Monday, March 26, 2012

A Theater Critic's Response To NBC's "Smash"

by Chris Steele

Somewhere between Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and the widespread success of the Hollywood’s re-hash of Chicago, musicals found a spotlight.  That spotlight was believed to be dimming with the less than prolific arrivals of musical films like Nine and Burlesque.  The song and dance routine has found a home, however, where most people least expected it.  Prime time.  NBC’s response to the lyrical madness is Smash, a creative look at broadway through the eyes of the workshop, “Marilyn” a brand new show centered around the life of Marilyn Monroe.  

Admittedly, I went into this show without a lot emotionally invested.  Many of my former theater pals had been speaking about the much hyped premiere with intense excitement and baited breath, while I awaited it with guarded optimism.  I knew nothing of anyone in the show except Anjelica Houston and Debra Messing and merely knew it was a musical concept about conceiving a musical.  My main handle in the theater world was as playwright so I felt like it was a show I could relate to, but as I said, I entered with much guarded optimism. Glee is cute.  The Voice is interesting.  I’ve never been into American Idol, or any other Simon Cowell creation, for whatever reason.  The Sing-Off took me by great surprise when I found myself enthralled, but it still furthered my concern that the market was getting saturated. 

How many musical themed television shows can actually make it the new age of DVR?  There are only so many hours in a day and how many hours of that can be dedicated to music related television. Music is an amazing thing, but when it comes to television it is mere icing. An amazing sweet treat that everyone is talking about in the morning.  Underneath the icing needs to be cake, we need some sort of substance.  With every new musically oriented prime time spot there seemed to be a different flavor, but a thicker helping of rich buttercream.  It tastes great for about two bites and then you realize the cake is dry and you need a drink.  Sitting down to Smash for the first time I was expecting to love the music and be constantly complaining about the plot and the character structure much in the same way that I treat Glee.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The writing is quick and intelligent.  The structure is solid and has depth. What could have been an overly decadent dessert is turning out to be quite the fare and I’m looking forward to what’s next.

The central core of Smash is four characters.  The first of which is the writing team of Julia Houston, (Debra Messing of Will and Grace fame) and Tom Levitt, (Pittsburgh’s own Christian Borle from Broadway’s Legally Blonde: The Musical and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Drama program), who are romanced into attempting a musical about Marilyn Monroe, the catch is to show Marilyn in a different light.  The second pair would be Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, Broadway’s Wicked and another CMU grad) and Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee, American Idol runner up) who are pitted against each other to play the iconic role of Marilyn.  The dichotomy between the two is interesting because it seems to be mirrored in real life. Ivy is a ten year vet of ensemble work and finally gets her chance to be the star of a show and Karen is a home town girl from the mid-west trying to find her break in the big city and seems to have stumbled upon the opportunity of a life time.  Not dissimilar to Hilty’s rise from CMU to broadway compared to McPhee’s overnight stardom on a wildly successful talent show.

These four broadway archetypes are representative of their model.  Julia is an emotionally unstable writer, Tom is a moderately flamboyant composer, Ivy is Diva stepping into the lime light, and Karen is a little bit country and little bit rock and roll, just trying to get by.  While these characters make up the back bone of the show, the supporting cast give depth and flavor.  Three in particular stand out, the producer of the show Eileen Rand (Anjelica Houston… what hasn’t she been in, personal favorite The Royal Tenenbaums), the director of the show Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), and Karen’s uber-successful and profoundly fantastic boyfriend Dev (Razza Jaffrey).  Eileen is knee deep in a nasty divorce, which makes the funding of the show a constant point of drama. Derek is everything you’d expect in a chauvinistic, egotistic, misogynistic director that you love to hate.  Dev seems to be the perfect representation of what most men want to be and the man that most women seem to want. 

What excites me about Smash is that it has set the table for a television series, a mundane statement to be sure, but a simple thing that so many good concepts neglect to do. At first glance one might think it has painted itself into a corner by simply being the production of one show. What happens once the show is up? Derek answers the question with a simple comment to Karen alluding that it is just the beginning; a workshop could be a number of years before it comes to fruition. 

There is a wide list of possibilities within the different relationships.  We, as sympathetic viewers, are being groomed to feel for Karen and grow distaste for Ivy, but there is room for an emotional bait and switch.  Ideally only one or two, multiple personality bait and switching is a curse of Glee, may ultimately be it’s downfall.  Dev is the perfect boyfriend in many respects, but how far down the rabbit hole will he go with Karen before he needs to throw in the towel and make his career.  This is all without even considering the drama unfolding on the real world side of the writers.

Truth be told, I don’t really care about the music.  In fact, I think there’s too much of it.  My only real complaint about the show is that at times (maybe once an episode) it falls into a strange music video type feel that is outside of its real world character. The well staged bits during rehearsals aren’t at fault, I count those as part of the ambiance of it’s show Marilyn. Rather, I mean Ivy writhing on the bed or Karen singing to her closet. I suppose there is a creative license or an element of character development imbued in these moments, but they pull the viewer out of the scene with little to no reward.

Great television is unanswered questions.  The best shows give us a table of unanswered questions and possible outcomes. The first season is setting the table and by the end of it we can be pretty sure if we like the feast that should be coming as we invest time and emotional energy into these characters.  At first glance I feared that we were getting plate of fluff on day old cake with a side of popcorn.  At this point, I think it’s safe to say we’re looking at a pretty decent feast.  Now it’s time to sit back and see what they do with the table that’s set. I feel strangely confident that Smash will deliver and when “Marilyn: The Musical” closes it will have been a long and fruitful ride.

Photo Credit:  NBC

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