legendary star in the Broadway community- although her fame and success came at the expense of her relationship with Ivy.
- Parental Neglect: Though not intentionally cruel, her ambition, sharpness, and lack of filter made her a less-than-ideal mother to an insecure young Ivy.
- Real-Life Relative: In-Universe, as the Bombshell team brings on Leigh to play Marilyn's mother, playing on the publicity of having a real mother and daughter playing Gladys and Marilyn.
- So Proud of You: After finally seeing her daughter shine in "Bombshell", she can't help but heap huge amount of praise on her, while also acknowledging her own short comings as a mother.
- Spotlight-Stealing Squad: In-Universe, where her mere presence in a room is enough to draw attention away from Ivy (and anyone else, for that matter). Not that she discourages it.
- Stage Mom: Literally, too.
Rebecca Duvall (Uma Thurman)
A big-name Hollywood star brought on to play Marilyn in hopes of drumming up more buzz. Whether or not she's up to the task remains to be seen.
- Dawson Casting: In-Universe, the age gap between Rebecca and Marilyn does not escape attention:Sam: Yeah but wasnt Marilyn, like, 36 when she died?
Tom: Yes, and Rebecca is 36 ish.
Sam: Ish being the operative word.
- Hidden Depths: While not nearly as skilled as Ivy or Karen, after some adjustments are made to the score, and extensive work with a vocal coach, she is able to give an adequate performance as Marylin.
- Informed Ability: In-Universe, as the creative team is assured over and over again that Rebecca can sing, and on the first day of rehearsal, the reality is... somewhat different.
- Irony as She Is Cast: Again, In-Universe instance, where Rebecca is hired and quickly proves to be a complete mismatch for the emotionally complex, big-voiced role of Marilyn.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Has her diva moments, but is willing to make compromises with the creative staff to ensure "Bombshells" success, and becomes both a friend and mentor figure to Karen.
- Put on a Bus: Quickly exits Bombshell after a bad public response, and an attempt on her life and the series at the end of Season 1.
- Vocal Range Exceeded: Try as she might, Rebecca cannot handle some of the big songs Tom and Julia have written. However, she at least is aware of her own limits: she hires a vocal coach, suggests lowering the keys of some of the songs, and is willing (at least initially) to allow some of the Marilyn material to be given to the "shadow selves."
Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan)A bartender and composer whose path crosses with Karen's, Jimmy's gift for music and harsh demeanor cover a troubled past which keeps coming back to haunt him, no matter how hard he tries.
- Aesop Amnesia: As many times as he is called out on his Divaish attitude, and (half-heartedly) apologizes for it, it's almost assured that the next episode he will revert back to his Jerkass ways only to be called out again.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Comes from an apparently bad family life and at one point was dealing drugs and not calling for help for overdosed addicts. It got bad enough that, when he got out with Kyle's help, he even changed his name.
- The Diva: A Male Version, treats everyone like crap, and makes outright ridiculous demands in his pursuit of his goal to gain the fame and success he believes he's owed.
- Friends Are Chosen, Family Aren't: Comes from an abusive background and is at his worst when his lowlife brother shows up, but is capable of being quite warm and funny when around others, particularly Kyle, whom he calls his "real brother."
- Hair-Trigger Temper: His temper comes and goes, but when he is in a mood, it only takes the smallest thing to set him on a rant.
- It's All About Me: Just can't get it through his head that there are other talented dreamers trying to make it on Broadway just like him. Unfortunately, all his whining and complaining get him exactly what he wants.
- Jerkass: Gets angry at the smallest provocation, reacts to disappointment by sulking and snarking bitterly, and is generally unpleasant to everyone a good chunk of the time.
- Karma Houdini: Zigzagged, his whining and complaining initially get him everything he wants, a producer for "Hitlist," but after the entire team and crew get sick of his diva moments, they attempt to cut him from the production, until Kyle's death makes him crucial to finishing the product, and later formal charges of manslaughter, for his part in the death of the girl that overdosed due to his negligence, are filed against them. By this point however he is actively trying, to varying degrees of success, to be a better person, for Karen's but most importantly to honor Kyle's memory, willingly accepting the charges and goes to jail as penance for his Dark and Troubled Past.
- Love Redeems: A platonic version: although he falls for Karen, it is his brotherly love for Kyle and guilt over indirectly causing Kyle's death that usually brings him out of Jerkass mode.
- Manly Tears: After Kyle dies.
- Second Love: For Karen, following Dev's departure
- Small Name, Big Ego: For someone who's never had a musical run on Broadway, he certainly acts like he's entitled to the amount of success he's never accomplished before.
- The Stoner: Openly admits to doing a variety of drugs from time to time. At one point in his past, he was a dealer as well as having his own drug problem.
- Took a Level in Kindness: Following Kyle's death, Jimmy becomes decidedly mellower and (with a few exceptions) tries to be a nicer person out of respect.
- What the Hell, Hero?: After his behavior starts to hinder Hit List, the cast calls him out, particularly when said actions almost lead to Karen being seriously hurt, and eventually the staff come to the agreement to kick him off the production staff, leaving Kyle to deliver the news.
- Julia calls him out on his horrid behavior towards her after she points out she was doing him a favor in assisting him with Hit List, out of her genuine affection for now deceased Kyle, even at the hindrance of Bombshell.
Kyle Bishop (Andy Mientus)Jimmy's best friend and coworker, Kyle is an aspiring bookwriter with a deep passion for theater whose dreams may exceed his talents, but whose drive keeps his and Jimmy's work moving forward.
- All Love Is Unrequited: In the earlier episodes of Season 2, he has a crush on Jimmy who has a crush on Karen who also has some tension with Derek... Eventually he meets Blake and this goes away.
- Ascended Fanboy: Has loved the theater, particularly the works of Houston and Levitt, his whole life and now finds himself right in the middle of it all, as well as his talent being recognized by his Idol Julia, and his crush on Tom being briefly reciprocated.
- Expy: Of Jonathan Larson, all the way down to him dying a week before Hit List premiers on Broadway.
- The Knights Who Say "Squee!": Even once Hit List becomes a realized production, he consistently fanboys over his theatrical idols.
- Morality Pet: Does all he can to keep Jimmy in line.
Ana Vargas (Krysta Rodriguez)New roommate and old friend to Karen, Ana is an actress who is tired of almosts and ready to shine.
- Always Someone Better: Often feels overshadowed, particularly by Karen.
- Remember the New Guy?: Has apparently been friends with Karen for years, but is never mentioned or seen until Season 2.
Scott Nichols (Jesse L. Martin)The artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Workshop and a former friend of Julia's from grad school. Scott takes an interest in Hit List and pushes the young team to take the next steps.
- Fictional Counterpart: Runs the Manhattan Theatre Workshop, Smash's counterpart to the real-life New York Theatre Workshop.
- New Old Flame: He and Julia had some romantic tension in their grad school days, although it never went anywhere because of her relationship with Frank and her professional betrayal of him.
Blake (Daniel Abeles)A lighting designer for Hit List
- Satellite Love Interest: All we ever really know about him is that he's a lighting designer, he can stand up to Derek, and he really likes Kyle.