THE "SMASH" REPORT: Season Two, Episode 5, Or, The "C" Plot Thickens
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 March 5 episode, "The Read-Through."
Like a brisk, cool, clarifying ocean wind blowing the haze off a smog-enrobed city, an oxygen-filled song by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, choreographed vivaciously by Emmy Award winner Joshua Bergasse, opened the latest episode of "Smash." The tune is called "Public Relations," and composer Tom (Christian Borle) explains to director Derek (Jack Davenport) what the song is: a "possible new number" to open Act Two of Bombshell, in which Marilyn Monroe arrives via airplane and meets the press.
Packed with the same sort of wordplay — and physical brio — that we got in "The National Pastime" from Season One, it reminds you why you watched "Smash" in the first place: Those Musical Numbers.
This one is all in Tom's head, with Tom playing multiple comic, singing and dancing roles in the ensemble — even in drag as a lady British reporter. Goofing it up plays to Borle's strengths; he's a daffy comedian (and won a Tony for being just that in Peter and the Starcatcher, in addition to being memorable in a handful of parts in Monty Python's Spamalot). What the TV audience still might not get from the series (which often shows Tom listening intently to other people complain) is that Borle (as stated in the Season One Playbill "Smash" Reports) belongs at the center of a Broadway musical comedy. If and when the London production of Singin' in the Rain comes to Broadway, could he please be cast in the Donald O'Connor role? Or even the Gene Kelly role?
"Public Relations" is a sometimes stilly, always tuneful, highly imaginative sequence with an M-G-M/Busby Berkeley flair — overhead shots show dancers (reporters, porters, airline employees on a tarmac) in kaleidoscopic patterns. The rich orchestration is by Shaiman and Broadway's Douglas Besterman. All this, in the first five minutes of the episode!
Episode 5 opens in the interior of Broadway's Belasco Theatre, where Bombshell is going to end up if producer Jerry (Michael Cristofer) green-lights the project following the imminent "read-through" of the new version of the script. (We can't completely tell if that really is the Belasco; if it is, it's a shame that episode director David Petrarca didn't pick up some of the burnished murals and stained glass in the 1907 gem, one of Broadway's oldest and most storied venues. It's said to be haunted — here's a Playbill Video tour of it from a couple years back, when the theatre had been renovated and was hosting the musical Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.)
Tom, Derek, librettist Julia (Debra Messing) and dramaturg Peter (Daniel Sunjata) have unusually free and open access to the Belasco considering their show has not been fully written. Their meeting in the auditorium prompts this apparently sincere remark from wistful Tom: "The Belasco! Home of great hopes and crushing failures." Exactly the sort of hoary line that show folk never speak in real life. Here's another such line from this episode, from Derek to Karen: "Get ready. If we get this right, you're going to win every award in town!"
There is a lot of pressure on Julia to deliver a solid script at this read-through. Amazingly, hours before the reading, neither Tom nor Derek has read the rewrite that Julia cooked up while shacking up with Peter in the country. It's a little like a legal defense team not meeting before their first day in court.
Julia bumps into Tony Award-nominated playwright Jon Robin Baitz (whose Other Desert Cities played Broadway and is a hot property in regional theatres at the moment) in Times Square. In his cameo, he plants the seed in Julia's mind that Peter has rewritten, stolen and taken credit for another playwright's work in the past, and warns her to be wary. She has last-minute doubts about going through with the reading. Maybe it's bad? "[Jerry's] got no problem pulling the plug if this doesn't go flawlessly," says Derek.
As it turns out, despite a pregnant pause following the reading (Ann Harada's expression as stage manager Linda is priceless — is she laying an egg?), it's deemed a brilliant revision by everyone but Jerry. He says he won't produce it. It's too arty. It'll win awards, but he wants to put asses in seats — to make money. He cites the critical hits Grey Gardens, Follies and Ragtime, respected properties that didn't recoup their investments. "Take it to the Public Theater," he says.
But then he back-pedals. He says he's not going to produce this version, but he will produce another version! Peter's other draft? No! Peter didn't pen a competing script! That was all misdirection (thanks, Robbie Baitz!). Jerry wants to go back to the pre-Boston "workshop" version of the script, back when it was called Marilyn the Musical (from Season One).
Tom is on Jerry's side, but Derek and Julia want the new version. The contrast is explained this way: Do you want "a sexy, provocative, insightful musical about Marilyn and the men who made her"? asks Julia, or "a lush, dazzling, still insightful spectacle about a girl who became an icon…"? asks Tom. (The latter sentence might partly characterize Shaiman and Wittman's own glossy, presentational Catch Me If You Can, which had a libretto by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally, and apparently needed no dramaturg.)
In a turn that illustrates Smash's characteristic lack of logic, they all look to Anjelica Huston's Eileen (who, by murky government decree, is not allowed to produce the show) and say they will agree to move forward with whatever version she thinks is best. The episode ends before the leonine Eileen reveals her choice.
Was the workshop version better than the Boston-tryout version, which seemed so promising? Didn't Jerry previously say that he is the decider and he's out to prove that Eileen is no producer? Why would he turn to Eileen? Help!
In the series' "B" plot, the rock musical Hit List by Brooklyn hipsters Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle (Andy Mientus) is going to be directed by Derek in the "Winter Fringe" — a place to "throw up a work-in-progress," says Derek — in two weeks' time, even though the show is not fully written yet. Variation on a theme!
Karen (Katharine McPhee) is hot for songwriter Jimmy so she gathers her show friends together for an informal living-room read of Act One (the only act Kyle has penned so far) at Jimmy's place. The reading (the libretto, anyway) bombs, with salty chorus boy Bobby (Wesley Taylor) sneering, "The concept's cool, but the dialogue and characters…!" (You said it, Bobby! Same goes for "Smash.") They all make an awkward exit, leaving Kyle shamed. (You assume Bobby no longer has a crush on Kyle. Rule No. 1 in showbiz: don't date the untalented!)
Collaborator Jimmy himself is shocked that the Hit List book is so bad (yet another composer who seems disconnected from a script that he's writing songs for!). Kyle's been "eating and sleeping [musicals] since he was a kid," Jimmy says, bewildered.
This episode sadly echoes an epidemic in American musical theatre: It's populated by people who are in love with musicals and the idea of writing musicals but have no apparent skills to write musicals. You can look to two Broadway flops from fall 2012 for examples of this.
Kyle laments, "I wish the whole show could be your songs, [Jimmy]…"
Eureka! Using sung-through rock musicals Rent and Next to Normal as inspiration, they decide to beef up Jimmy's score and retain elements of Kyle's scenario! "Smash" teaches us that musicals don't need scripts, just outlines!
In Jimmy's loft, Karen looks at Jimmy adoringly and covers the Death Cab for Cutie song, "Some Boys," in a fantasy sequence. (Jimmy is unaware — after all, he was with another woman the night before.) Karen is still interested; Jimmy is a good kisser when he's high (see last week's episode). Jimmy begins trusting Karen because she keeps her word. But Kyle has told Jimmy that Karen is the girlfriend of Derek (an assumption on Kyle's part). Jimmy and Karen decide to be friends and keep it all business.
Karen tells Kyle that writing musicals is hard and requires discipline. She should be pointing him to the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a free training ground for librettists, composers and lyricists (attended by the songwriters of Next to Normal and Ragtime, no less!).
In the series' airless "C" plot, guest star Sean Hayes plays Terry, a Hollywood comedy actor hired to star as scheming Valmont in the dark musical drama Liaisons, featuring Ivy (Megan Hity) as the virginal Cecile. Veanne Cox, a respected actress who walks the line between character woman and leading lady in Broadway and regional productions, plays an Actress in the cast who characterizes his participation as analogous to Jim Carrey playing King Lear. Terry chooses to approach the musical drama as a wacky comedy, and the bullied Director (Jason Kravits) patronizes his star.
Ivy schools the apparently mentally challenged Terry, telling him that Liaisons is not a musical comedy, it's a drama with tragic edges. She says he should embrace his fear — it "can transform you." A manic Terry decides to go off all of his medications and jump into the experience. It remains to be seen if Hayes will cross paths with his former "Will & Grace" co-star Messing.
The smog has rolled back over the city.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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