Let me start out by saying that I am a theatre nut. I’ve always loved Broadway musicals (even the small ones) and have done my time working in community theatre for many years. So ever since we were teased with Smash in early 2011, I’ve been breaking out in spontaneous jazz hands with anticipation. But does one of the most buzz-worthy shows of the season live up to its hype?
Let’s break it down after the jump. (Please note this recap contains SPOILERS)
I wanted to love Smash. I really did. But based on the pilot, I don’t think the series will meet my lofty expectations. My biggest problem with the show? Clichés. And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this – Broadway musicals are often defined by their hammy clichés and that’s the whole fun of it. So why is this a problem here? Well, for one, it’s a television show, and what works on stage just didn’t work for me on the small screen. Now that’s not to say that it’s impossible for the genre to translate to the screen: there are many musical films that are excellent (see Cabaret (Fosse, 1972) and All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979) if you don’t believe me). Heck, even Glee in its heyday really hit a home run melding the song and dance with the dramedy.
But in Smash, it just doesn’t work. It’s way too predictable and boring. Smash is essentially a backstage musical stretched out into a television series. And as I mentioned, the clichés are so abundant you can’t do an eye-line kick without smacking into one. What do we have here? The timid wallflower with a powerhouse voice, Karen Cartwright (played by Katherine McPhee- who we’ve been ‘introduced’ to about a dozen times); Derek Wills (Jack Davenport, breaking free from his ‘other guy’ typecast role ala Pirates of the Caribbean and FlashForward) as the overbearing ‘British’ director, who seamlessly oscillates between extreme asshole and caring mentor; the overtly gay composer/writer, Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) and his beard of a partner, Julia Houston (Debra Messing) who does double-cliché duty as the neglectful mother who choses work over family. And the list goes on…
I will say however, that I was quite surprised with the pilot’s treatment Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) who plays Karen’s competition. I appreciated that she wasn’t painted (immediately) as the one-dimensional ‘bitch’ who will step over everyone and do anything to get a part. There is an authenticity about Ivy that I get – she wants this and she’s intensely driven, but still shows vulnerability. This is effectively communicated when she confesses to Tom that she’s auditioning for other parts despite having a job in his other musical, Heaven on Earth. This of course, plays to her advantage as it lands her the Marilyn part in the workshops. And I just loved the scene when she’s talking to her mom on the phone about getting a callback. Excellent. I’m happy to be introduced to you, Ms. Hilty. But I fear that Ivy will soon turn into a watered-down Cristal Connors (of Showgirls fame) when we get more scenes with her in direct competition with Karen. I predict she’ll be sleeping with the director and pushing McPhee down the stairs by episode three.
Other predictions? Julia’s marriage is going to end up in shambles and will likely have a tawdry affair with another Broadway creative-type that ‘understands’ her and her devotion to her work (probably the one that Messing is rumored to be dating in real life ); Derek WILL sleep with Ivy (because she’s there) but will really have eyes for the sweet virginal Karen, who will eventually screw things up with her hopelessly devoted boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey). Oh, and the reason that Tom has a serious hate-on for Derek, has to have something to do with unrequited love (Is Derek a bisexual perhaps? Or only when it’s advantageous to him?).
Obviously, I could be completely wrong, but the fact that I’m even able to forecast these predictions demonstrates the abundance of tired archetypes found throughout pilot. I don’t doubt that these characters exists, in some format, in the proverbial ‘real world’ – I just wish that the show had taken a more subtle route and chosen a less predictable path to bringing “Marilyn the Musical” to the big stage.
Curiously absent from my bitchy list of predictions is illustrious Anjelica Huston, who plays cut-throat producer and shrewd business woman, Eileen Rand. Elieen is currently going through a very public divorce with her rich and prestigious husband, Jerry (Michael Christofer) which can lend itself to some juicy, soap-opera worthy drama. Although her scenes are arguably just as cliché as the others, Huston’s acting chops add a freshness that makes it very difficult for me to box her character into a cookie-cutter frame. Perhaps it’s because I just want to enjoy her and buckle in for the ride. She’s at once familiar but intriguing, and the other character/actors could stand to learn from her.
I’ll stick with Smash for another few episodes at least, if only to see if my predictions pan out.
Some other observations
- Was it me, or were the production values on the stage scenes really crappy? I’m speaking here of the baseball number as it switched from rehearsal studio to big stage production (Chicago: get your lawyers on the phone for theft of intellectual property). The lighting looked so incredibly amateurish. Was this supposed to represent a musical I wanted to see? (Answer: no.)
- I’m sorry, but how did assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) manage to keep his job after posting Ivy’s private recording session on YouTube? Yes, we got some protest by Julia, but not nearly enough! Prediction: Ellis is actually an amazing talent (which both Tom and Julia are going to be SHOCKED to discover) cultivated from all the time he spent watching from the wings. He’s going to parlay his assistant gig into starring role in the new musical. (Yawn.)
- I seriously found the late-night rehearsal scene between Derek and Karen cringe-worthy. I know she’s supposed to be naive, but really? Cock-teasing the director when you don’t even have the part is almost as dumb as accepting the offer to come to his place at 10:00pm in the first place.
What did you think of Smash? Am I way out of line? I have no doubt that the show is going to be hit, but in the same breath I think it will pitter away into obscurity just as Glee kinda has. Besides, when “Marilyn the Musical” does finally open, what happens next? Perhaps then this show will get interesting. Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section below.
Jessie N says
I began to watch the pilot but found myself muting the TV to watch ‘cute kitten’ vids on YouTube. Nuff said. So disappointed.
I didn’t like the late night scene either. I doubted that the director would still consider McPhee’s character after she acted the way she did. And yes, she was very naive to go to his apartment. Wouldn’t her boyfriend have tipped her off to her naivite about going there? It seems that Smash is gearing up to cast McPhee’s character as Marilyn, which I think would not happen in real life. Hilty’s character is much more experienced and has a strong voice, whereas McPhee’s is thin and derivative (imitating Christina Aguilera). The casting of Smash seems to be due to how slim McPhee is and that clothes look great on her, like most movie stars. I’m not saying she lacks talent as a pop singer, but I question where Smash is going.
I agree – McPhee is a good pop singer but her arm gestures and constantly closing of eyes would never fly on Broadway. I think we’re going to get a long, drawn out audition process where McPhee and Hilty battle it out for the lead (Read: at least three more episodes until a decision is made…) by that time McPhee will be presented as then favourite because she’s ‘worked oh so hard’ to be there, while I think that would be sufficient time to paint Hilty as the clear villain and not have any fans rooting for her. Backstage bedroom antics are sure to come into play as well….
Brett L. says
I normally don’t comment on blogs, but in this case, I just feel I have to let you know that you’re a moron.
You’ve clearly never worked in the PROFESSIONAL theatre industry. As a Broadway Stage Veteran I can say that SMASH comes about as close to portraying how things really are in the upper echelon of Broadway Theatre as a TV show possibly could. As someone who’s lived there most of his life, I can confirm that it truly is a dog eat dog world where only the strong and cunning survive and most end up just going home (or hanging themselves.)
I also think you may need to look up the meaning of the word “clichés” because SMASH is the opposite: SMASH is fresh and touching and filled with talent and its story has not been told before, ever, on TV. Actually, you’re a cliché for using “clichés” as a criticism when you don’t know what else to say. Everyone does that, which, for future reference, is the definition of cliché.
I think perhaps you need to stop assuming you know anything about theatre and watch like you know absolutely nothing about these people or this world and then you’d be able to enjoy yourself. Also, have some respect and consider the vast talent of the people on this show both in front of and behind the camera. I have been blown away by McPhee and Hilty on every episode so far this season. They are not just great singers and dancers but great actors with each having had beautiful, touching, powerful moments that involved no singing at all. The cinematic team is fantastic as well and they have done a wonderful job portraying the musical numbers as projections from the imaginations of the characters. This trick (a la Chicago: The Movie) allows us, as the audience, to accept the glitter and flash of the musical numbers instead of having constant confrontations with the rules and logic of reality.
In the end, this is just a show about the theater world – it’s a TV show about a microcosm of America that few people ever get a real peek into. And I think we happen to be lucky that on top of it being an interesting topic, the execution has been fantastic so far. This is a show with a really compelling and touching story that focuses on characters who behave logically and have serious depth and complexity. That alone is refreshing and If that were all the show was, it would already be one of the best shows on TV considering most of the drivel thats out there. BUT, on top of the solid writing, complex story and great characters and actors, the show has also found a way to weave first class music and choreography (with voices and dancing as good as anything you’ll see on Broadway, a feat easily accomplished when they hired Broadway performers) into the story and that just adds another level of beauty and depth to the show. The placement and usage of the songs hearkens back to the greats, like Oscar and Hammerstein, who knew that in musicals, a song should only be used when the spoken word can no longer express the emotion of the moment. Thus far, SMASH has not had even one song or dance number that didn’t fit with the story. Not one time have I caught someone singing just because “people sing on this show.” Most actual Broadway musicals are less careful and have stupid unnecessary songs all over the place.
SMASH is a top-notch Broadway musical that happens to be on television and from what I can tell, they are using song in storytelling the way the great Broadway writers and composers do it, and the way it should always be done. I was moved to tears during the McPhee’s audition in the pilot, and have found that on this series each song number has been part of a moment that was already emotionally charged AND that the songs that have been sung have only served to enhance those moments. It’s a musical as musicals should be, and it just so happens to be on TV. Bravo, Bravo to the producers is truly all I can say.
That, and, of course, to you: Get your head out of your ass.
One more thing:
You shouldn’t even be mentioning GLEE in this review as a comparison because this show makes GLEE look like the worst imaginable community theatre written by a blind cat who also happens to be having difficulty telling a story that anyone cares about. To compare SMASH to GLEE only shows how inept you are – it basically makes it clear that any show with singing is apparently the same to you. Doing so is a bit like comparing CSI: MIami to The Wire, because both shows are about cops. CSI: Miami is fun and its candy, but it’s certainly not the same kind of show as “The Wire.”
Hi Brett, while I can understand why you might disagree with me, I will not participate in personal attacks as you do in your comment.
Our goal is to encourage a dialogue and in order to create a sense of community, individuals need to be able to express themselves without being attacked.
We are all entitled to our opinions and I respect yours, however it’s difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation with you when you present yourself so antagonistically.
Please be mindful of your responses as we will not approve any future derogatory comments.
Jessie N says
My intention here is not to attack you personally but simply to illustrate, through narrative, how your response comes across (to me, anyway).
Seriously? You cried during the audition? She sang a Christina Aguilera song – and did that thing with her hands. Really dude? I’ve been to a few Broadway productions myself and I don’t remember anything that awkward – it was like watching a sex scene with my grandparents in the room, I had to look away from the screen and cringe.
Now, I am not a “Broadway stage veteran” but the last time I checked, I, like TVangie, cinephilactic, you and thousands of others, watch television shows and form opinions about them. While it is clear that yours differs from the blogpost, your response was more of a tirade, prefaced mostly by assertions of your authority on the matter and devoid of anything really insightful or intelligent. Additionally, it was plain rude. To call someone a moron or tell them to het their “head out of their ass” is a seriously childish way of getting your point across – which other than “you’re wrong,” I’m not sure I see…