As someone who loves Musical Theatre above all other artforms, I looked forward to seeing NBC's new musical offering, "SMASH", as much as anyone. With a Tony Award-winning creative team, legit Broadway stars, and the artistic muscle of Steven Spielberg on board, I assumed it could only be a knock-out sensation. Apparently, success with television is as unpredictable as guaranteeing a Broadway hit.
With famous names like Angelica Huston and Debra Messing alongside Broadway pros Megan Hilty and Christian Borle, "SMASH" could be so much more than what studio execs allowed with stereotypical, melodramatic subplots and the stunt casting of Katherine McPhee.
The Upside of NBC's SMASH
The performing arts is an industry that few understand unless you grow up performing and are lucky enough to call it your money-making career. "Life upon the wicked stage" is a tough life, to be sure.
"SMASH" allows the television audience a peek inside the world of Broadway, the daily grind for the creative artists as well as the performers who just want to work. The show also gets credit for diversity casting, putting strong women at the front of the pack when the theatre industry is still largely dominated by men. Colorblind casting and openly gay characters help set "SMASH" apart from other TV shows that shy away from showing America as it actually exists as a diverse culture.
The storyline of "SMASH" follows the mounting of a musical based on the life of legendary big screen goddess Marilyn Monroe. The musical numbers of "SMASH" are wonderfully written, costumed, and staged thanks, in no small part, to the Broadway aficionados behind the scenes. The songs were penned by Tony Award winners and Grammy Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who also advised as Executive Producers.
Among the performers, Megan Hilty proves her worth as "Ivy," having starred in several Broadway productions including Wicked and 9 to 5. She is a very realistic possibility for playing "Marilyn" because she is a legit, dynamo Broadway singer and an emotionally versatile performer. Angelica Huston plays "Eileen," the producer who risks it all to fund the show, and allows audiences to see a softer, more vulnerable side of her as she navigates the patriarchy of professional theatre. Tony winner for Peter and the Starcatcher, Christian Borle also delivers a fine performance as "Tom," the composer half of the on-screen writing duo, alongside Debra Messing as lyricist, "Julia."
Here, the compliments end, and unfortunately, I must agree with others who say the musical within the TV show is a better show than the TV show itself.
The Downside of NBC's SMASH
The subplots of "SMASH" cater more toward stereotypes than real Broadway stories and border on soap opera melodrama. With a womanizing director, a successful career-woman who just wants to have a baby, and the back-stabbing, traitorous assistant, "SMASH" often seems to borrow its plot from the latest reality TV shows rather than the actual Broadway community.
As the director/choreographer "Derek," Jack Davenport comes across as too morose and self-interested to be a director of musicals, and any dance ability he is supposed to have is thoroughly lacking. On the other end of the spectrum, the overly cheerful "Ellis" was definitely not lacking in the creepy department. Whether it was the writing or the acting performance, or both, James Capero as "Ellis" is a slimy weasel so insipid he made my skin crawl. I am not a violent person, but I kept hoping "Ellis" would get killed him off. I love a great bad guy. Capero is not it.
In the category of "what were they thinking?," the producers cast amazing, powerful Broadway singer/performer Brian d'Arcy James in a role that does not sing. Playing Debra Messing's stay-at-home husband "Frank," James got a 30-second tuner with a ukelele toward the end of the season. I have not been this confused by such casting as the first time I saw Yentl and wondered why Barbra Streisand cast singing sensation Mandy Patinkin and then did not give him any songs to sing.
With "Frank" being a stay-at-home dad, this leaves the household income to be brought in solely by "Julia." While I appreciate this confidence in women's abilities to be the bread-winner, few female lyricists in the Broadway industry could claim such a financial feat. In fact, a 2002 survey of the national theatre industry in America showed only 20% of professional creative and design jobs are given to women. "SMASH" busts through the theatrical glass ceiling only to glue it back together as "Julia" pines for a child at the twilight of her breeding years. A female character who just wants to have a baby is not the kind of strong, successful, Broadway professional, female character I want to see.
The Problem with NBC's SMASH
The crux of "SMASH's" plot revolves around the competition over the casting of the role of "Marilyn." The second half of the season focuses on the emerging rivalry between experienced Broadway performer "Ivy," played by Hilty, and newcomer "Karen," played by "American Idol" finalist Katherine McPhee.
The whole storyline of mounting the Marilyn musical has a whiff of the old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films that asserted musicals can come together with a little elbow grease and a dollop of enthusiasm with "Hey, gang, let's put on a show!" "SMASH" takes that idea to a new level with a few-hundred-thousand dollars of "Eileen's" money and the musical writing super-duo "Julia" and "Tom" rounding out the gang.
Also thrown in is the "hopeful nobody" who dreams of being a Broadway somebody. With some training back home and a sparkle in her eye, "Karen" wants to be on Broadway. "SMASH" offers the "all you gotta do is believe" theme that reeks of a nauseating after-school special. "Karen" is fortunate to have a financially successful boyfriend to bankroll her New York City living. This boyfriend, "Dev," also has a one-nighter with "Ivy," who is currently sleeping with the misogynist, slimeball director "Derek."
At times, "SMASH" is too over the top to be tolerable. The melodramatic storylines actually made me wish I were watching "Glee" -- because crazy hormones can explain at least some of their antics.
In retrospect, watching the whole season to find out who would get the role of "Marilyn" was superfluous immediately upon seeing the TV show's poster. Yet, there was hope that the real Broadway pro, Megan Hilty, would be allowed to show the world what hard work and natural talent can do.
Megan Hilty is the no-brainer choice for the role of "Marilyn." Hilty can sing the role, showing effortless affinity for both sensitive, emotional ballads and powerhouse, belting showstoppers. A voluptuous, sensuous type of woman rarely seen on TV, Hilty is an inspiration for women with curves and singers who want to wow audiences all the way to the back row.
The major downfall for "SMASH" is the casting of Katherine McPhee. With an obvious background in studio recording, McPhee's vocal delivery bears all the hallmarks of a type of music that requires no projection and even less diction. Her breathiness may work for selling a song on an album, but not for singing in Musical Theatre. Her muddled enunciation throughout her numbers is only contrasted by the caricature delivery of her "Marilyn" voice. If a singer with a breathy sound and poor diction showed up for audition, casting would not even happen, much less consideration for the lead. Such bad vocal habits can spell doom for a professional stage singer.
McPhee also does not look right for the part of "Marilyn." She is tall and lean, lacking the famous sex goddess curves or the real Marilyn Monroe or the perfect Marilyn, Megan Hilty. When McPhee stands next to her stage "Joe DiMaggio," she is as tall as he is. In real life, Marilyn looked to men who were taller and older than she was, searching for father figures to shelter her from the ills of the world and the movie industry. In pictures of Marilyn with two of her husbands, Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, both men towered over her as she sought their protection.
Katherine McPhee may be famous and a good singer in the recording industry, but she does not have the chops to make it on Broadway as she is now. My poll on "SMASH" shows other thespians agree.
The first season of "SMASH" brought Broadway to the fore of the television world, something that usually only happens one night each year with the Tony Awards. Cameos by Broadway, TV, and film stars, including Tony winning musical actor Norbert Leo Butz and Uma Thurman, were peppered throughout the season, making a nice game the following day of "Did you see who was on 'SMASH' last night?"
The season ended as "Ivy" over-identified with Marilyn and "Eileen" finally showed "Ellis" the stage door. "Derek" was predictably a jerk, and Dev was in turmoil over hurting "Karen."
Of course, I will watch Season 2 of "SMASH," if for no other reason than to see if they will get the show on course and truly honor the Broadway profession, not sensationalize it with the temper tantrums of reality TV for the sake of ratings.
"SMASH" is set to return to NBC for the 2012/2013 season. Check your local listings for show times.