At the beginning of February, when NBC's doggedly promoted new series Smash was scheduled to hit television viewers over the head with its implied accurate depiction of what's needed to bring a new musical to Broadway, I wrote disparagingly about the enterprise. I'd seen a screener of the pilot and concluded it loomed as an extremely troubling advertisement for Great White Way tuners already too often a laughing-stock with the wider boob-tube audience.
In its dubious favor, sort of, I also said it could become one of those cultural artifacts that are so bad they're good. Now that 11 episodes have run, I'd say the so-bad-it's-good prediction has just about materialized. Although two friends whose taste I trust actually like Smash, most of the people I talk to about it -- particularly those in some way involved with show business -- find it appalling. When I asked one chum if she'd been tuning in, her immediate response was a horrified gasp of recognition.
But she/they/we are watching anyway. We wouldn't miss an episode, and not because of the occasional truly admirable facets -- for instance, the performances of Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty, the appearances of hardworking New York stage actors getting hefty television salaries, the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman songs that hit the mark most of the time.
No, although we appreciate those aspects and don't begrudge giving the segments plus-column points, we're really glued to our screens to itemize how regularly the show and its show-within-the-show are hilariously misguided (not to say distorted) reflections of the legitimate theater, of the lives of those fictional characters supposedly working in it and certainly of the life of Marilyn Monroe -- whose story is told in the made-up musical being readied for the big time.
It's the portrait of Monroe in a Marilyn-centered 11 o'clock number where, in my estimation, Smash's episode #11, and the series as well, hits rock bottom. To appreciate its five-star awfulness, a viewer has to remember that when librettist-lyricist Julia (Debra Messing) and composer Tom (Christian Borle) decided on bringing the Monroe premise to fruition, the initially dubious Julia had a light-bulb revelation. She realized Marilyn was a person all about "love" and therefore a figure crying out to be the focus of musical comedy appreciation.
This is an idiotic reduction of any human being -- let alone the complicated, ultimately tragic MM -- but that's not my immediate beef. While what we know about Monroe already renders their show-within-a-show Bombshell cheap as tinsel, creator-writer Theresa Rebeck and tunesmiths Shaiman and Wittman commit their garish, wrong-headed "Dig Deep" number at episode's end. The overwrought routine shows a rehearsal that transforms into full on-stage regalia and back. Through much of the hyperkinetic choreography, a greatly glamorized Marilyn is reacting when a scrawny character meant to be Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg demands that she reach into the core of her being for effective emoting.
Anyone who knows Monroe's history with the Actors Studio -- as Rebeck and the show's other writers must -- knows that when she took classes, she thoroughly de-glamorized in an attempt to throw off Hollywood's Monroe-as-Icon-Not-Actor constraints. Classmates recall her wearing pedal pushers, a tan raincoat, kerchiefs, no make-up to sessions. It was after class and on the street, they report, that she would sometimes amuse herself and others by deciding to be "her," thereby galvanizing pedestrians on the spur of the moment. Incidentally, a sequence in Michelle Williams's My Week With Marilyn is an illustration of this playfulness.
So the Smash number portrays nothing like the verified Actors Studio Monroe. Its perpetrators might defend as dramatic license their bit of mockery at the expense of the revered but hardly sacrosanct institution. They might say it's satire, although at no previous time have Julia and Tom indicated they want to send up a now-deceased subject whose life, they're convinced, was all about love. Monroe would send herself up, but she put too much stock in what she might learn at the Actors Studio to denigrate it.
Smash discards the known facts of its subject's life -- something that might make a far more interesting comment on her attitudes toward acting -- and replaces it with something profoundly cheesy. If the Smash creators and characters mean Bombshell to be a slam at Marilyn, the number might be right. But they don't -- to them, Marilyn is all about love and that's no joke
In a larger context, Smash may claim to contain the truth about Broadway and musicals, but it doesn't. Take the very notion of the Rebecca Duval character. "Get Me a Star," director Derek Willis (Jack Davenport), demands in episode #9. In episode #10 -- presto change-o! -- he's got a star whom couch potatoes like myself haven't seen approached or discussed for availability and/or appropriate musical comedy requirements. She's been hired, and that's that.
Yes, Jack Davenport as director Derek Willis has Uma Thurman as Rebecca Duval the star. What he doesn't have is Uma Thurman as Uma Thurman, because in real life the truth of marquee-name casting is that a star of Duval's stature (which Michelle Williams's isn't yet) would never agree to have whatever qualities she has compared to Monroe's unique charisma. Nor would any star choose to subordinate her inimitability to Monroe's. It's a losing proposition. If you happen to run into Thurman, just ask her what she'd have said had she been asked to appear as herself taking on Monroe.
To give credit where it might be due, the script writers may know this and are already planning to have Duval volunteer to step aside when she comes to her senses. It may be soon or it may be next season when series producer and impetus Theresa Rebeck's rule as show-runner has ended, which it now has. As of a few days after the show's renewal she was shunted aside.
As a part of the second-season agreement? Maybe not, and maybe Smash will just carry on with its intertwined soap opera complications and having characters blurt threadbare lines, as Anjelica Huston's Eileen Rand does when threatening devious gossip Ellis Boyd (notice the "boy" in the surname) that he'll "never work in this town again." If it does, Smash may irreversibly cement itself in the too-bad-its-good camp (pun intended), which does have its unintentionally side-splitting attractions.
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