Smash has right blend of heavy character and light plot to enthrall and captivate. A musical that grows from a conversation about a coffee table book to a show with funding, a director, and a casting rivalry; characters are aggressively developed; and with no less than four numbers, Smash starts off with a bang.
So, there are four major characters: First, Karen Cartwright, struggling actress/waitress, played by American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee, second, Broadway ensemble member Ivy Lynn, played by Megan Hilty, who are both turned down for a lead role in the first sixty seconds. Julia and Tom , a writer/composer duo in Brooklyn, who were supposed to be on a break from producing plays while their successful show Heaven on Earth ran on Broadway, but when struck with the idea for a Marilyn musical, they hit the ground running. With creativity apparently streaming unchecked from their fingertips, they write a few songs, and Tom gets Ivy, one of his favorites, to sing a demo in the show’s first number.
And just as Tom proves Ivy to be a “binding” genius, an overwrought “kids these days with their cell phones” plot device lands the video on YouTube. Julia and Tom are at first livid, but when the video gets significant critical praise, they’re ecstatic. The exposure catches the eye of Broadway producer Eileen Rand (Angelica Huston, slumming it), who pounces on the musical as a chance to develop a show while her pet project, My Fair Lady, is in escrow because of her divorce proceedings (seriously, I don’t even know, but OK). Eileen quickly draws celebrated director Derek Willis (Jack Davenport! Be still my heart) onto the project. There’s just one catch. Derek and Tom hate each other, though we don’t know why yet. Oh, and Derek is kind of an asshole. Unfortunately, he’s also a really good director. To audition for Tom and Julia, he choreographs “The National Pastime,” the baseball number that got Julia and Tom excited about this musical in the first place. It’s a showstopper. Ivy is a coquettish Marilyn, surrounded by baseball bats, muscle-bound men, and sexual innuendos. Derek knows he’s done such good work that he’s got the job, but he’s still got to deal with Tom’s attitude.
And there’s just one other thing. Tom, and to a lesser degree Julia, initially wanted Ivy for the lead role of Marilyn. But Derek wants something different — and sees it in Karen. Whatever her shtick is supposed to be, Derek likes it, and comments on how different her look is. Karen then proceeds to sing Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” and something about the overproduced quality of her voice and trite lyrics convince the panel that she could be Marilyn. Both she and Ivy get callbacks. Karen “prepares” for the role by watching movies with her boyfriend and drinking champagne as they go through her wardrobe looking for a dress that accentuates her breasts. I bet you can imagine how that scene end. But late that night Karen gets a phone call from Derek, who calls her over to his apartment to work on the part. She rushes over, wearing a loose t-shirt and sweats. As soon as she walks into the apartment, things just look sketchy. Here’s this much older guy who has a lot of power over this young girl, and she’s desperate for the part, and oh look, he’s pouring her a drink.
Derek does his level best to unbalance Karen. He compares her — unfavorably — to Marilyn Monroe. He hints heavily that he’s the only person rooting for her on the casting panel, and that she’ll really have to make a good impression. And then, having created what he hopes is complete insecurity, he tells her he needs to see everything she’s got. Like yeah. That way. And yeah, like right now. Karen almost walks out of his apartment, then locks herself in the bathroom and takes existential stock of her life. She reemerges wearing one of his button-down shirts, with mussed-up, sexy hair, and nothing else. Slowly advancing upon him, she sings, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” in her best sultry Monroe. She straddles him on the couch, pressing up against him, and at the last-minute swerves, “Not gonna happen,” she whispers, giving him a level look. Then she gets up and walks out.
The next scene is Ivy and Karen singing as they’re dressing up for the day. As they sing, we see the other characters wake up, get ready, and walk out the door. Gradually you realize they’re all going to callbacks. Both girls, of course, arrive simultaneously. Both are in their Marilyn getups, sweet and innocent for Karen, brazen and saucy for Ivy. The final number, “Let Me Be Your Star,” is the most Broadway-staged number of the show — their simultaneous arrival, layered voices, and the presence of the entire cast in the same room gives the number an “Act I finale” feel — and to be honest, that’s exactly what it is. As they both belt out the closing line, the episode ends.
Does the series actually meet expectations for a network desperately in need of a hit? Based on the premiere, which I saw a few weeks ago, the answer is actually an unequivocal YES.
The phrase that keeps coming to mind when I think about the Smash pilot is well-produced. Steven Spielberg apparently had some real interest and thus impact on the development of the property, but even if he didn’t do squat, Smash still exudes professionalism. Michael Mayer’s direction is rock-solid and all the performances seem, to a person with no real interest in theater, quite good. The cast is filled with recognizable performers from television, film, theater and music and they’re all generally doing fine work in the pilot. From the beautifully understated “Never Give All The Heart” to the show-stopping numbers “Let Me Be Your Star” and “The National Pastime,” Marilyn seems like a show I’d pay good money to see. And while “Beautiful,” isn’t an original song, I have to throw kudos to Katharine for belting out a rendition better than Christina Aguilera‘s.
The downside to this is that there’s little to no humor in this show. There are attempts at it, but not a single moment that makes you chuckle. Then again, this is a drama and not a comedy like “Glee,” so there’s some excuse there. But hey, even “Mad Men” can be funny sometimes.
I initially checked out Smash because I’m a sucker for all things song-and-dance — but it turned out to be the show’s personable characters, whip-smart writing, and overall engaging story that kept me wanting an encore.
Now, to quote Edward Cullen, “Smash is like my own personal brand of weed!”
This is a fun, dramatic and emotional show that I will continue to follow and if you want a good time, you should too!!
Smash premières in India, Monday, March 19, exclusively on DIVA Universal!