THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 15, Or, Lost in Boston

By Kenneth Jones
15 May 2012

Jaime Cepero and Anjelica Huston
Photo by Will Hart/NBC

It is pointed out by Eileen in this episode that the replacement of a star by an unknown understudy is "a grand old theatre story." She's right, but it usually only happens in movies like "All About Eve" or "42nd Street" (two essential theatre-set movies you need to rent or buy, right now, if you've never seen them). The famous true story that everyone points to is the tale of sidelined principal actress-dancer Carol Haney. When she wasn't able to go on as quirky Gladys in The Pajama Game in the 1950s, a 19-year-old chorus kid/understudy named Shirley MacLaine stepped in, singing "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway" and making comic hay. In the audience at the performance were Hal Wallis, the Hollywood producer who discovered Martin and Lewis, and Doc Ericson, a representative of film director Alfred Hitchcock. MacLaine was whisked off to a movie career (her first picture was Hitch's "The Trouble With Harry" in 1955), returning to Broadway only twice, for specialty concert acts in 1976 and 1984.

By the end of Episode 15, after Karen has aced her first performance, and while she is wowing the Boston audience with that brand-new 11-o'clock number, we see a depressed Ivy looking into a dressing-room mirror (a dirty habit for her). She spills a big handful of prescription pills in the palm of her hand. (She apparently wasn't needed in that full-company closing number, and no one notices her absence.) We think it was the sudden Boston appearance of her Broadway-star mother, Leigh Conroy, played by special guest Bernadette Peters, with champagne in hand, that pushed Ivy over the edge. Admitting to your mother that you're still in the chorus is not easy, especially when your mother has a Tony at home. We don't see Ivy swallowing pills, but it's a memorably campy soap-opera moment — one that indicates that Ivy hasn't grown at all over 15 hours of TV drama. Maybe starting with Hour 16 she'll pull an Effie White and start changing. For now, she's lost in Boston.

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This week's ticking-clock episode begins with the curtain about to go up, and flashes back 12 hours earlier to show the entire company huddled at the theatre at 7:45 AM to learn which Marilyn will go on. (Broadway Equity actors dressed and ready at 7:45 AM? Maybe for a "Today" show appearance, or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.)

Christian Borle
photo by Will Hart/NBC

Once the casting question is answered, we see Julia and Tom trying to solve/save the show by writing that 11-o'clock number for Marilyn Monroe, who, in the first preview faded-to-black in bed with a bellyful of Nembutal and no Big Number. "You can't end a musical with a suicide," remember? Tom is noodling with a gospel idea, but Julia puts her foot down — no gospel! The style is on Tom's mind, no doubt, because the other day his boyfriend, Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr., as you read in last week's "Smash" Report), led a gospel choir at a church service attended by most of the cast of Bombshell. This is one of the smart ways that the "Smash" writers occasionally use music to illuminate character — gospel and Sam are now both under Tom's skin, got it? If Tom and Julia had been working on their pivotal, climactic show tune instead of attending a church service the other day, maybe they wouldn't be in this mess! You think Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were touring Old North Church when they were in Boston with Seussical?

It's pure fantasy that Tom and Julia would write, re-write, orchestrate and teach an entire song hours before the show goes on; to say nothing of getting it fully designed, "teched" and staged in time. Union rules are ignored or busted in this episode (theatrical hair professionals surely got a kick out of this hour — doesn't anyone in Bombshell wear a wig cap?), but viewers outside the industry won't care. It's dynamic to see Tom and Julia rushing through a crowded lobby and backstage at the 15-minute call with a revised lyric in their hand. (And you thought Zach from A Chorus Line was a sadist!) For the record, you cannot work a cast (or stagehands) to death in a 12-hour period leading up to an evening performance. We file this chapter of "Smash" under the heading of "Showbiz Whimsy." It's a thick and growing file requiring several drawers.

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