By the start of the second episode of the new NBC series "Smash," the producer and creative team of the still-forming Marilyn the Musical have not made a decision about who will be their leading lady — chorus veteran Ivy (played by Megan Hilty), who is gainfully employed in Heaven on Earth over at the Shubert, or newcomer Karen (played Katharine McPhee), who is less gainfully employed as a waitress at Café Orlin, (a real place) in the Village.
Casting Marilyn would seem to be the least important worry this early in the game. After all, there is no full script or score yet! But the writing of a Broadway musical is not the primary hook of the hourlong series created by Theresa Rebeck, the Broadway playwright of Seminar, who also wrote Episode Two. Ivy vs. Karen — that's the core of the series. Will they end up in a fistfight in the fountain at Lincoln Center? Yet to be revealed. You might think that producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), director-choreographer Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) and writers Tom Leavitt (Christian Borle) and Julia Houston (Debra Messing) would take their time to pick a star, but by the end of this episode, the Leading Lady is named. (Spoiler alert below!) The imagination spins wondering how this casting will be subverted over the next 13 episodes (there are 15 in all). (The promotional posters for "Smash" would seem to give away the series' ending. Who's on top, anyway?)
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode Two:
DEREK AND IVY: More callbacks are needed for dance (for Karen) and scene work (for both Karen and Ivy). "I can't hand this over to a complete neophyte," Derek says. "Not without more information." Derek's inappropriate behavior with actresses was evident in Episode One — remember the 10 PM "work session" with Karen at his apartment? By hour two, he inappropriately loosens Ivy's blonde locks in a one-on-one audition (well, he did ask permission). This tousle of the hair leads to full-on intercourse. DEV AND KAREN: Karen's impossibly thoughtful and attractive boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey), deputy press secretary in the Mayor's office, walks with Karen on a lunch break doing what so few real New Yorkers outside of "Law & Order" and "Smash" do — eating a hotdog from a pushcart. "There are a lot of guys out there with a lot of power, and they're hard to deal with, so you should get used to it," Dev tells Karen, referring to Derek, who is remembered as "the guy who had you come over to his apartment at 10 at night for a coaching session…" In Karen's overextended audition for Derek in Episode Two, the director shows a softer side: "You have a lot of what makes Marilyn Marilyn essentially in you. Don't 'do' her — just be her." (This does not lead to intercourse. Karen is the Good Girl.) Later, Dev expresses his anger and disappointment that Karen missed their important dinner with his boss because she stayed overtime with Derek in rehearsal. Dev forgives her her bungle by taking her hand. The episode sets up a future battle of wills between Derek and Dev, who are both Brits.
|photo by Will Hart/NBC|
WALK WITH MUSIC: As Ivy walks to work with her loyal Heaven on Earth chorus friends (Broadway's Phillip Spaeth as Dennis and Savannah Wise as Jessica), grumbling about the new callbacks, we get a clear view of West 44th Street, a storied lane in the Broadway theatre district. ("Smash" is shot on location around New York City and in studios in Brooklyn and Long Island City.) As they walk east, on the south side of 44th, we see the St. James Theatre (complete with the marquee for the now-closed Harry Connick, Jr. vehicle On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which was directed by Episode Two's director Michael Mayer, a series consulting producer). And there's the Phantom mask of the Majestic on the right. There's the Rock of Ages marquee at the Helen Hayes Theatre on the left. And there's the marquee for Hugh Jackman's one-man show (now closed) on the right. As the scene ends, the storefront at left is none other than the showbiz eatery Sardi's (blink and miss it). Later, thanks to special effects, we see the Shubert (currently home to Memphis but more famously the longtime home to A Chorus Line), festooned with the wall-size graphics for Tom & Julia's hit show Heaven on Earth.
|photo by Will Hart/NBC|
WRITING 101: Those who scoff at the organic way that Julia and Tom are creating their show — a bunch of songs and situations first rather than a play — should know that stranger things have happened in the real world of musicals. Most modern theatre songwriters, however, would prefer to admit that story and character and script are at the root of creation — not just songs, hooks and rhythms. (The series original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are rich and assured and entertaining, especially when choreographer Joshua Bergasse is attached.) "There are a lot of people that should be stopped from writing musicals," Julia tells Tom. True that. Still, Tom says, "We have to start thinking about structure! You can't build a musical just by writing songs." (Rebeck just made her writers smart and credible with just a few words.) Julia says, "Maybe it's not so linear," and she suggests shifting what had been heard in Episode One ("Let Me Be Your Star") from Act Two to the opening-number slot in Act One. "I can see it in my head," Julia says, leading to an imagined staging of the opener, in which young women deride a young Norma Jean (alternately played by Ivy and Karen), who sings the fetching Shaiman-Wittman line, "Norma Jean's gone, she's moving on."
ELLIS: Tom's eager young assistant, Ellis (played by Jaime Cepero), says, "I get so excited watching my idea come to life." He did, in fact, say to Tom and Julia that he thought Marilyn Monroe's life would make a good musical (in Episode One), prompting this project. Ellis eavesdrops behind doors a lot, and Julia criticizes his interference to his face. The groundwork is being laid for the climbing Ellis to become one of the villains of the series, perhaps seeking authorship credit for Marilyn.
|photo by Will Hart/NBC|
FRANK AND JULIA: Julia and husband Frank (played by Tony nominee Brian d'Arcy James) are in the process of adopting a baby from China, but Frank expresses a change of heart. He'll be 47 when the kid arrives, and 65 when she graduates high school. But their sensitive teenage son, Leo, interrupts, and is fixated on the idea of a baby sister: "She's waiting for us to come and get her! What is going to happen to her if we don't go get her?" Frank also tells Julia that he wants to go back to work, as a science teacher. (Apparently, he was a house-husband raising Leo while Julia was writing shows.) "You have your writing, all I have is the waiting," Frank says. The 18-year marriage will not crumble. At least not this early in the series. At the close of the episode, Frank joins Julia in their adoption-planning class in which she reads aloud a letter to her child's future birth mother. (No, there is no singing in this plot thread, but there are reports that James will indeed sing in a future episode. This is good news for the fans of the actor, who is a total wow on the original cast album of Sweet Smell of Success, the short-lived Broadway musical in which he was supreme. Download the album now.) SAY IT WITH MUSIC: The episode opens with Karen imagining she is knocking them dead with the Blondie favorite, "Call Me," in a nightclub setting in which Eileen, Julia, Tom, Dev, Derek and others are adoring her from the audience. Karen is a daydreamer; all she wants is a call — with news that she got the part of Marilyn. She does get a call, but for another callback, and she's thrown into a dance audition of a number from Marilyn called "The 20th Century Fox Mambo." With these two songs, the series' two major musical conceits are reiterated: taking pop songs and reinventing them as fantasies ("Call Me," "Beautiful," "Over the Rainbow," etc.) and showing numbers from Marilyn in full or partial stagings as imagined by its cast or creators (as in Episode One's "The National Pastime," or this week's "20th Century Fox Mambo"). In "Mambo," Karen's Marilyn, surrounded by "a cabal of groomers," is shown in rehearsal clothes. As the song progresses, she is seen in partial costume, and then fully wigged and realized with props and costumed chorus kids, with fantasy lighting (yet still housed in the rehearsal room). These hypertheatrical show numbers will keep musical theatre lovers excited and returning to "Smash" week after week. (There are also strict "reality" performances of pop songs in the series — a karaoke bar appears in a future episode.)
|photo by Will Hart/NBC|
WATERING HOLE: The bar-restaurant in which Eileen and Derek meet to discuss Marilyn — and where Eileen's nasty ex, Jerry, played by Michael Cristofer, intrudes — is the real-life Italian restaurant Bond 45, on 45th Street east of Times Square. The capacious joint (where there is a terrific salad of mozzarella, arugula, caramelized pear and black currant vinaigrette — I had it last week) is in the former Bond clothing store. That's real-life theatre executive Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters (the St. James is in the chain), calling Derek over to his table (to discuss "a vampire musical," no less). Eileen refers to Bond 45 by name: "I'm not giving you Bond 45 in the divorce, Jerry. Would you get out of my booth?" Rebeck imbeds vital character stuff here: We learn that in their theatre-producing partnership, Jerry was the ruthless business brains and Eileen was the romantic focused on the art. He spits, "Marilyn the Musical? You're making a fool of yourself!" It's here that Eileen first offers a coming series trend: The Eileen Rand Drink Splash. Just when you were reluctant to call "Smash" a soap, here's Eileen with a trope as old as melodrama itself: throwing a drink — a Manhattan, natch — in the face of your enemy. This only serves to illustrate Eileen's complexity: drama queen, jilted wife, indie businesswoman, passionate lover of art, person with heart. Her ex's criticism makes her more passionate than ever about proving herself. There is something urgent about her drive, mirrored only by the urgency of Karen and Ivy.
First, Eileen says, she is going to sink $200,000 into a workshop, and then she'll fast-track the show to an out-of-town tryout — and then on to Broadway. On the phone with "Bernie," she orders up "20 of the most experienced dancers and singers" for said workshop. The "Bernie" is an inside reference to Bernard Telsey, whose Telsey + Company is a major casting director on Broadway (the office also casts "Smash," and Telsey is a co-artistic director of Off-Broadway's acclaimed MCC Theater). "Most of what I see on Broadway is over-worked," Eileen observes to Derek. "I love fast. Go get me a Marilyn!"
CRAZY DREAMS: That's real-life Broadway composer Tom Kitt (the Pulitzer Prize recipient and Tony Award winner for Next to Normal) introducing Ivy in the final scene of the episode, in a club where she is congratulated by pals on winning the role of Marilyn. Kitt (billed in the credits as a jazz musician) even accompanies Ivy when she sings a cover of Carrie Underwood's "Crazy Dreams," an apt lyric for the new series about show people.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
Check out Playbill Video's interviews with the cast and creatives of "Smash":