THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 15, Or, Lost in Boston
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 May 14 season finale, "Bombshell."
Back in February, when NBC's "Smash" had its premiere, you might have thought that the first season of an hourlong scripted series about the making of a Broadway musical would climax with the opening night on Broadway. But, no. Here we are, 15 episodes later, in Boston at a fictional venue called the Wilder Theatre (a reference to Billy Wilder? Thornton Wilder?), where Bombshell is playing a fraught tryout. The destination of Broadway is being saved for the second season, apparently. We now know that there will indeed be a second season of "Smash," reportedly 16-18 episodes, to launch in midseason 2012-13. The imagination reels at what the next chapter will bring. A flash-forward to a year from now, when the Marilyn Monroe show is a smash, Karen (Katharine McPhee) is a star, and a new stage project for the contentious collaborators is eyed? Probably not. Unless the series gets a radical rethinking by the series' new "showrunner" (the person in charge of story), "Smash" is expected to immediately pick up with the threads from which its characters are now cliff-hanging.
Over the objections of producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) and writers Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing), director Derek (Jack Davenport) has chosen newbie Karen to take over for departed marquee name, Rebecca Duvall, the movie star who exited after only one Boston performance following the songwriters' failure to give her a rousing 11-o'clock number. Rebecca feels she let down the audience, but her faith was also shaken by the possibly deliberate poisoning of her smoothie. Derek, who has had fantastical visions of Karen as Marilyn throughout the season, trusts his instinct, even though his bedmate Ivy (Megan Hilty) knows the part intimately (she did the workshop and has followed the progress of the writing and staging via pillow talk).
"Why wasn't it me?" Ivy asks him.
"I see her in my head," Derek responds. "She just has something that you don't. I'm sorry."
This is blunt, not cruel. (Derek has been crueler this season.) Julia, Eileen and Tom could say no to his decision, but the theatre world (including the potentially poisonous New York Post columnist Michael Riedel, who calls Eileen for progress reports) is paying attention. Canceled performances? They mean lost money and bad publicity.
Karen, who is learning the scenes, blocking and choreography of the entire show in one day (she says knows the songs), goes missing after she finds out that fiancée Dev (Raza Jaffrey) slept with Ivy the other night. The envious Ivy revealed the lurid news to her rival by showing Karen the engagement ring that Dev left in her hotel room. Ivy offers some unclear reference to Dev being like Joe DiMaggio. More fuzzy logic and fuzzier motivation — and this episode was written by series creator Theresa Rebeck. Dev apologetically admits to the deed, saying he was drunk — and he thought he and Karen were "finished." Karen pushes him away and disappears. Derek also tells Dev to get lost: "She's mine now!"
Derek then follows a trail of jewelry and costume pieces (paging wardrobe!) to a storage room in the theatre, where Karen has hidden herself behind a rack of clothes. Derek gives her a pep talk, inevitably linking her plight to Marilyn Monroe's passion. McPhee continues to be brilliantly real and understated in her non-musical scenes; if she and Hilty are not Emmy nominees this summer, it'll be a crime. Meanwhile, eager Ivy (who heard Karen is missing?) is summoned by Tom, Julia and Eileen, who are apparently going to ask her to step in. Dressed in full Marilyn regalia (wig, makeup and costume), Ivy springs from the wings: "Do you guys need me?" No, actually, they don't. Karen is back, and ready to rise.
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.
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.)
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.
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 15:
ELLIS AND EILEEN: Sleazy producing assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) fancies himself a producer and objects to the casting of Karen. "I didn't get Rebecca Duvall out of your way so you could ignore me yet again," he says to Eileen, admitting that he added ground peanuts into "the stupid smoothie" of the allergy-prone Rebecca. "Don't ever call me an assistant ever again." Eileen fires him on the spot, and he returns with this mustache-twirling exit line: "You haven't heard the last of this!" The structure of this episode is very Aaron Sorkin, very "The West Wing," even if the writing is not. What's missing in "Smash" is not structure or plot, but execution — a deeper exploration of the creative process and relationships supported by meticulous dialogue that tracks from moment to moment. It all goes back to logic and clarity; "Smash" doesn't have to be "The West Wing," it just needs to make sense. We hesistated to call "Smash" a soap before, but we give in. We also know that soaps can be sophisticated; go get a DVD of "Knots Landing," the "Dallas" spinoff that was packed with weak and ambitious people whose choices were deliciously articulated.
SPEAKING OF SOAP OPERA: Under the stress of the deadline, Julia vomits in the ladies lounge, observing that she hasn't thrown up since she was pregnant with her son, Leo. Julia might be pregnant, in case you missed that clue. If the new writers fertilize this plot seed, a question of paternity is sure to be part of the new season. Is husband Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) the father? Or is the baby the product of Julia's affair with actor Michael Swift (Will Chase), who plays DiMaggio? Michael tells Julia that he confessed the affair to his wife, and she left him. Julia consoles Michael, and Frank witnesses her sympathy. Frank tells Julia he's not sure he can trust her when so much doubt is present. Her grammar-challenged response is: "Other things will be there, too. Good things that we created. Maybe that's all we can do is know that the good is more than the mistakes." The moment helps generate a lyric later in the day. In a brainstorming session, she mumbles, "Something good…that's bigger than the bad. The good…it's bigger than the bad!" Is it a stroke? Or a stroke of genius? More urgently: Will scenes of Julia's home life be dropped in Season Two, in favor of her more vivacious artistic life? Tom and Julia becoming roommates, perhaps? Here's potential theme music for them.
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: The USO number, "Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Like to Howl," the bones of which were seen earlier in the season, is in full flower here, with Karen singing and dancing with an ensemble of 11 men. The imaginative work of series choreographer Joshua Bergasse is aching for an Emmy Award nomination. (Karen seems to walk on air, her footsteps supported by the hands and arms of the men.) And the way she's thrown around the stage by those boys? Showbiz Whimsy! It takes weeks of trust and collaboration; here, she had an hour, perhaps. For the 11-o'clock number, the series' excellent Tony Award-winning songwriters Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) have written a post-mortem musical coda to Marilyn's life, in which she appears in a gold sequined gown to plead, "Don't Forget Me." Behind her, chorus girls (not Ivy) appear as Marilyn in various stages of her development. A key-change prompts spontaneous applause from the Boston crowd, which includes Eileen's ex, Jerry (Michael Cristofer), her lover Nick (Thorsten Kaye) and boy investor Lyle (Nick Jonas); they eat up the "American Idol"-style Big Number.
(As readers of this column know, a traditional "11-o'clock number" usually involves the show's star singing a solo turn that sums up his or her character's journey or credo or last-minute revelation: "If He Walked Into My Life" from Mame, "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" from My Fair Lady and "I'm Going Back" from Bells Are Ringing are classic examples. "Don't Forget Me" fits the definition. Why 11-o'clock? That's around the time a climactic song gets delivered, especially back in the days when shows began at 8:30 PM.) "Don't Forget Me" feels like a rushed and general placeholder (a future trunk song), but that might be deliberate on the part of Shaiman and Wittman: the number was cooked up on the fly, after all, and we're still in previews out of town. In it, Marilyn sings a Big Note and a plea to "let me be that star" — in the heavens, echoing to opening number, "Let Me Be Your Star." It certainly lets the audience know that the show has reached its climax. "If something good can come from bad, the past can rest in peace," she sings. "If you see someone hurt and in need of a hand, don't forget me. …There are some in this world who have strength on their own, never broke or in need of repair, but there are some born to shine who can't do it alone, so protect them and take special care…"
Karen's season-ending, final, frozen, back-lit pose — with upraised arms, head pulled back and neck exposed — closely echoes cover art from Bernadette Peters' "Sondheim, Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live At Carnegie Hall" album. Karen would be lucky to have the career of a Broadway baby like Peters, who never had an obstacle like Ivy Lynn.
See you next season.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth, and Tweet your thoughts about "Smash.")
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