THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 14, Or, You Can't End a Musical With a Suicide
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 7 episode, "Previews."
The final image at the end of the first Boston preview of the Broadway-bound musical Bombshell is of drowsy, pill-filled Marilyn Monroe (as played by movie star Rebecca Duvall, played by series guest star Uma Thurman) twisted in satin bedsheets talking on the phone and murmuring a reprise from the song "Second Hand White Baby Grand," about something discarded still being beautiful and valuable. A broken mirror in the stage floor is revealed. She apparently dies, at the edge of the mattress. Curtain! The audience in Boston is baffled and disappointed by the climax of the musical biography. Not even the lyricist-librettist's husband, Frank, played by Brian d'Arcy James, is happy with the ending. He has the expression of detecting secret flatulence. Or maybe that's the look of someone who just watched his adulterous wife's ex-lover, Michael Swift (Will Chase), play Joe DiMaggio in the show. The musical, as they say, needs work. It's agreed that composer Tom (Christian Borle) and lyricist-librettist Julia (Debra Messing) and director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport) will tackle a rewrite of the ending in the coming days. Tom was right when he declared, post-performance, "You can't end a musical with a suicide!" This is the same advice Mike Nichols gave to the writers of Annie when they were testing the show out at Goodspeed Opera House, right?
For Rebecca, there will not be a second performance in Marilyn. Not even Derek's dressing-room kisses can make the emotionally shaky, professionally insecure movie star feel like she's a stage star.
"Rebecca needs my attention — and I'm giving it to her," Derek explains to his confused girlfriend Ivy, played by Megan Hilty. "Is there any other approach? You and I are professionals, that's why we do well together." Yeesh. Ivy gets this news, mind you, fresh from having slept with Dev (Raza Jaffrey), the once-perfect boyfriend of chorus rival and frenemy Karen (Katharine McPhee). Karen and Dev had a fight over his abrupt marriage proposal, and their conflicting career issues and his confession of almost sleeping with a reporter. The fight in Boston propelled Dev to a bar — and then to a bed, with Ivy. Karen apologizes to him for the way she acted like a "jerk," and now that previews have begun she's ready for him to pop the question. He's lost the ring, of course, possibly in Ivy's hotel room. Next week's 15th and final episode of Season One of "Smash" is certainly leading to a confrontation.
Producing assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero), like most of the under-30 kids attached to Bombshell, is an incipient alcoholic. Those chorus kids can sure throw it back — how do they dance the next day? Are vodka-sodas and shots joint lubricants? For that matter, how did Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse dance after smoking a pack of cigarettes a day? Ellis says that the problem with Bombshell is the casting of Rebecca Duvall, and drunkenly suggests to producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) that she's not a very good producer. This does not get him fired, but he is dismissed from her table at a piano bar in which a pianist (played by the series composer Marc Shaiman) is tinkling the melody of "Butter Outta Cream" (from the Broadway musical Catch Me If You Can) on the other side of the room. Eileen slinks over to the piano man and he invites her to sing. She delicately, tentatively performs "September Song," taking a stool and crossing her legs, looking a little like Karen Akers in Grand Hotel. (You'd never know this was a producer with a show in serious crisis.) The Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson song is from the 1939 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday, and was introduced by Huston's grandfather, Walter Huston. The number references sixtysomething Eileen's relationship with the younger barkeep Nick, played by Thorsten Kaye. The New York Times published a recent interview with Anjelica Huston about the song's placement in the series. (Incidentally, the piano-bar crowd includes the series co-lyricist Scott Wittman, who won the Best Score Tony Award with Shaiman for Hairspray, and co-wrote the songs to the aforementioned Catch Me If You Can. In the scene, he's silver-haired, wearing thick glasses and sitting alone at a table, looking like he's dreaming up inner-rhymes.)
To add to the uncertainty of that first weekend of previews, Rebecca has a severe allergic reaction to a peanut-tainted smoothie (!), and is hospitalized. Saturday and Sunday performances are cancelled. Her assistant Randall (Sean Dugan) suspects foul play. Wasn't Ellis in charge of her smoothie-making? Isn't Karen her eager understudy? Doesn't bitter Ivy want the lead role? These questions are not asked out loud, yet. (Wait a second, wasn't Julia eating bananas and peanut butter in last week's episode? Too much of a stretch?) By episode's end, Rebecca — the kind of star who has shrink appointments via telephone — decides the show's not for her. It's too much pressure. "There's always someone coming up in back of you," she says. Hungry Ivy knows all the material — she did the workshop — but Karen is the understudy. Who will be the Boston replacement? Tune in next week for the season finale.
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 14:
TOM AND JULIA: Skeevy Michael Swift has taken his re-hiring as DiMaggio as a sign that Julia is still interested in him. He tries to kiss her in a Boston hotel lobby and she rejects him. Julia expresses her anger to Tom about his siding with Eileen and Derek on the question of Michael's return to the cast. Tom counters that he counseled Julia against the disastrous affair. Julia calls Tom righteous. She feels outvoted. The episode's writer, David Marshall Grant, who is also a series executive producer, knows how to write confrontation scenes really well (see chorus-girl Jessica and Karen's moment in Episode 4). Grant (a Tony-nominated actor) was executive producer of the TV series "Brothers and Sisters"; he's also a Drama Desk Award-nominated playwright whose plays Snakebit, Current Events and Pen were seen Off-Broadway. Tom and Julia later mutually apologize following an inspirational visit to a church service in which chorus performer Sam (Tom's boyfriend, played by Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Karen sing a rousing version of "Stand," the gospel hit by real-life minister-songwriter Donnie McClurkin, who said in 2007 that God cured him of his homosexuality. God's true miracle is that Karen learned the fabulous arrangement to the church song during the most fraught week in her short professional life.
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: That's Tony-nominated Broadway leading man Marc Kudisch guest-starring as the actor portraying movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck in the Boston preview of Bombshell, performing a song called "Smash" with the women's ensemble. There had to be a series title song eventually, and Shaiman and Wittman's infectiously jazzy number is characteristically sharp and full of yearning; it's a song for the tired businessmen in the auditorium — Zanuck dripping with would-be starlets (Karen and Ivy are among the leggy dames throwing themselves at the executive). Kudisch and Hilty have shared a Broadway stage. She was Doralee, the "Backwoods Barbie," to his piggy bossman in Broadway's 9 to 5: The Musical (for which he earned a 2009 Featured Actor Tony nomination). That Dolly Parton-scored musical was produced by Robert Greenblatt, who now runs NBC Entertainment, which airs "Smash."
(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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