THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 9, Or, Valley of the Dolls and Guys
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 April 2 episode, "Hell On Earth."
What comes first when making a hit musical? A title? A star? How about a script and a score? Director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport) finally demands the latter, and says that when Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) deliver a script and songs, he'll play editor and plan another workshop — in a year. Producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) is all about titles and stars. She charges Tom and Julia with coming up with a snappier title than Marilyn the Musical, and she heads off to super-agency CAA to fish for Hollywood actresses. The names Anna Paquin, Anna Faris and Kate Winslet are tossed about. This sort of crazy list-making is fairly typical in the offices of producers in New York and regionally. The question "How about Hugh Jackman?" has been asked more than once since the Australian movie star turned the dross of The Boy From Oz into box-office gold.
Ellis (Jaime Cepero), Eileen's snakily ambitious assistant, whom Derek refers to as a "Chihuahua" (the series' first racial slur?), ferrets out the manager of a major star named Rebecca Duvall. Sean Dugan, the ginger-haired Broadway actor of Next Fall whose laconic and precise delivery always lends a quality of mystery to the characters he inhabits, plays Duvall's manager, Randall. He agrees to Ellis' idea of Rebecca meeting about the Marilyn musical. Ellis sweetens the deal by offering Randall a sex act (the offer is accepted) that is not seen on screen. Bingo! Sociopath Ellis is revealed to be creepily ambisexual (as opposed to "trisexual," the word referenced in "La Vie Boheme" in Rent; it means a proclivity to "try" anything — or maybe you knew that already).
Expect "Rebecca Duvall" to show up next week; guest star Uma Thurman will play Rebecca, further shaking the confidence of potential leading ladies (and box-office nobodies) Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee). Ellis maneuvers for a "co-producer" credit for snagging the meeting with Rebecca, but Eileen swats him down.
Eileen, in order to goose Derek back in line, takes a dinner with real-life Broadway director Doug Hughes (playing himself), who won a Tony Award for directing Doubt and directed "Smash" creator Theresa Rebeck's Broadway play Mauritius. (Check out Hughes' credits in the Playbill Vault.) Their dinner scene (against a wall of illustrations) was shot at the Upper East Side modern Italian place called Caravaggio Ristorante. Who should walk into the eatery but a villain to rival evil Ellis — New York Post theatre columnist Michael Riedel (he was mentioned in the pilot, billed as "a Napoleonic little Nazi"). Did Eileen arrange for Riedel to find her there with Doug Hughes? Was it coincidence? Hughes (he's the son of the late actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg) looks queasy in the columnist's presence and says he doesn't want to be reading his name in The Post. Naturally, Riedel places an item in a column — Eileen Rand Wooing Doug Hughes for Marilyn Musical. A threatened Derek is outraged. "You can't believe anything you read in Riedel's column," says the coy Eileen, "and you know that he extrapolates!" Derek is back on board.
How pernicious — or effective — is Michael Riedel in the real world? It's thought that his negative report about the 2000 out-of-town tryout of Seussical helped to prompt personnel changes in the production and put a dark cloud over the show's short, flop Broadway life (the musical has since been revised by Tony winners Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and is one of the most-produced shows in the stock and amateur market — a post-Broadway smash). When powerful playwright Arthur Laurents publicly derided the quality of the Off-Broadway world-premiere of his play called Big Potato in 2000, Riedel gave Laurents a forum — and the columnist named the names of the valiant Equity actors who were simply trying to do good work under difficult circumstances (namely, the play). The actors, who were making next to no money, took the fall, in print. Producers might be fair game when smearing a mistake like Moose Murders, Carrie, Into the Light and In My Life, but is it really fair to pick on actors, especially actors who are not household names?
Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, executive producers of "Smash" and Broadway producers of How to Succeed and Promises, Promises, recently appeared on Riedel's local PBS show "Theater Talk," looking as uncomfortable as Doug Hughes. Riedel had not been kind to Promises, Promises. TV drama would seem to imitate life: We later see Eileen and Riedel kissing on the cheek and promising to get together for a future dinner. Is this a case of "keep your enemies closer?"
Riedel doesn't play in Peoria, but "Smash" creator Rebeck likes her local color, so Riedel materialized. Of course, in casting the real-life Riedel, some hungry New York City actor lost an opportunity to play a fictional Post theatre scribe in the series. For the second season of "Smash," we suggest that a fictional Playbill.com reporter named "Kenny Jones" make an appearance. Is Hugh Jackman available?
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 9:
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: "You've got to climb Mount Everest to reach The Valley of the Dolls," the campy Jacqueline Susann movie told us, and Ivy is popping so many dolls — to help her sleep, to help her anxiety, to help her throat ailment — that she's headed for a slide down a jagged slope. Best friend Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr., who began performances in Broadway's Leap of Faith this week) tells her to be careful, but insecure Ivy doesn't listen. While performing in the chorus of Tom and Julia's Broadway musical, Heaven on Earth, she takes a tumble downstage as the star of the show — playing Saint Peter at the pearly gates — sings and dances (the purposely ironic) number called "The Higher You Get, the Farther the Fall." That's two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz — who won a 2011 Tony starring in "Smash" songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's Catch Me If You Can — playing Saint Peter. Read more about Butz in the Playbill Vault. (The Heaven on Earth sequence, complete with an electric stairway to paradise, was filmed in a theatre on Staten Island, by the way.) It's a joy to see Butz shout, "Get off the freakin' stage" to the altered Ivy. This is our first real glimpse at Heaven On Earth. The episode shows an edited version of the rousing revival-style number, but NBC has also made the uncut musical number available on nbc.com. It is virtually impossible to tell what Heaven On Earth is about, plot-wise. It seems to be a musical that follows a handful of disparate people who have just died and are seeking to pass tests created by Saint Peter in order to get into heaven.
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS: Ivy flees from her drug-spiked onstage tumble, rushing into the streets of the midtown theatre district, covering four blocks of territory. We know this because the Shubert (where Heaven on Earth is) sits on 44th and Ivy is next seen on 48th (in the background, you can see the marquee of the Walter Kerr Theatre, which is now home to the dynamite Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park). Did we mention that Ivy is still in full costume, dressed as a member of Saint Peter's chorus? Blame it on the pills, of course, but it needs to be made clear here that Broadway performers don't appear on streets or in alleys in costume without getting in some serious trouble with management. (Those kids hawking discount-ticket flyers in Times Square, dressed in costumes suggesting characters from Lysistrata Jones and Chicago, are not cast members; they are marketing hires.) A dozen wardrobe mistresses must have burst into flame watching this episode of "Smash." Chorus boy Dennis (Phillip Spaeth) is shown texting in Shubert Alley in costume between his scenes. It doesn't really happen. Karen, who witnessed the meltdown at the Shubert, is shadowing Ivy in order to return a pair of sunglasses to her rival (don't ask). Ivy says hateful things to Karen on the street, then Karen reveals that she turned down a chance to sleep with Derek before Derek slept with Ivy. This propels Ivy into Times Square, where Karen (in an apparently protective mood) follows her into a liquor store, pays for booze and later shares swigs from a brown paper bag with her enemy. We are not making this up. It leads to an improvised duet of Rihanna's "Cheers (Drink to That)" on Duffy Square (where the TKTS booth is located), featuring street musicians and tourists. This bonding between the ladies is a drunken moment that won't last, but it does hint at a future friendship to be developed down the line.
TOM AND SAM: Tom and Sam are worried about Ivy, and sit vigil at a diner where they share food and get to know each other better (their common bond is musicals — otherwise, they seem to have as little in common as Tom and his Republican lawyer boyfriend, John, played by Neal Bledsoe). Sports-lovin' Sam's team reference of the week: The Bruins!
JULIA'S AFFAIR REVEALED: In an act of musical deduction not seen since the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street, Julia's husband Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) discovers sheet music for a song Julia and Tom wrote about the memory of getting kissed on the Brooklyn Bridge, and Frank decides that it's a confession of infidelity. He confronts Julia, she confesses her affair with actor Michael Swift (Will Chase), Frank punches Michael in the face outside the New York Theatre Workshop (where Rent got its start, on East Fourth Street in the East Village), Frank learns the recent affair wasn't the first time Julia and Michael hooked up, and he packs his bags and moves out, crushing Julia and their son, Leo (Emory Cohen). Julia later realizes that she created this mess, that it was a bombshell she willingly set off. Julia has a new title for her show: Marilyn the Musical is now called Bombshell. Now, if they only had a full script and score!
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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