THE "SMASH" REPORT: Season Two, Episode 4, Or, Doping Out the Characters
By Kenneth Jones
Playbill's weekly recap, with notes and comment, of the latest episode of the NBC musical drama series "Smash," about the dreamers behind Broadway musicals. Here's a look at the Feb. 26 episode, "The Song."
The mind spins following the latest episode of "Smash." Is this mental vertigo a result of the bewitching new pop song, "I Can't Let Go," which series tunesmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote for Jennifer Hudson's character, two-time Tony-winning Broadway star Veronica Moore? Or are you dizzy from trying to track the very basic facts about the characters in Season Two's ever-expanding cast? For example, we now learn that show doctor Peter Gilman (played by Daniel Sunjata) is not only a dramaturg, but he teaches acting at NYU. This may be a first in American theatre, as these are very different skill sets, but perhaps some dramaturg/acting teacher reading this will write to us and set us straight. Peter drags librettist Julia (Debra Messing) to NYU so she can hear her Bombshell rewrites read aloud by students (he's changed the names of her characters). Offensive though it is, it leads Julia to a Eureka moment in which she realizes the men in the show must become more present in Marilyn Monroe's life. Considering director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) is routinely called a "genius," why wasn't he able to urge Julia toward this revelation before? (Derek's genius must be in the way he positions his actors on stage and which designers he hires, not in dramaturgical skills — something true of some of our busiest Broadway directors today.) During this getting-to-know-you process with the pillow-lipped Peter, Julia reads the one play that he has written — a very bad play, we learn — called The Singing Bird. She questions his skills. And so do we. This is the guy who has consulted on four Broadway hits?
Nevertheless, his process has apparently unlocked Julia in ways that are not easily parsed, and feverish rewriting begins, with Julia and Peter thumbing through Marilyn biographies and source material. Peter suggests they complete their work at his country house in the Berkshires. Julia's eyebrows are raised. To be continued. Can she find love with a dramaturg/failed playwright/show doctor/acting teacher?
Also not easily charted is Veronica Moore's exact nature. She's a Broadway baby who is passionate about musical theatre and her place as a Broadway star. But she's tired of playing the "good girl" roles — she wants to create an adult image. Her signature song is the ebullient "I Got Love," which a 25-year-old Melba Moore introduced to Tony Award-winning effect in the 1970 musical Purlie. (Here's a video of Moore singing the song in a 1981 TV production of the show.) To cloud these waters is Veronica Moore's manager-mother, Cynthia (played by Tony Award winner Sheryl Lee Ralph, the original and Tony-nominated Deena Jones of Dreamgirls, 25 years before Hudson won an Oscar for playing Effie in the film version), who mentions that Veronica is one step closer to moving beyond Broadway (to be a pop star?), an apparent longtime dream. Well, which is it, "Smash"? Adult roles on Broadway or pop concerts in arenas? "I Could Have Danced All Night" or a big, yearning diva-pop song like "I Can't Let Go?"
Here's a clip from the episode featuring Hudson singing the song:
On first listen, we're not sure the number necessarily speaks clearly to what "Ronnie" (or others) may or may not be letting go of (the information in the episode overwhelms), but Hudson's voice certainly blows the frame off of your flat-screen TV. Enjoy it as a standalone.
This lack of character definition with Peter and Veronica isn't about human complexity, it's about inconsistent writing. And it creeps in with Jeremy Jordan's drug-using songwriter Jimmy, too. He's angry, he's not angry. He wants Karen's help, he doesn't want Karen's help. He wants to network, he doesn't want to network. Same thing goes for Derek. He's a bully, he's not a bully. He learns from his mistakes, he doesn't learn from his mistakes. He needs nobody's advice, he needs Ivy's advice.
The episode's organizing event is Ronnie's big reinvention concert, for which she and Derek want a "raw" new song. Karen (Katharine McPhee) has just the idea — what about something by Jimmy, from the new musical Hit List, which he's writing with boyish librettist Kyle (Andy Mientus)? Tom (Christian Borle) is the concert musical director, and he and Derek say no to Jimmy's existing songs, so Jimmy cooks up a new one (and also disappears for a while to get high because he thinks he's been rejected). The song (approved by Tom and miraculously, instantly orchestrated, staged and lighted) turns out to be Ronnie's concert-finale triumph. And what a coup for the songwriter Jimmy — the concert is being seen on TV's Bravo (an NBC Universal network, natch!), giving him exposure that will certainly goose his fortunes as a musical-theatre writer. Ronnie brings both Jimmy and Kyle (!) out for a bow.
Here are some highlights from this episode:
FUN FACT NO. 1: Ivy was a swing when Ronnie played Audrey in a Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors. Don't know what a "swing" is? Check out this past Ask Playbill.com column.
REPEATED REMINDER FROM THE PROS: "Musicals take years to develop!" (The fun of "Smash" is seeing how success can be fast-tracked under the right conditions. It does happen.)
THE RETURN OF GREASY NICK AND HAMMY JERRY: Nick (Thorsten Kaye), the cash-only bartender who funded the Broadway development and tryout of Bombshell with criminal money, has resurfaced and is going to turn himself in, taking the blame. Lovestruck producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston), after a night of offscreen sex with the "good" Nick, ends up telling the feds that she also knew the money was shady, and she is stripped of the ability to produce Bombshell. But her ex, Jerry (Michael Cristofer), thinks it has hit potential, and she grants him the right to take over the show (in another offsceen scene). In a surprise twist at episode's end, Jerry is seen talking on the phone to the (unseen) villain of Season One — ambitious, bisexual, smoothie-spiking Ellis, who has been feeding Jerry backstage intel about Bombshell, which Jerry, we guess, spilled to the government. (As the story progresses, it's less and less clear how the funding was illegal. If I want to invest in Hit List, The Singing Bird, Temps, Three On a Match or another title mentioned in this series, couldn't I hand over a million in cash, sign papers and get a receipt? Do you need to know that I inherited it from my mysterious Uncle Guido? Could a general manager please email us?) Jerry writes a check to Ellis, and informs the kid by phone that he never wants to hear from him again. Now the world will know that Eileen Rand is not a producer! If Jerry had longer facial hair, he'd be twisting it into a pointy curl.
FUN FACT NO. 2: When searching the streets for an AWOL Jimmy, Kyle likes to listen and sing along with Billy Joel's "Everybody Loves You Now" on an iPod.
DEREK AS FOSSE: The choreography/musical arrangement that is finally settled on for Ronnie's "I Got Love" concert turn is a slinky Bob Fosse-style version of the Peter Udell-Gary Geld song, with Veronica in a mini-skirt, surrounded by grasping chorus kids. No more "good girl." Just kinda slutty. Ronnie has given in to Derek's bullying ("Connect with your body!" he barks). This episode is about compromise and patience, right? Except the men get what they want, usually after publicly shaming the women. The lesson learned by Julia: "Every scene [in Bombshell] should be from the man's point of view!" And Ronnie admits, "When I see Derek's work, I love it." No wonder Derek is smiling from the wings.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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