THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 4, Or, What a Swell Party This Is
By Kenneth Jones
Playbill's weekly overview, with notes and comment, of the latest episode of the NBC series "Smash," about the people behind the creation of a new Broadway musical. Here's a look at the Feb. 27 episode, "The Cost of Art."
Chorus kids can be a bitchy lot. You've seen A Chorus Line, right? If brusque dancer Sheila from that classic is any indication, this breed lives on salt and vinegar and cigarettes. They might push you in front of a crosstown bus for a part in a new show. But, here's the thing: If you snap your ankle at an audition, they'll give you a valium and get their doctor on the horn.
Something like this happens in Episode 4 of "Smash," written by David Marshall Grant (the actor-playwright who wrote Off-Broadway's Snakebit and appeared in Broadway's Angels in America and TV's "thirtysomething"). On the first day of rehearsal for the workshop of Marilyn the Musical, the ensemble players who are loyalists to their pal, Ivy Lynn — who's no longer a gypsy — give the old cold shoulder to chorus newcomer Karen, whose resume includes her Iowa State Fair history of being Golden Sprout Champion. In a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, this kind of credit is pure gold, but in the cutthroat world of modern Broadway, being a child of the corn is something to be bullied about — by Jessica (played by Savannah Wise, who was Evelyn Nesbit in the Broadway revival of Ragtime), Bobby (played by the excellent series newcomer Wesley Taylor, who created the role of Lucas in The Addams Family) and Sue (Jenny Laroche, a former Radio City Rockette). Insecure Ivy isn't thrilled that director-choreographer Derek has cast Karen, her previous competition, in the ensemble. Out to vanquish the girl, Ivy makes it clear in rehearsals that Karen is too loud, too big, too distracting. Karen is asked to sit out of a couple of numbers.
This leads to one of the best scenes of the series so far (thanks to writer Grant and show-runner/creator Theresa Rebeck, who oversees the writing of the series): In the rehearsal-studio hallway, the shamed Karen (who has also learned that Ivy slept with Derek) shames Jessica right back. "I am the same as you," Karen says. "You were all beginners, too. And I'm good. I could have done that — I could have slept with him. I could've...he — But I didn't. And I wouldn't. And that doesn't make me stupid or lame or untalented. She shouldn't be trying to get me fired. And you should be trying to help me."
This is The Sheila Moment of the episode. Instead of valium and an orthopedist, Bobby and Jessica and Sue offer themselves to Karen. The softened chorus kids are on a mission to teach Karen to blend better — with the right shoes (on a visit to LaDuca Shoes, a haven for New York City dancers), the right tights, the right street clothes, the right hairdo, the right dance class and the right sense of ensemble. This "intervention" includes a lesson in not stealing focus from the star (or the other ensemble kids). In A Chorus Line parlance, "Don't pop the head, Cassie." Jessica, Bobby and Sue improvise a routine to Adele's "Rumor Has It" and Karen absorbs it. "Nobody's bigger than anybody," Bobby says, "nobody's out of line, everybody's in." By the end of the episode, Karen will be "as one" with the company.
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 4:
SAM: At the first day of the workshop we meet Sam (played by Leslie Odom, Jr., of Broadway's upcoming Leap of Faith), who was in the chorus of Chicago with Ivy a decade ago. "You are Marilyn Monroe!" Sam exclaims. "Actually," Derek says, "nobody is anybody until we start rehearsing." Eyeing both Ivy and Karen, Derek reminds the company, "The road to Broadway is exceedingly long." Sam (a refreshing anomaly in the world of chorus boys in that he subscribes to Sports Illustrated and laments about the Mets — not the opera or museum of art) serves as Ivy's Jiminy Cricket, calling her out on her diva ways. (By the way, that's Ann Harada as the Marilyn stage manager Linda. Harada, whose light should never be kept under a bushel, created the role of Christmas Eve in Broadway's Avenue Q. Download "The More You Ruv Someone" from the original cast album. Now.)
ART ISN'T EASY: Producer Eileen Rand is desperate to raise $200,000 for her workshop. Her assets have been frozen in her divorce. Among the paraphernalia on her office walls (beyond that poster for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which is produced by "Smash" executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron) is a sketch of dancers by Degas. Lyricist Julia, we learn, was an art history major, who ID's the piece as the real thing. The artwork was a gift from Eileen's ex, Jerry, whose name is on the bill of sale, preventing Eileen from easily auctioning it or selling it. "I hate Jerry," Eileen says. "I used to love him. That sketch looks to me like our happiness."
I'VE BEEN TO A MARVELOUS PARTY: Derek is throwing a birthday party for teenage superstar Lyle West (played by Nick Jonas, currently starring in Broadway's How to Succeed), who, as a child actor worked on an Off-Broadway show with Derek and Tom, back in the time (Lyle reveals) when Derek and Tom were best friends. Is the party a chance to raise money for Marilyn the Musical? Possibly. Lyle's TV series was just sold into syndication for $80 million. We first see Lyle sitting at the piano, at his own party, singing Michael Bublé's "Haven't Met You Yet." (Lyle is too young, precocious and adorable to know it's possibly in bad taste to perform at your own birthday party, but it probably never stopped Jule Styne, Betty Comden or Adolph Green.) Enter Eileen, business-flirting with the teen and whipping out her exotic sketching — and pitching Lyle on the show. How does he know if the show is any good? Eileen pulls together her writers and her stars to sing a number from Marilyn called "I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Like to Howl," a frisky Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman jitterbug worthy of a USO show (Marilyn sings it to the troops, we're told). The impromptu living-room backers' audition sells Lyle on the show (he even jumps into the number, in a moment of fancy). He puts up $175,000 for the sketch and negotiates a piece of the show's future profit. Later, he and Ivy, on a tour of Derek's capacious apartment, walk in on Eileen in a compromising position — gazing at the Degas sketch with tears in her eyes. "I was just looking at past happiness," she explains. Anjelica Huston is so damn sincere that she brushes away the scene's scent of camp. This is the second time we've seen Eileen cry. "Smash" is not interested in making Eileen an Iron Lady. The feminist in you might ask, "Must the businesswoman cry?" We say, "More tears, please!" Eileen continues to be the most complex and interesting creature in the series.
TOM, ALONE: There must be a future explanation as to why composer Tom — successful, rich, quirkily handsome Tom — is without a partner. In a scene shot in Madison Square Park, Julia encourages Tom to attend Lyle's party. Tom says he's been set up on a date, by his mother. The date is an impossibly handsome stuffed shirt named John (played by Neal Bledsoe, a North Carolina School of the Arts grad). After breaking the ice at dinner, they end up attending the party, where they grow closer. Also popping up at the party, apparently uninvited, is Tom's duplicitous assistant Ellis and his (apparent) girlfriend, Cyn. Julia remains suspicious of Ellis.
FLIRT: Ivy eyes Derek flirting with a woman at the party. Her insecurity is flaring up. He explains, "Everyone at this party is a potential investor, OK? So, yeah, I am going to flirt and I'm going to put my hand on the asses of pretty women." Ivy says, "I just want to feel safe." He returns, "Then go back to the chorus! There's nothing safe about being a star." Their tension is relieved with more sex, in her first visit to his apartment (shot on location in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, with a killer view of the Empire State Building).
JULIA: The sexual tension between Julia and her ex-lover Michael Swift (who is playing Joe DiMaggio in the workshop) continues, briefly. (Stay tuned.) The more important news that we learn in the episode is that Julia is apparently book writer of Marilyn. Even though she and Tom were spit-balling about structure and script issues in an earlier episode, she says she's got to get home and work on new scenes. So, there you have it: Marilyn has book and lyrics by Julia Huston and music by Tom Levitt. At least we think so. P.S. "History Is Made at Night" is another Shaiman-Wittman song that pops up this week, in a rehearsal session. The song title might as well be the metaphor for the episode. More, please. We're hoping to see it fully staged. It's lush.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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