Smash and Broadway

Smash ended its first season this week, and has been renewed for a second, minus Theresa Rebeck, its creator and original show runner (and one of the only women playwrights to be produced on Broadway).  Too bad that Rebeck is losing such a high profile, visible perch from which to write for television, but maybe the small screen isn’t her milieu.  While her plays—see the recently closed Seminar for only one example—are filled with sharp dialogue, witty repartee, clever plotting, and acutely drawn characters, Smash has this season seemed a muddle of genres, styles, and concerns, none of which have gelled.


I’ve been watching avidly, but come away from most episodes disappointed as the show sinks more and more into a Glee-like thematic integration of songs into the plot, instead of the more theatrically-based use of musical numbers that promised from the outset to distinguish the series.  The Marilyn Monroe musical that the show’s characters have worked to develop all season–called Bombshell–actually seems quite good; I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a real Broadway spin-off in the works.


The rehearsal numbers, which often morph into fantasy performance sequences, as the company prepares for its Boston tryout (something productions never do anymore, one way in which the show is full of anachronisms), are wonderfully choreographed (by Joshua Bergasse), and feature talented singers and dancers.  The two principals—Megan Hilty as Ivy and Katharine McPhee as Karen—have continued their uneasy alliance throughout the season, as they both keep their eye on the prize of Bombshell’s lead role.


In the season finale, that competition comes to a temporary conclusion, as (spoiler alert, just in case) the moody director Derek asks Karen to perform as Marilyn, rejecting Ivy by telling her she just doesn’t have that “certain something” that keeps Karen-as-Marilyn haunting his mind.  Despondent, Ivy is last seen spilling a bottle of prescription meds into her hand, staring into her dressing room mirror looking determined for all the wrong reasons.


The show’s ur-theme unspools how these talented young women have become cogs in the wheel of Broadway’s machinery, as the producer, Eileen—Angelica Huston, in a role that flatters her talents not at all—debates how to make the musical a necessary success.  In an earlier episode, after a backers’ showcase for which Ivy performs as Marilyn and to which would-be investors respond tepidly, Eileen decides that the show needs a star, and imports film actress Rebecca (Uma Thurman) to play the lead.


Uma Thurman as Rebecca

Thurman’s performance over her several-episode arc found the tone Smash needs to really work.  Thurman camped it up as the film star whose foray into live performance both terrified and thrilled her.  As the diva who requires lavish care and feeding, Thurman played the role with a kind of tossed off enthusiasm, not taking it all too seriously and as a result offering a playful, knowing performance.


The character’s predictable peccadilloes let Thurman highlight Rebecca’s narcissistic performance of herself.  In other words, Thurman parodied her character and herself, capturing the recognizable stereotype of a famous film actor doing a guest spot as a famous film actor swanning around a Broadway show.


Aside from Thurman’s episodes, the series hasn’t been able to find a consistent tone.  Smash is really a soap opera, a melodrama like Grey’s Anatomy and others of its ilk.  But the writers seem to want more than that.  They want to capture the backstage breeziness of the musical theatre gypsies who surround Karen and Ivy (and who are wonderful in the musical numbers), offering a theatrical glimpse into the cattiness and mutual supportiveness of those who are most often anonymous and invisible except as parts of the larger whole.


At the same time, Smash wants to play as serious dramatic realism, but the scenes the writers generate for the principal characters sound pretentious, contrived, and overly histrionic.  The contradiction makes for a kind of fascinating train wreck—how do you make a show about the process of creating a show dramatically interesting?


As Feminist Spectator 2 (Stacy Wolf) notes, it’s easy to think of numerous backstage musicals and films from the 20th century to the present, all of which demonstrate audiences’ fascination with how theatre works and how productions get put together.  The rehearsal scenes in Smash demonstrate something of that world, except that the characters are forced into the most old-fashioned, stereotypical versions of their parts.  Derek (Jack Davenport) is played as a temperamental artiste and womanizer who “gets” the performance he needs from his female leads by seducing them.  The stage manager is portrayed as harried, the chorus as catty, and the creators as conflicted (with themselves and one another).  This very conventional understanding of creativity—and gender—doesn’t do justice to the complexities of making something work for live theatre.


The series hasn’t yet found a way through its conundrums.  Talented performers like Debra Messing and Christian Borle, as Julia and Tom, the songwriting duo creating the Marilyn musical, are mostly wasted in roles that require them to plod through melodramatic plot lines about failing relationships that don’t showcase their real skill.  Both actors succeed in making more of their roles than the scripts deserve, but sometimes, their necessary labor shows.


Messing’s Julia is punished for her desire in a too predictable, too stereotypically gendered storyline.  Not for the first time, Julia sleeps with Bombshell’s leading man (Will Chase), jeopardizing her marriage to Frank, a perfectly nice if boring science teacher (played earnestly by Brian D’Arcy James).  Messing and Chase spark with attraction in their flirtation scenes.


By contrast, Julia’s domestic life with Frank and her imperious, impossible teenaged son are routine and dull.  Julia is supposed to be an accomplished Broadway lyricist/songwriter, yet she’s hobbled by a family whose demands on her emotional life threaten her ability to do her job.


Gay Tom, on the other hand, can at least follow his own desire.  He’s cycled through two different relationships this season, leaving a nice but ordinary lawyer with whom his mother, of all people, set him up, and ends the season having an affair with one of Bombshell’s chorus boys, a faith-full African American who wants to go slowly and build an emotional connection before consummating their relationship in a sexual one.  Although the couple is entirely unbelievable, Borle and his would-be boyfriend have nice chemistry (for a straight man, Borle does an excellent, convincing job playing gay).


Then there’s the Karen and Dev (Raza Jaffrey) subplot, in which Karen and her longtime boyfriend suffer complications from privileging her career as a performer over his as a politico/lawyer.  He’s been demoted in his mayor’s office job; his unhappiness leads him to flirt with a co-worker.  After he almost has sex with her, Dev runs to Boston to propose to Karen because he’s startled by his attraction to the other woman.


But handsome, soulful, mostly supportive Dev is rebuffed by Karen (who can’t contemplate a marriage proposal while she’s in tech, for heaven’s sake!).  And then, of all things, Dev parks at the Boston hotel bar to drown his sorrows, where he bumps into Ivy, propelling them into an inexplicable one-night stand.


Karen in the questionable Bollywood number

These far-fetched stories would be fun if the show admitted to its own trashy campiness.  But Smash’s tone doesn’t signal anything but a weird earnestness about its unlikely narrative turns.  The musical numbers sometimes get the campiness right, though a Bollywood number, in which Karen performed in some sort of India royal court for Dev, with the two of them and the others decked out in Orientalist-wear, was completely gratuitous and patently racist.  But after these extra-textual insertions, the show returns to its soapy stories without the knowing self-reflexivity that would make them, well . . . fun, smart, and snappy.


Seeing two different Broadway theatre productions recently that featured two of Smash’s leading performers also helped me realize one of the show’s central problems.  Megan Hilty starred in last week’s City Center Encores! production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by the super-talented, super-funny John Rando (Urinetown).  The short-run production was a confection, a sweet, playful paean to a 1940s musical that uses musical idioms of the 20s (in which the story is set) and the 50s (to which it looks forward) to move its heroine, the iconic Lorelei, through a silly plot about finding a millionaire mate on a ship bound from New York for France.


Lorelei, of course, was originally played on Broadway by a young Carol Channing, and then on film by Marilyn Monroe.  That Hilty was cast as the Monroe character while she’s on television starring in a series about the making of a musical based on Monroe doesn’t seem a coincidence.  During the talk-back after last Saturday’s matinee performance (5/12/12), a vibrant and excited Hilty said that she and Rando talked about how she might make the role her own.


Hilty played the role as though she were born to it.  Her Lorelei, though, wasn’t the breathy bombshell who uses her sex appeal like a weapon, as Monroe would have her.  Hilty’s Lorelei was sweet and surprisingly smart.  Although she’s full of malapropisms and her take on politics and the real world is slightly askew, Lorelei becomes the voice of sanity in the play’s rather crazy world.


Hilty as Lorelei in Encores! Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

And via Hilty, Lorelei was all heart.  Hilty is a terrific, superbly charismatic stage performer.  “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” was a knockout number in Hilty’s hands.  She controlled every note, every step, and every beat of her delivery with a confidence, wit, and pleasure that made her galvanizing to watch.


The stage is Hilty’s milieu.  Her connection to her fellow performers and to the audience was palpable and thrilling throughout the Gentlemen performance.  She’s a graceful, generous performer; you can see and feel her buoying up the rest of the cast and offering herself with powerful aplomb to the audience, with the Lorelei role as the vehicle for her wonderful talent.


Megan Hilty in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Watching Hilty perform live helped me realize what’s wrong with Smash.  Although it’s great fun to see so many Broadway actors on the small screen, television just can’t do justice to their talent.  As Ivy, Hilty’s charisma is compressed by a story that makes the character jealous and small, and by a format that shrinks her exuberance down to fit a much more constrained medium.


Although we get glimpses of Hilty’s magnetism in the few numbers Smash shares from Bombshell, they barely hint at the power of her live presence as a performer.  It’s in the exchange between cast-mates and audience that Hilty excels, putting over a number by how she orients her body and her sound to the house, by the outsized smile she wears, which shines on her heart, beating on her sleeve.


Television and a melodrama about leading women competing with one another over a role and over their men diminish Hilty’s innate strengths.  Smash forces you to look at this glorious performer as though through the wrong end of a telescope; she’s reduced, shrunk to fit a two-dimensional screen that can only flatten her.


The same is true of Christian Borle, who’s performing on Broadway in Peter and the Star-Catcher, a wonderfully invented play with music that began at New York Theatre Workshop last season.  The play (by Rick Elice) narrates the back-story of Peter Pan, featuring an ensemble of 10 men and one young woman (the very talented, delightful Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays “Molly,” a feisty girl who goes on to become Wendy’s mother).  The actors deliver the tale in a terrifically physical, energetic, transformational acting style.


Co-directed by Roger Rees (he of Nicholas Nickleby fame, to which Peter has been compared by some critics) and Alex Timber (who created a similarly active, imaginative mise-èn-scene for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), Peter uses the actors’ bodies and simple theatrical tricks to create the story of three boy orphans who are shipped against their will to an evil king.  En route, their lives are saved and transformed by Molly and her father, the custodians of magical “star stuff,” who are delivering their goods in another ship.  When two trunks get switched before these two ships sail, the crew and contents of both vessels become intertwined to spin out the story that leads to Peter Pan.


Christian Borle as Black Stache

As Black Stache (short for “moustache”), the character who eventually becomes the vile Captain Hook, Christian Borle is, in a word, awesome.  Like Hilty, he’s a consummate live performer, whose work with the ensemble and his interactions with the audience are hilarious, smart, and entirely skillful.  He jumps, he leaps, he sweats, and he works on stage, all to make it look easy and so much fun.  (His extra-large theatrical persona was also evident in his turn as Prior in last year’s Signature Theatre revival of Angels in America.)


Sitting at a piano crooning tunes and rolling his eyes at his fellow characters’ machinations in Smash wastes Borle’s abilities.  But how could television incorporate the wonder of seeing him use the space of the stage to express his outsized talent?  TV compresses these wonderful stage actors into a story that reduces their characters and their own performing gifts.


Before it became routine and tiresome, Glee captured some of the campy style that Smash needs to make it, you should excuse me, sing.  The series needs less plodding scripting and more celebration of what it feels like to be able to sing with a voice like Megan Hilty’s, and more acknowledgement that performers with as much presence and charisma as Hilty and Borle are what makes Broadway continue to attract audiences, even while film spectacles beckon them away.


Hilty and Borle demonstrate that live popular performance like Broadway musicals and comedies rely on something very old fashioned indeed:  the magnetism of consummate performers who know how to hold the audience in the palm of their hand.  How pleasurable it is to be carried away on the high of an actor’s charisma.  And how sad not to be able to capture that on a television show about Broadway.


The Feminist Spectator



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