THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 8, Or, Girls, Girls, You're Both Pretty
By Kenneth Jones
Playbill's weekly recap, with notes and comment, of the latest episode of the NBC musical drama series "Smash," about the creation of a new Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. Here's a look at the March 26 episode, "The Coup."
Following the underwhelming workshop presentation of Marilyn the Musical, there is radio silence from producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) and it trickles down to the writers, the principal actors and the chorus kids. Is the new musical dead in the water?
Not exactly. Eileen is regrouping with director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport) to find a new approach to the show — one that seems to involve an entirely new songwriter for the project (guest star Ryan Tedder, the songwriting frontman of the pop group OneRepublic). Karen (Katharine McPhee) is secretly enlisted to rehearse and perform a song called "Touch Me," reportedly written and produced for this episode by Tedder himself. Marilyn songwriters Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) are kept in the dark about the plan until news leaks out (as it always does in showbiz). This time, Tom's evil assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) helps spread the word of the apparent coup — going so far as to escort Ivy (Megan Hilty) to the presentation of the staged song, in a remote Brooklyn warehouse space. What Ellis has to gain from this plot twist is not clear. What is clear is that Ellis is shaping up to be a monster partly created by Tom, Julia and Eileen. By episode's end, he has left Tom's employ to become full-time assistant and spy for Eileen. "[Tom's] an artist, he's a loser," Ellis says to his lady lover (!) Cyn (Condola Rashad). "Artists get treated like dirt. I want to be a producer!"
What they all had witnessed under Derek's direction in that warehouse was a music-video-worthy take on Marilyn Monroe's psyche, with Karen (in a satin bedsheet/gown) being twirled around in a fourposter by masked dancers — as bars of a cage surround her. "Subtle" Derek is not.
The "Touch Me" sequence is a ploy to shake up Tom and Julia to get them to think outside of the box. The vulgar display ends up insulting them. Eileen apologizes to her writers after getting guidance from her saintly daughter Katie (played by Grace Gummer), who is visiting on a break from humanitarian and environmental causes in India, Micronesia and Alaska. She's so pure of heart that her family calls her Mahatma Katie. If Gummer looks and sounds familiar — overflowing with light, simplicity and grace — it's because she is one of Meryl Streep's talented daughters. She's currently in rehearsal to play Joseph Alsop's stepdaughter in David Auburn's new Broadway play The Columnist.
The "Touch Me" presentation was also a way to reveal, after seven episodes, the backstory of former best friends Tom and Derek. The gay composer and the homophobic director finally have it out. We learn that their friendship did not survive a flop show that they collaborated on 11 years ago.
"I should never have let you near this project," Tom says of Marilyn.
"You haven't got the edge or the insight or the balls to make Marilyn what she needs to be," Derek says. "There's no other reason to hire me [than to shape the material into something better]."
Rehashing the past, on the topic of that old show, we find out The New York Times critic liked Derek's direction — and didn't like Tom's songs.
"That critic was in your pocket!" Tom says, adding that Derek bragged about the rave for the direction of the piece and then "went to every theatre in town and trashed me. You were vicious. You told every producer I know that I was unstable…that I would never be an artist…"
Derek calls Tom's accusations fiction, and spits, "Gay men never cease to amaze me. You own the New York theatre scene, but yet you constantly prance around whining about what victims you are…"
Tom calls Derek a homophobe and says the "Touch Me" presentation was a kind of bullying. And then Tom tells him, "That critic wasn't in your pocket, he was having sex with your father! Everyone knew about it. I never heard you bragging about that."
At this point, when they are seemingly about to come to blows (or about to kiss?), Derek says, "Welcome to my level."
They continue to differ about what Marilyn should be (Derek wants edge rather than the "beautiful," "fun," "too nice" songs that have been written), and both say that they aren't quitting the project. There's a lot of talk about ego but not much about artistry. (And why not pick on Julia, the lyricist-librettist of Marilyn?) We have yet to learn why this project is so important to them, individually. To be revealed?
Derek later calls the "Touch Me" idea a failed experiment and reaches out to rekindle his romance with Ivy, who has learned that Eileen's strategy is to seek a star for the role of Marilyn. Ivy's no longer the future leading lady, it would seem.
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 8:
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: There were no original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman this week, and the heart sank a little. We're not of the belief that the answer to musical theatre's future is the insertion of existing pop music; likewise, what's special about "Smash" is its original songs. There was, in this episode, a brief excerpt of Julia's husband Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) singing (as a lark) a snippet of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," accompanied by Guitar Hero on their TV. The scene is mercifully short; don't worry, James, a two-time Tony nominee, will reportedly really sing later in the season). The other musical sequence this week shows the Marilyn chorus kids blowing off steam at Brooklyn Bowl (a real place), singing "Ride, Sally, Ride" and dancing down their bowling lane. (An idea not used since "Grease 2," when Adrian Zmed led the gang in the lyric "Let's bowl, let's bowl, let's rock 'n' roll…"). We suspect straight-acting gay dancer Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) came up with the idea for a group bowling night.
NAKED MOMENT OF THE WEEK: After not hearing from Eileen after the workshop, Julia says, "I hate showbusiness. You work with people day in, day out, putting your soul on the line, and the instant things don't go the way you want it's as if you've evaporated off the planet." Given last week's report that "Smash" creator Theresa Rebeck was no longer part of the series (even though it has been picked up for a second season), this line is oddly prescient and painful. Rebeck doesn't write every episode, but she happened to pen this one (months ago). Through a spokesman, Rebeck declined to comment on her current relationship with "Smash." NBC also declined official comment, though Playbill.com has independently learned that Rebeck is no longer the series "showrunner," a position that controls the writing.
JULIA AND MICHAEL: Julia meets with her ex-lover Michael Swift (with whom she carried on during the workshop) to deliver the news that he's not going to be asked to continue with Marilyn. He says he would have quit even if he hadn't been "fired." In a complete flipflop from past episodes, he has decided that his wife and son are "everything to me…I've been really stupid." Makes you wonder what he would have said if Julia had good news for him about his future in Marilyn. Meanwhile, the arrest record of Julia's son Leo (Emory Cohen) — who disobeyed park signs — has been expunged by the court. Frank remains clueless about Julia's affair with Michael, and Leo is keeping the secret. They celebrate the court victory with Chinese food.
JULIA AS GARBO: We like Julia's habit of wearing big dark sunglasses in creative meetings with Eileen, Tom and Derek. It makes her seem like she's hiding shame or dark circles or tears — or that she's suffering from migraines. Whatever the reason, it makes her slightly kooky, and that hint of character is welcome. Maybe Tom will use a cigarette holder and wear a monocle in the future?
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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