THE "SMASH" REPORT: Recapping the Pilot Episode, With Comments and Context

By Kenneth Jones
06 Feb 2012

Megan Hilty performs "The National Pastime."
photo by Will Hart/NBC

When comely Ivy is asked to be part of a one-song rehearsal-hall workshop of "a baseball number" from the show, what results is another sequence in which the imaginations of the show's characters blossom. Derek instructs the guests in the room, "OK, so just imagine she's in a red red dress; they're in baseball uniforms." In "The National Pastime," we see Ivy's Marilyn singing and dancing with chorus boys playing baseball players (Marilyn married New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio). The muscular song — by the series' Tony-winning resident songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — cuts between this rehearsal-hall test and what the Broadway show might look like when fully lit and costumed. (The pilot's confident director is Spring Awakening Tony Award winner Michael Mayer; the series' star-is-born choreographer is Josh Bergasse, who knows how to paint pictures and tell stories with bodies.)

The third major musical number in the episode, "Let Me Be Your Star," shows both Ivy and Karen preparing for their callback for The Big Part. (Things happen quickly in the world of "Smash" — Eileen is eager to get the show put together; she's got something to prove.) Shaiman and Wittman's "Let Me Be Your Star" is a lyric for Marilyn, of course, but it dovetails with the hunger of the actresses at hand, and the anticipation of the creatives. As we see the women dressing, primping and literally traveling across town to their audition — singing in their heads? singing out loud? — we also witness producer, director and writers heading out of their lairs to get to the casting session. (Anjelica Houston, pageboy haircut preceding her, treats a building lobby as though it were a fashion runway.) The energy of the song and the kinetic editing — think "Quintet" from the film "West Side Story" — make it seem as though a callback is the most blood-pumping, earth-shaking, life-changing thing in the world. And in the world of "Smash," of course, it is.

Here are some other thoughts about (and highlights of) the "Smash" pilot (a version of this recap appared on Playbill.com following the Jan. 16 release of the pilot on digital services such as iTunes):



That's Maddie Corman of Broadway's Next Fall as Julia and Frank's adoption agent, Rene, who tells Julia that she recently saw Julia's "play" on Broadway. Is Julia a playwright as well as a lyricist-librettist? You apparently can be more than one thing in this town — as playwright and TV writer Theresa Rebeck proves.

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The end credits of the pilot indicate that "Smash" is based on the late Garson Kanin's same-named novel about the creative personalities behind a Broadway-bound musical (about vaudeville star Nora Bayes). The Kanin credit is apparently a formality having to do with using the title of the book. Other than that, the series is wholly Theresa Rebeck's. In a fall 2011 interview with Playbill.com, she described her "Smash" duties this way: "I'm the creator of the series and I'm also the show-runner, which means that I'm in charge of the writing. So, basically everything is under my vision, the whole season." Rebeck's TV writing credits include "NYPD Blue," "LA Law," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and more. She's also a prolific playwright whose work is produced on Broadway (Seminar at the moment), Off-Broadway (The Scene, The Understudy, Bad Dates) and regionally (Dead Accounts, currently at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park). Rebeck is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for co-writing the play Omnium Gatherum.

Anjelica Huston and Jack Davenport
photo by Will Hart/NBC

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Look for a sly visual reference to "Smash" pilot director Michael Mayer's production of American Idiot (now on national tour) late in the pilot episode. Gotta love ads on the rooftops of taxis.

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It's not explicitly stated, but it seems clear that Tom and Julia co-write the librettos of their shows, with Tom being the composer and Julia the lyricist. While rehearsing for a demo recording of a Marilyn song, Ivy and Tom seek Julia's advice on how much of a vocal "belt" to include in one section of the number. It would seem that this is a writing team with open communication and little ego about duties or credit when it comes to the collaboration. At least for now.

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Tom and Julia's videotaped demo of the above-mentioned song is leaked to the internet, outraging the writers and prompting blog postings from theatre pundits, fans and critics. (The reference is clearly to All That Chat, the internet message board on which opinionated people of unknown and varying taste, intelligence and perspective anonymously post their thoughts about work seen and unseen.) "Those idiotic theatre blogs!" exclaims Julia. "I hate everyone who writes theatre blogs! It gets out too fast and then everyone just rushes to judgment before we even have a first draft!"

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Michael Riedel, the real-life New York Post theatre columnist/reporter who thrives on the more negative aspects of theatrical creativity and producing, is shaping up to have a presence "Smash." (He reportedly appears on a future episode.) Riedel is billed as "a Napoleonic little Nazi who works for the Post." In the pilot, the columnist picks up on the Marilyn internet chatter and weighs in on the leaked demo. "This is a disaster," says Julia. "Michael Riedel's gonna destroy us!" As it turns out, Napoleon uses his power for good. This time. (In addition to trashing shows, Riedel likes to identify future hits, too.)

 Continued...