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Why Don't We Love Smash? by Matthew Murray

  • Smash1.jpgDespite having a reputation for being a tough (and sometimes overly tough) critic, I love theatre at least as much as anyone—and, given the sheer amount of it I see and write about each year, I would argue more than most people. The benefit of operating at that level is that you meet and get to know lots of people who are at least as into the whole practice of theatre and theatre worship as you are, and share your habits and pastimes with them. In the past few months we've all adopted one that's both strangely fun and astonishingly depressing: hating on Smash.

    Wouldn't you think that a big-time network TV show about the creation of a Broadway musical, told starting with the writers' initial inception of the idea and created by an honest-to-goodness theatre professional (playwright Theresa Rebeck), would truly attract people who adore the theatre and that, even if they find things to gripe about, they would basically want it to succeed? Yet, in recent discussions about the show with my hardcore theatrical compatriots, the vast majority of whom have stuck with Smash through its first season's first 11 episodes, it's become clear that this just isn't true of the people within the New York theatre community. They mock every new episode on Twitter as it's airing, rant about it on Facebook afterwards, and choke down smarmy New York magazine recaps and Broadway Abridged takedowns with the gleeful abandon they usually reserve for babbling about a Broadway bomb. Yet they never seem to spend any significant time talking about how much they love the show.

    Why is that? I personally doubt it has anything directly to do with what Christian Borle, who plays composer Tom Levitt on the show, obliquely suggests in his otherwise excellent New York Times interview: that it doesn't exactly reflect the minute details of our reality. Those who closely follow the theatre know, better than almost anyone I'd wager, that there's a stark line between what happens onstage and what happens off. No, the problem is that Smash doesn't hew to any sense of reality, and that doesn't just make it difficult for us to accept it—it makes it impossible.

    Responsible for much of this is a phenomenon I'll call The Glee Effect. Fox's hit series about a high school show choir casts such a long shadow over Smash, it's easy to believe that the latter would never have existed without the former. But from their conceptual cores outward, the shows are fundamentally different beasts that aren't treated that way as often as they should be.

    Glee is stylized—or heightened, if you'd prefer—in its presentation of life, love, and lyricism at McKinley High School. It definitely falls along more or less the same lines as stage musicals like The Producers and Hairspray in opting for bigger, broader, and brighter rather than deeper and more honest; its characters are grounded in their personal truths more than in literal emotional truth, which gives the show a slick, funny feeling above and beyond that of even the silliest sitcom. Smash, on the other hand, paints itself as a drama (if not, to this point, a tragic one: more Funny Girl than Carousel), structuring and presenting itself in utterly realistic, trust-in-us terms that Glee's format neither demands nor allows. But in so doing, Smash establishes and promises a different set of baseline expectations. In a "real" world like the one it pretends to inhabit, anything doesn't actually go. There are standards, laws, rules of behavior that, if not adhered to, will topple the delicate foundation on which it's built. And it's in keeping itself upright in this way that Smash regularly and spectacularly fails.

    We are expected to believe from the first episode on, for example, that there is a serious rivalry between two young women for the part of Marilyn Monroe in the musical that Tom and Julia Houston (Debra Messing) have written, Bombshell (though earlier on it's called simply Marilyn). In one corner is Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), a voluptuous, experienced Broadway musical chorister of average height and above-average talent, blondeness, and work ethic, whom Tom and Julia cull from the ranks of their current Broadway smash, Heaven on Earth. In the other is Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee), a recent Iowa transplant who is a terrific singer but tall, thin, and utterly unseasoned in every facet of show business. In the first few episodes, the creative team—which also includes director-choreographer Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) and producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Houston)—seriously discuss, apparently without irony, whether it's actually better to cast someone this fresh and this against type than someone who's been making the rounds and working her way up for a decade.

    Most of the theatre-based conflict in the series centers on this issue, which may pass muster with infrequent theatregoers but is rendered with such unconvincing detail that no one who knows anything can buy any part of it. Forget, for a moment, that Ivy routinely demonstrates her willingness to work, stretch herself, and rethink all of her choices as necessary, while Karen struggles during rehearsal with upstaging scene partners and not pulling focus during group numbers. Ivy also conducts herself with theatrical grace, and dons the vocal affectations and (still-imaginary) costumes with a born-for-it brio that Karen lacks. It's difficult, in fact, to stifle a laugh whenever McPhee is dressed up in Marilyn garb, wig, and makeup; she looks scorchingly unsuited for it, which only underscores how ridiculously rendered this major plot point is.

    Though in the first episodes it seemed as though Karen might end up playing Norma Jeane to Ivy's Marilyn—a logical, if rather less than original, course of action—that idea has not as of yet materialized. As of episode 11, both actresses are in a holding pattern due to the engagement of a legitimate movie star (Rebecca Duvall, played by Uma Thurman) to help guide the show to the financing and public interest it needs to open on Broadway. But at least a few scenes in every episode continue to trade on the tension that one of these women deserves the part and how oh how will the powers that be ever actually decide? (I have no advance knowledge, but a friend pointed out that the show's advertisements seem to be telling the tale: With all the cast members arranged in a pyramid, it's McPhee who is at the very top.)

    Then there's the matter of the show-within-the-show itself. I have ranted on Twitter during practically every episode that, no matter how development of Marilyn/Bombshell progresses, it never acquires an actual book. There are only occasional passing references to scenes, and the total number of screen minutes devoted to dialogue rehearsals can be counted on one hand (and you'd still have multiple fingers left over); we never see how they provide the structure for the show that's supposedly under construction. The logistical reason for this is obvious: Musical numbers are much more exciting and vibrant to show in performance (and Glee is loaded with them), so the series' creators want to highlight the maximum number of songs (written by real-world composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, of Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can). But this unbalances the universe of the series, because it results in a show that could not possibly exist—and feels like it.

    In one early scene, Julia and Tom are shown standing before a bulletin board on which they've pinned index cards bearing the titles of the songs they've written, in the order they'll supposedly be performed. Julia gets a brainstorm and moves one of the cards from the end of Act I to its beginning. (They really can't decide whether a song is the show opener or first-act finale? What is this, Newsies?) That song, Marilyn's "Let Me Be Your Star," recurs more often than any other, as it touches on the central question of who will end up playing the lead role in the show. But the lyrics don't make sense as a curtain-raiser, as they presuppose knowledge of Monroe's backstory that no sensible writers would assume audiences have at-hand command of fifty years after her death. "Fade in on a girl / With a hunger for fame / And a face and a name to remember / The past fades away / Because as of this day / Norma Jeane's gone / She's moving on," they run, suggesting that Bombshell's character starts from Marilyn and moves forward, which would deny much of who the real woman was. Even if the show had been left at the end of Act I, it would be a head-scratcher: That would leave only the second act for Marilyn's story, which would not be enough time by any reckoning.

    It's a haphazard approach to musical dramaturgy and construction, but one that the series insists on revolving around. You can't not address it, and yet that's exactly what Smash tries to do. And not just with "Let Me Be Your Star"—barely a hint is dropped as to how any of the numbers could fit together. Among the others we've seen in the first 11 episodes are two duets for Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith," about their craving the simple life, and the lustily romantic "History Is Made at Night"), an angry plaint for Joe as he watches the filming of that provactive Seven Year Itch scene with the upwardly mobile dress ("Lexington and 52nd Street"), still one more number about Marilyn's personal fascination with those years (an uptempo called "The National Pastime"), Norma Jeane's mambo makeover into a "20th Century Fox," Christian Borle leading a number as Daryl F. Zanuck with the chorus boys dressed in towels (don't ask why), an Actors' Studio riff in which Marilyn explores her inner self ("Dig Deep"), and a few others of lesser consequence still.

    Okay. But it's not enough—and the people involved with Smash know it. In a Los Angeles Times story musing about the notion that the fictional Marilyn musical would get a berth on the real Broadway, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt admitted, "Since our creative team has been writing songs and snippets of Bombshell scenes only to tell the stories of our characters in Smash, there is no fully realized Bombshell." Exactly right: Shaiman and Wittman don't have to worry about their musical numbers making logical sense, because the musical they are writing is Smash, not Bombshell.

    Smash2-2.jpgBut Smash is not a musical. It's a drama about a musical, which is not remotely the same thing. And treating them as though they were, which is what the series's creators are doing, means that the show-within-the-show cannot be told well. There are major attempts made (usually on the order of one per episode) to flesh out the series's characters by having them sing non-Broadway pop songs in situations where a traditional musical might have them; Ivy and Karen individually sing to themselves in mirrors, then join together for a challenge duet in the shadow of the TKTS booth; and a bunch of the chorus kids join together for a big chorus in a bowling alley. But this is Glee thinking, and rips us more out of the reality of Smash's world rather than drawing us further into it. All that could is seeing their musical undergo actual, believable development. Ideally in this sort of situation, someone on the Smash writing staff would sketch out exactly what Bombshell is and how it works, and then reveal new facets of it in each new episode. The songs can still reflect on the "real" characters' struggles (and, in fact, they probably should, if ideally in a less ham-fisted way than Ivy's, Karen's, and even Rebecca's echoings of Monroes troubles are currently presented), but if they don't function within their intended world as well, the whole picture will never come together. And because that's not happening, we can't accept as concrete the thing about which all the show's central characters are devoting their professional lives.

    The onus then falls upon the writing of the characters—and that is every bit as muddled. There is far too much going on to detail in full. But as of this writing, Julia has already lost out on adopting a Chinese baby, become estranged from her biological son, had an affair with Michael Swift, the actor cast as Joe DiMaggio (Will Chase), and separated from her husband (played by Brian D'Arcy James). Tom, meanwhile, has cycled through three separate love interests. His assistant, the infamous Ellis (Jaime Cepero), kindled the Marilyn idea by secretly recording a video of an early practice session, then tried to force them to give him a share of the profits before dumping Tom and going to work for Eileen, from whom he demanded (and, as of this writing, is on the verge of receiving) coproducer credit. As for Eileen, she divorced her husband, stole and hocked a painting of his to finance the show, and is currently pursuing a new romance with the maker of the best $7 martinis in Manhattan, who also helped her line up her chief investor. (Huh?)

    There's a lot more going on offstage as well, all of it seemingly extraneous except for Ivy and Karen's rivalry, which extends as well into Derek's bedroom: The director pursued Karen, who decided to remain faithful to her boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey), who's well placed in the mayor's PR office, then got Ivy, who in turn scored the Marilyn part in the workshop. The two women have good personal and professional reasons for being constantly at each other's throats; no one else does. (This should not, by the way, be construed as knocking the actors, all of whom are doing their best with what they're given; particularly Messing, who's movingly navigating Julia's poor choices and conflicted feelings on so many fronts.)

    But the drama that should emerge naturally from the creative process and the rehearsal room isn't there, and Smash is constantly weaker for it. Anyone who's done a musical at even the most basic of levels (such as at a high school or community theater) knows that even the friendliest cast is a living EKG meter of ups and downs. But there's practically none of that here: Not just because we see so few members of the cast (Bombshell has had, at this point, only two visible leads, Ivy and Michael; actors are occasionally engaged for bit parts as Arthur Miller or Lee Strasberg, but there's no visible sign that they're important members of the company), but because the creative team is rarely seen interacting with any of them. Aside from when Derek is playing Ivy and Karen against each other, or Ivy is attempting to elbow Karen out of the spotlight, we see nothing about the actual process. The musical is created in broad strokes—auditions! Callbacks! Understudies! Star replacement!—but the technical and interpersonal connective tissue, in other words all the things that really make shows what they are, and that in real life can be intense dramatic, is functionally nonexistent.

    Then there's the presentation of the songs themselves. I'm afraid this will be considered a cheap shot, but it's important to note that we rarely (if ever) see "pure" renditions of the numbers in rehearsal clothes. Tom's Zanuck number is the only real exception: In every other case, the rehearsal renditions are intercut (and often replaced by) visions of the finished version, complete with real sets, costumes, and orchestrations. Again, it makes sense from the standpoint of wanting to show musical performances in their exciting, fully decked-out entirety. We're not really seeing the musical being built, because the essential building blocks at the outset aren't considered important enough to dwell on. This is bad enough on dramatic principle now, but it will get even worse later: Imagine how thrilling it would have been to see the numbers done rehearsal-realistically for weeks and weeks, only to finally unveil them with full instrumentation, design, and color in (I assume) the season finale. Because of the choices that have already been made, the TV audience will never get the gasp-inducing thrill of seeing how a show actually moves from existing only in the artists' heads to living and breathing onstage.

    Isn't that what Smash was always supposed to have been, and what Rebeck created it to be? One assumes. And yet it's no longer that. It's become nothing more than a soap opera that coincidentally takes place in some pseudo-fantasy version of the theatre. And, yeah, that's simply not interesting to those of us who know better—and, I assume, it's not going to be as interesting as it could be to people who don't, but would like to. All that's left is a story about two women competing for a role they would never compete for, in a musical that would never exist, in a show business that doesn't actually operate, with all its practitioners constantly behaving in ways that in real life they would never behave, in pursuit of a final product that we're not allowed to see become finalized. Everything the show needs to do to tell the story it claims to be telling, it doesn't do. You're left with a TV series that feels exactly like Bombshell looks: episodic, slapdash, disconnected—as though no one gave a damn about making it make sense.

    The question, then, isn't what is there to hate about Smash. It's: What is there to like? As mentioned, the acting is, for the most part, terrific. (The biggest complaints I've seen have been about Emory Cohen, who plays Julia's son, Leo, though I think he's fine, and his role is so small, it couldn't ruin anything even Cohen really were terrible.) It's a huge amount of fun seeing real New York theatre actors, in parts big (Tom) and small (the chorus members; Rock of Ages's Wesley Taylor has, among a number of others, shown up in many episodes), and even offstage personalities like Jordan Roth, Emmanuel Azenberg, and Michael Riedel show up to give events a sense of legitimate gravitas. If the songs are terribly nonspecific Marilyn and maybe not even passable Broadway, they're almost always catchy and compellingly choreographed (by Joshua Bergasse). And it's clear that NBC really cared about making a high-quality series; it looks terrific and is well conceived from a design standpoint, whatever you may think of the finished product.

    I also need to give the writers credit for bowing to reality more than the earlier weeks of the series suggested possible. Introducing Rebecca—a talented actress and major marquee name with no vocal prowess to speak of—into the mix shines a stronger light on what Ivy and Karen are working for, and is a nod to the sad situation faced by so many gifted performers who never get to officially create the parts they birthed because they're not famous enough. That's show-biz, kid, and it's nice that—in this way, at least—Smash hasn't ignored it entirely.

    But despite this, and despite Smash's already-announced renewal for a second season, it still should be a lot better than it is. Even if it never becomes strictly realistic, it needs to decide what it is and what it wants to be, and then be that to the best of its ability. One hopes that that isn't Glee—there's one of those already, and the world doesn't need another. What the world could use is a drama on a major network that brings the magic, mystery, and mania of the theatre into millions of homes and convinces viewers that making any show look easy is devilishly hard work, but can have fiercely rewarding payoffs.

    That's what Smash seems to want to do on paper, but it never quite arrives there—it lets far too many other things get in the way, things that seem determined to make the series like so many others out there rather than one that's unique but worthwhile on its own terms. If Rebeck and her collaborators can sift through it, whether in the four remaining episodes this season or next year, it will be a mighty challenge for me and others like me to keep hating this show that we all so desperately want to love.

    Images (top to bottom): Megan Hilty and Will Chase as Ivy Lynn and Michael Swift (playing Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio), from "The Workshop"; Katharine McPhee, from "The Understudy"; Christian Borle and Debra Messing, from "The Movie Star"; Hilty and Jack Davenport, from "The Understudy"; Uma Thurman, from "The Movie Star."

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