THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 5, Or, Below the Neck
By Kenneth Jones
Playbill's weekly overview, with notes and comment, of the latest episode of the NBC series "Smash," about the people behind the creation of a new Broadway musical. Here's a look at the March 5 episode, "Let's Be Bad."
We're 13 days away from the workshop presentation of Marilyn the Musical and lyricist-librettist Julia (Debra Messing) has not yet delivered a full script, even though her husband, Frank (Brian d'Arcy James), is away on a teacher's training retreat (giving her quiet time to write, right?). Maybe Julia is distracted by her extra-marital flirtation with former lover, Michael (Will Chase), who is cast as Marilyn's Joe DiMaggio. They share pie at the Westway Diner — that's the exterior of the real Westway, an actor hangout, on Ninth Avenue between 43rd Street and 44th — and Julia fingers the whipped cream of his apple pie. That's a very public fingering considering they're at a front-window booth looking out on Ninth Avenue.
During this "work session," Julia and Frank's 16-year-old son, Leo (Emory Cohen), is taken into custody by the cops for "loitering for drugs" in Central Park. Julia cannot be reached, Frank is out of town, so Julia's composer, Tom (Christian Borle), gets the call — while he's on a date with new flame John (Neal Bledsoe) at the theatre-district bistro Pigalle. (Sidebar: That's the exterior of Pigalle, at least. At 48th and Eighth, Pigalle is a go-to place for reliable after-theatre French-inspired vittles. Try the chicken cobb salad with lardons and a hunk of blue cheese and crusty peasant bread.) John, a lawyer, gets Leo sprung. Back at Julia's, Tom warns his lyricist about the flirtation with Michael: "You're playing with fire, and this is your wakeup call."
Michael (who is married, with a young son) is making eyes at Julia at rehearsal and later appears at her Brooklyn doorstep, where he shares a meal with Leo and Julia. While waiting for the car service to pick him up, Michael and Julia share a private conversation on her front stoop (she lives in Carroll Street in Brooklyn) about how he wants to be with her, and she says they can't — they both have families now. He sings an impromptu couple of verses of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" (with accompaniment in their imaginations) and then plants a long and deep kiss on Julia, on the street. These show people are not afraid to be public; all that's missing is the whipped cream. But, really, who could be watching? Dozens of nosy neighbors? Or maybe impressionable Leo — who witnesses their kiss from an upstairs window. (If Dr. Phil were looking in on this, he'd say this is a woman who wants to be caught!) Again we say: That nice Frank is going to get hurt!
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 5:
BELOW THE NECK: Director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport) is big on shaming people, privately and publicly. He asks chorus newbie Karen (Katharine McPhee) to try a few dance steps with him at rehearsal and accuses her of being stiff and not in touch with anything below the neck. Later, unhappy with Ivy's vibrato on a note, he makes Karen (Ivy's competition) stand up and demonstrate how to sing, as ensemble and creative team watch. In a showbiz soap opera, these moments provide tension. In the real world, it's called a hostile work environment. Later, Derek makes Ivy take a voice lesson from Karen to get her "trill" right. "Don't get ahead of yourself," Ivy (Megan Hilty) warns Karen. (How much do we love that Hilty conveys Ivy's discomfort by pitching her voice slightly higher when she's alone with Karen? Her words say she's at ease, her tone speaks volumes.)
ELLIS AND EILEEN: Producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) has lost her assistant, Scott, to her ex-husband Jerry. Enter Tom's scheming assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), delivering a book about Marilyn Monroe to Eileen — just when Eileen is most in need.
SEX APPEAL: Karen was not raised to push her sex appeal to the fore, but boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) says it would be nice to show her off at a business event, where his competition for a promotion will be in attendance. Prepping for her appearance at the party (to be held on the USS Intrepid, the de-commissioned aircraft carrier that is now a museum on the Hudson River), she taps into her inner sensualist by singing James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" while looking into mirrors, straddling a chair, slipping into pumps and arching her back to expose her bra and midriff. (You get the picture: This is the scene for all the tired businessmen who aren't interested in the between-the-sheets scene in which we learn Tom and John are not a sexual match.) Karen's "Man's World" sequence will remind show fans of an odd merging of moments from "Flashdance," Flower Drum Song ("I Enjoy Being a Girl") and Cyd Charisse's sexy transformation from wool to satin in the M-G-M film "Silk Stockings." (Here's a non-widescreen internet clip from the latter. It's essential movie-musical viewing.)
SAM I AM WHAT I AM: This is the episode in which we learn that sports-lovin' chorus dancer Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is gay. He just doesn't parade it around. Sam thinks composer Tom is too gay. Tom doesn't know anything about the Knicks or the Lakers. Since Tom and John are not a match in bed, it would seem inevitable that Tom and Sam have a future, no? At any rate, "Smash" is teaching the world that there are many colors in the rainbow. (The Yankees were the good guys in the Civil War, right?)
IVY DRINKS A LITTLE: Emboldened with booze, Ivy shows up at Derek's apartment to confront him about how humiliated she feels following his hot and cold treatment of her. Derek tells her that feelings get in the way of his process. The woman he most cares about is Marilyn, the show. He then tucks away his Mr. Hyde and pulls out his Jekyll: "Can you stay? Don't be mad at me…"
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: Composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, who provide original songs for the series (for Marilyn, chiefly), have (with creator Theresa Rebeck and consulting producer Michael Mayer) come up with an ambitious, knockout sequence called "Let's Be Bad," a musical scene in which a compromised Monroe shows up on the set of "Some Like It Hot" to sing and dance a Jazz Age song as film crew, husband Arthur Miller, techies and chorus kids surround her. It's the most fully staged and realized number in the series so far (it's another brilliant conception that leaps from the rehearsal room to the stage of the imagination). It's also a sequence that proves Tom and Ivy are more than pastiche writers — they are musical dramatists adept at blending dialogue, story, music, lyrics and dance. We're absorbed into Marliyn's unhappy swirl, which echoes Ivy's pain. (By the way, that's the ace young New York City character actor Michael Thomas Holmes playing the "director" of the film. He was Nathan Detroit in Barrington Stage Company's John Rando-directed Guys and Dolls in 2011, and he's been seen around town Off-Broadway and in New York Musical Theatre Festival shows over the years. It's time for him to snag a Broadway show beyond his 2002 Oklahoma! credit.)
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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