THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 10, Or, The People in Peoria
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 9 episode, "Understudy."
The suits are back. That is, potential investors have been gathered in a rehearsal studio to meet movie star Rebecca Duvall (Uma Thurman), who has apparently agreed to star in either a workshop or full production (it's not fully clear) of Bombshell, the newly named Marilyn Monroe-inspired musical. It's also not clear if Rebecca has even read the script and score, but we do know that she has no professional stage experience, which puts her on par with chorus girl Karen (Katharine McPhee). What Duvall does have is marquee value, which is why the suits (including real-life Tony-winning Broadway producers Robyn Goodman and Emanuel Azenberg, in the front row) are there. Why are the investors present when Duvall has not yet met with the writers or worked with the creative team or sung a song or signed a contract? This cart-before-the-horse stuff is typical of the broad-strokes approach that "Smash" has when it comes to showing how musicals are produced. People in Peoria have no idea how shows are put together in New York City, so all that's necessary is the appearance of producing. Hence, the gathering of suits in a room to see — what? — Rebecca shaking some hands and chorus people singing a few songs around her?
It seems Rebecca has been delayed in Cuba, while on some humanitarian mission with Sean Penn, so the suits are dismissed (for now) and rehearsals (toward a reading of the show?) continue, with Karen put into the Marilyn role for a week, while Rebecca ties up loose ends.
Manny Azenberg, the respected producer of most of Neil Simon's plays, and Goodman, a producer on Avenue Q and other Tony-winning shows, tells Bombshell producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) that she's got two days to produce a star; their patience with the novice businesswoman is running out — remember, it was her ex, Jerry, who had the business brains. (By the way, the morning after this episode aired, The Broadway League announced that it would present a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre to Azenberg.)
Following last week's meltdown by veteran chorus girl Ivy (Megan Hilty), she is persona non grata on Broadway, and isn't trusted enough to re-join the Bombshell chorus for the purposes of this backers' presentation. (Was she fired from Broadway's Heaven On Earth, too? Is anyone making her go to rehab?)
When she learns that Karen has been invited to vamp as Marilyn in rehearsals until the star arrives, bitter Ivy characterizes Karen as a "usurper." Those fickle chorus kids are betting this week that Karen will either break down and cry — or get fired. "She is never going to be able to hack it," bitchy chorus boy Bobby (Wesley Taylor) says, continuing the unfortunate "Smash" habit of characterizing ensemble members as some of the most negative, disloyal and capricious creatures in commercial theatre. Weren't they propping Karen up a couple of weeks ago?
With sabotage on her mind, Ivy makes nice with Karen and suggests to her rival that she fully assert her opinions in rehearsal with unpredictable director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport). But when Karen does give Derek her two cents, he starts to see her come alive as Marilyn (in a signature "Smash" fantasy moment, with Karen fully costumed as Monroe). No longer is Karen "a scared rabbit" who is "completely useless." Ivy's plan is backfiring. But it doesn't matter, does it? Ms. Duvall and her handlers show up in the final moments of the episode. It's showtime, folks. The movie star is ready to start her journey with Bombshell.
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 10:
TOM AND JULIA: Composer Tom (Christian Borle) and his collaborator Julia (Debra Messing) have a tradition: Every year on the anniversary of the opening of their first show, Three On a Match, they find out where the show is being revived regionally and they travel to attend a performance. Three On a Match has been around for a decade and has something of a stock and amateur life. The writers are seen in the audience at an unnamed community theatre (Peoria?) watching the finale of their sentimental period show, which looks to be part The Grand Tour, part Fanny and part A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (set in World War One Paris, if the set is any clue). "That's the biggest piece of junk we've ever written," Julia observes during the hilarious chord progression in which the amateurs sing, "So let us raise a glass to him!/And let us give three cheers and down the hatch!/Friendship it will never dim,/For somewhere there will always be/Threeeeee on a maaaaatch!" That's the beloved comic theatre actress Kristine Nielsen, of Off-Broadway's Betty's Summer Vacation and Broadway's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, playing the local director, who fumbles in a curtain speech and generally admits her inferiority to the New Yorkers — she shruggingly tells Tom that rehearsals for the local company last four months. Delicious and daffy Nielsen (whose name is misspelled as "Nelson" in the closing credits of the episode) appeared in the New York premiere of "Smash" creator Theresa Rebeck's Pulitzer Prize-finalist play Omnium Gatherum, and also played choice comic roles in Off-Broadway's Die Mommie Die!, Our Leading Lady, Wonder of the World, Crazy Mary, Miss Witherspoon, Comic Potential and Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. Julia gets emotional on the visit to the sticks and admits to Tom that her husband, Frank, left her (in last week's episode, remember?). All efforts to reach Frank have been met with silence. That's what you get when you fall in love. And when you cheat on your husband, with an actor!
DEV AND KAREN: Dev (Raza Jaffrey) has not yet told Karen that he was passed over for a promotion in the mayor's press office, or that there might be an opportunity for him in DC. However, Karen inadvertently reveals to Dev that Derek sexually harassed her (back in the pilot episode) in a late-night work session. Later, Derek (in his kinder, Dr. Jekyll mood) shows up at Karen and Dev's apartment to (sort of) apologize about that earlier incident: "That night in my apartment, I made certain assumptions based on a hard-wired set of personal experiences, which, to be fair, befall many a director of note, but that doesn't make them warranted or justified." When Dev bumps into Derek outside their apartment, they get into a fistfight on the street. This is the second straight-guy punch-out of the series.
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: The episode's major original song by Hairspray Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) is a number for movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, and it takes place in steam room, with chorus boys playing cronies and yes men as they discuss the business. (No flesh, just rehearsal clothes.) Tom stands in for Zanuck, chomping a cigar and singing and dancing with the boys in the rehearsal room. Gotta love the conga kick that Shaiman gives that number, which is called "Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking," choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. These original Bombshell/Marilyn numbers are so assured week after week that you can't help hoping that the current TV-producer meetings for Season Two are all about focusing on what's original about the series. If you want covers of pop hits, go to "Glee." If you want to hear the heartbeat of American musical theatre, here's "Smash." Here's a sample of the frisky comic patter in the Zanuck song:
Today the trades are all aglow
She makes directors wait all day
…She's got them all tied up in knots
She needs to learn she's only skin
JOHN AND TOM: In an act of deduction on a level not seen since last week's episode, Tom's boyfriend, the Republican lawyer John (Neal Bledsoe), spies Tom being amiable with chorus dancer Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and later notes that Tom is reading the sports section of the newspaper! He accuses Tom of being crazy about sports-lovin' Sam, and says, "You never look at me like that." John says goodbye to all that.
UP YOURS, MANNY: Nick (Thorsten Kaye), the downtown bar owner who has taken a fancy to Eileen, tells her that he has a pal, rocker Randy Cobra, with money to burn. He introduces Eileen to the hooch-infused Cobra (played by two-time Tony nominee Terrence Mann, who created the Broadway roles of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Rum Tum Tugger in Cats and Javert in Les Miserables). Meanwhile, Eileen's oily assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) has done a background check on Nick and has made a discovery. She admonishes Ellis, rejects the report and tells him to keep it to himself. Eileen gathers Manny Azenberg and Robyn Goodman (and fictional producer Gary Garrison, played by Larry Block) together to offer them investor papers — papers that are then snatched away from them and lit on fire in a bucket. Literally. A public shaming. With fire! She introduces them to her chief investor — Randy Cobra! Eileen and Nick share a celebratory kiss. Manny and Robyn look shell-shocked.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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