THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 11, Or, Starcatchers
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 16 episode, "The Movie Star."
If you didn't already know that producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) is a novice at producing musicals (remember last week, when we learned that Bombshell is financed with cash from a drunken rock star named Randy Cobra?), there is more evidence in Episode 11, when movie star Rebecca Duvall (guest star Uma Thurman) arrives to sing some of the show material, which she has been working on privately. The Marilyn Monroe-inspired musical is apparently in some developmental phase that includes ongoing rehearsals. Gathered in a studio are the chorus kids, including competing former Marilyns Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee); the writers, Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing); director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport); stage manager Linda (Ann Harada); Eileen; and others unnamed. (We're waiting for a music supervisor to be revealed for Bombshell.)
Rebecca, it turns out, cannot really carry a tune, even though she can carry a movie (her latest is a sequel called "Casual Friday 2"). Fortyish Rebecca is a Big Star, and the kids in the room who grew up on her movies are in awe of her — well, until she sings. "That's the sound of a thousand ticketholders demanding their money back," Ivy, licking her chops, says to understudy Karen. "You're counting the minutes until she implodes and the part is yours. If you're not, you're in the wrong business, understudy."
We can understand that maybe the chorus kids didn't know Rebecca couldn't sing, but shouldn't Eileen, Julia, Tom and Derek have known beforehand? Who was teaching her these songs? How shielded are they from the liabilities of their own show? You think producer Manny Azenberg ever waited until first rehearsal to see if a star for his new Neil Simon play could walk and talk?
Let's pretend that Rebecca is so thickly surrounded by "yes" people that it didn't leak out 'til now that she's better at speak-singing than singing. She's Rex Harrison, but with good legs.
Just how much of a crazy Hollywood diva is Rebecca? We learn she has ideas for the creative team. Uh oh. She wants to "pow wow" with them, she says. Among her thoughts: the scenes need to be longer, the story of Marilyn needs to be "deep and smart," she wants to "dig into her psyche." And that new ballad? "I just cannot handle that kind of ballad," she says. Tom agrees to write something new (but what about the other ballads in the show?). Rebecca also know her flaws. She asks that the keys of her songs be lowered, and says she's going to get a vocal coach. (Loyal Eileen tells her creatives that she's not going to be steam-rolled by Rebecca, but she's giving her a wide berth because, ultimately, the star will fill seats.)
Tom reconceives a number for Rebecca for a scene in which Marilyn interacts with students from The Actors Studio (that's the busy New York character actor Henry Stram, of Off-Broadway's The Illusion, Michael John LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See, The Persians and more, playing acting guru Lee Strasberg). The number, called "Dig Deep," has Beat, swing and jazz references (from "Smash" staff songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), with choreographer Joshua Bergasse having his cast slink around and jump on fire poles, as Elvis and the boys did in "Jailhouse Rock." In signature "Smash" style, the rehearsal room morphs into the fantasy of what the full stage number might look like. Rebecca makes for a smoky-voiced Marilyn, strutting around in black jacket, black turtleneck and black pants that show the ankle. In spirit, it's like the kinetic interpretative dance sequence that Audrey Hepburn (in black turtleneck and black pants that show the ankle) performs in a dim rathskeller in the movie musical "Funny Face." Watch a youtube clip of Hepburn's turn here.
The "Dig Deep" number goes well. Watch the clip here. Afterward, Rebecca tells Eileen she's got lots more ideas. Uh oh.
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 11:
IVY CLINGS: Ivy is back in the Bombshell rehearsal room at the urging of Derek. Sure, she had a pill-induced collapse on a Broadway stage two episodes ago, but with Rebecca being a question mark, they need a powerful singer in the room — particularly for those "shadow selves" in "Let Me Be Your Star." (Tom and Julia are rightly frustrated about beefing up those characters — it's not a show about what's around Marilyn, it's about Marilyn). To boot, Derek thinks Ivy is a better standby for the lead ("the Cartright girl is not up to it"). The creatives don't love the idea of Ivy in the room, but they go along with it. And Ivy is eager for another chance at the lead. Karen is still technically the understudy in this unnamed creative process, but, Ivy says, "When Rebecca Duvall goes down, everything's up for grabs."
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: Derek has another fantasy moment when he talks to Karen — "the Cartright girl" — in the rehearsal room. "I won't be needing you anymore…as Marilyn," he says in a slightly confusing exchange. Golden light floods the room and he envisions her as Marilyn (in a pale purple dress) and she seductively sings Bob Hilliard and Mort Garson's 1960s pop song "Our Day Will Come," which was covered by Amy Winehouse in 2002. This kind of musical psychotic break speaks to Derek's repressed feelings (artistic and sexual) for good girl Karen (even the dress is modestly cut, compared to what Ivy is seen in). It also feeds, "Glee"-style, a public appetite for pop that's reinvented in a dramatic context. Is the network pushing for these pop songs? The full flowering of "Our Day Will Come," with production values and piped-in backup boys, suggests that we may never again see characters singing in karaoke bars. Gilded pop may be here to stay in "Smash." Wishing for even more original songs by Shaiman and Wittman (or more show music from our greatest classic theatre writers) may be futile. Who other than you and me wants to hear kids in an hotel room sing "I Love Louisa" around a piano during an out-of-town tryout?
GO SLOW, JOHNNY: Julia makes a dinner reservation for Tom and chorus dancer Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr. of Broadway's Leap of Faith), who have been flirting (but mostly flirting like straight dudes flirt when they want a fine bromance). They opt instead to go back to Tom's place where their foreplay includes revealing to each other…their favorite Stephen Sondheim musical. Sam likes Into the Woods, Tom likes The Frogs — which is not even Sondheim's favorite Sondheim show! Based on the ancient Aristophanes comedy, the musical was first produced in a swimming pool at Yale in the 1970s. Read in the Playbill Vault about how Nathan Lane and Susan Stroman (and composer-lyricist Sondheim) reinvented the show at Lincoln Center Theater in 2004. Sam pulls away when Tom makes an aggressive pass (as if The Frogs reference wasn't already a turn-off). We learn that Tom's longest relationship lasted five months (and Tom is close to 40). "My way is better," Sam says, with disarming simplicity from Odom. "I'm kind of old-fashioned…I go to church and believe in God and stuff. So I kind of think of this as holy. I like you. I want to slow things down." Wide-eyed Tom is intrigued and perplexed. A little too much God, perhaps? (Not for Middle America!) This week's sports team reference: The Knicks! (By the way, this episode of "Smash" aired on the day that Borle received rave reviews for his boisterous performance as Black Stache, a pirate in the Broadway play Peter and the Starcatcher, which opened April 15 and offers an origin-story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Borle's encounter with the lid of a trunk is one of the comic high points of the fantasy-comedy, and will likely help earn the actor his second Tony nomination in early May). Read about Borle's work on Broadway (and meet the Starcatcher creators in a video) in the Playbill Vault.
BITS AND PIECES: Julia and estranged husband Frank (Brian D'Arcy James) meet to discuss their son's failing grades. Frank continues to be wildly unevolved in the way he expresses himself about the Julia's infidelity. No wonder she slept with a vivacious actor! … Karen's boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey) has kept secret the fact that he was passed over for a promotion at the mayor's press office. He stands up Karen at a special screening of "Casual Friday 2," where she bonds with Ivy, who suggests that maybe Dev is with someone else (and she's right — Dev's having a drink with a sexy reporter friend, played by Tala Ashe). … Sneaky assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) thinks that Rebecca's manager Randall (Sean Dugan) is a "loser," and accidentally reveals it to the unsuspecting guy (they slept together last week). … Rebecca's troubled bad-boy boyfriend, Colin, who acts up every four months or so, bursts into rehearsal, disrupting things. He's easily pushed out by Derek (and with the threat of mace from Eileen). Why do we think he'll be back? ... Eileen finally reads the earlier report that Ellis compiled about her new flame Nick (Thorsten Kaye), and finds out he's a "crook." He explains that when you own a bar in New York, you associate with shady characters. She tells him that she's vulnerable. They shrug. They kiss. They're hooked. Just in case, though, we know she's packing mace.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
View Playbill Video's earlier visit with cast and creatives of "Smash."
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