With only two episodes aired, it’s difficult to say where exactly Smash, the new NBC series about backstage Broadway lives, will take us. Executive produced and so far written by playwright Theresa Rebeck, the show responds to Fox’s Glee by embedding lavish musical numbers in its story of a lyricist-songwriting team creating a Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe. The plot line so far addresses the intrigue that surrounds producing, casting, and directing such a behemoth.
Of course, the whole thing is an elaborate fantasy. First, Angelica Huston (whose once expressive face is now, sadly, barely mobile) plays Eileen, the sole producer of the new musical. In reality, Broadway shows are littered with people whose financial investments, if nothing else, give them above-the-title producing credit.
Second, Rebeck’s script for Smash has streamlined the process so that in just two episodes, the dynamic music-and-lyrics duo Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) have moved from the glimmer of an idea into staffing and casting the show. In real life, a project like this would be workshopped for years and involve a zillion people before it arrived at the point where Smash picks up.
But here, by the second episode, Eileen has encouraged the director, Derek (written as a sexy sleaze and played by the British actor Jack Davenport, late of FlashForward), to do a quick workshop production and then get the show on Broadway’s boards. Would that it were all so easy!
The musical’s partners are played with verve and somehow, believability, by Messing (cast as Rebeck’s doppelganger) and Borle (who last season played a superb Prior in Angels in America at the Signature Theatre Off Broadway). So far, Borle has little to do as Tom but basically play out-and-proud gay. He flirts with his impossibly cute but untrustworthy assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), and lobbies for his friend, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), to get the lead in his show.
The show’s conflict comes from the competition it manufactures between its would-be Marilyns, two talented young women with very different looks and takes on the iconic star. Hilty (Wicked and 9 to 5), a bona fide Broadway performer both in actuality and in character as Ivy, represents the body-type. She’s blond, buxom, and can belt with the best of them.
Former American Idol star Katharine McPhee plays Karen Cartwright, an untested young woman from Iowa (of course), whose brown hair and slight build make her less recognizable, at first, as the curvy, breathless 50s personality who seduced Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and President Kennedy. But in the show’s intercut fantasy sequences, dolled up in the right costume, wig, and make-up, Karen passes for Marilyn very well indeed.
The first two episodes have careened along on the suspense of who Derek would cast as the musical’s lead. He summons both young women for private meetings, calling Karen late at night and requiring that she come to his (mouthwateringly lavish) apartment for a private audition. In the first episode’s most unlikely scenario, she goes, and somehow maintains the upper-hand in a situation clearly constructed for sex.
Derek tells her he needs to “see everything,” and she changes in his bathroom into a large, white, man’s shirt, then performs the equivalent of a private lap dance and signature Monroe-style song. At its end, she tells Derek that’s all he’s getting, and leaves his apartment unscathed (though it’s unclear whether he respects her for her fortitude or loathes her. He must ultimately respect her, because he calls her back and lets her continue the audition in public).
Hilty’s character, Ivy, is less reticent when Derek makes his moves. They’re working alone in a rehearsal hall when he asks if he can let down her hair (literally) and then frames her blond locks around her face meaningfully. The next scene shows them rollicking naked in bed together.
All this reaffirms the stereotype of the Broadway (and Hollywood) casting couch, the mythic place where powerful men have sex with desirable and desiring young women to authorize and launch their careers. Because Karen has a boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey, who plays a functionary at the mayor’s office), and because she’s rejected Derek’s advances, she’s portrayed as the ethical, fresh-faced, unspoiled young thing from the flyover states.
Ivy, on the other hand, is already performing in a Broadway show. Her friends are gypsies, the corps of performers who sing and dance in musicals and make their living as unknown but employed and talented company members. Many of the men are gay, and in Smash, that stereotype holds fast. One of Ivy’s friends is hired to dance in the Marilyn musical’s rehearsals, and passes information on to Ivy about Karen, her competitor. Since Ivy is already part of Broadway culture, she’s portrayed as wiser to the ways of the world and more willing to play what Rebeck describes as the professional theatre’s necessary games.
Subplots abound here, all meant to humanize Julia, the Messing character, who is the show’s lead. Julia and her husband, Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), live in a comfortable brownstone with a huge kitchen, huge bedrooms, and a huge patio or porch off its dining room, its real estate representing another of the show’s fantasy aspects. He stays home to supervise the household and their teen-aged son. Julia is the family breadwinner, although in the pilot, she’s supposed to be taking a break from her professional work to concentrate on her family’s child adoption process.
Frank’s disappointment in her decision to develop yet another musical instead of being available for the social workers and other bureaucrats who fill the U.S.-China adoption pipeline establishes another plot conflict that will no doubt play out this season. Julia balances on the precarious edge between being a good artist and a good wife/mother and Smash tries not to judge her for putting her work first.
But by the second episode, the balance shifts, as Julia reveals her deep emotional commitment to the adoption and Frank wavers, admitting he wants to go back to work as a science teacher and that he’s afraid he’s too old for a new baby. Watching how this dilemma plays out along or against typical gender expectations should be interesting.
Smash is fun television, and the musical numbers, which so far represent more of a tease than the series’ meat, are energetically choreographed and beautifully performed. Smash has an impressive pedigree; it’s produced by Steven Spielberg in conjunction with a number of Broadway notables, directed by the very talented Michael Mayer, and cast with some of the best actors in New York.
Rebeck, the series’ show-runner, is one of the few successful women playwrights who, like Wendy Wasserstein before her, can open a play directly on Broadway. Her most recent hit, Seminar, which stars Alan Rickman (though Jeff Goldblum has just been announced as his replacement) and Lily Rabe, is a funny, smart play about a creative writing workshop lead by a preemptory, haughty snob. Rebeck’s ear for dialogue and witty repartee and her talent for slick plotting is unparalleled in the contemporary American theatre.
And Rebeck’s commitment to women playwrights is well-established. Her keynote for the 2010 Laura Pels Awards excoriated powerful theatre producers and critics for their gender bias and demanded action. She’s been an outspoken, visible, and powerful advocate.
Sometimes, though, Smash tells stories in which its women are maligned without necessarily critiquing how they’re forced to compromise. The first two episodes turn on the caricature of the mean-spirited but talented, wicked but sexy straight male director who tests his female stars in the sack as well as on the stage. The story line forces Karen and Ivy to compete for his attention sexually as well as professionally. That might be how Broadway business is conducted, but ifSmash is a fantasy anyway, why not imagine a different kind of theatre world?
I’ve only seen two episodes so it could be entirely too soon to tell where the story of Smash will take its characters and its audience. It’s fun to watch a television show that’s actually about theatre, instead of one like Glee in which the musical numbers are justified by the high school club setting. And it’s fun to see the gay subculture of Broadway represented so nonchalantly.
The song-and-dance numbers (choreographed by Joshua Bergasse) so far are energetically performed and filmed with high style and verve. And it’s wonderful to see Rebeck’s name splashed across the credits so prominently.
I’ll stick with Smash, because it’s significant and important that Rebeck is a woman carrying a high profile, big-budget series. And I’ll keep believing that the women characters will get more complicated and the show’s story lines more nuanced. Then the show really will be a smash.
The Feminist Spectator