THE "SMASH" REPORT: Season Two Premiere, Or, Change Partners and Dance
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 two-hour Feb. 5 premiere of Season Two.
Oh, "Smash," you've been away for eight months and we've missed you! Your undercooked dialogue, your New York City locations, your inconsistent characters, your completely arresting musical numbers! They were all in evidence in the Feb. 5 Season Two premiere, a packaging of a pair of hour-long episodes into one two-hour block that bluntly clipped characters and plot threads from last season (which ended with the Boston tryout of the musical Bombshell, about the life of Marilyn Monroe) and introduced new faces — at least one of them completely bereft of sideburns — to the series.
"Smash" creator and showrunner Theresa Rebeck (the Broadway playwright whose play Dead Accounts was short-lived and critically dismissed earlier this season) got the boot from "Smash" last year; viewership had dipped, word of mouth was bad, critics and theatre fans grumbled and Rebeck took the fall. She's no longer telling the "Smash" story, new executive producer Joshua Safran ("Gossip Girl") is, and he's done some housecleaning — in a musical montage.
As the episode opens, it's closing night of the Boston tryout of the musical by composer Tom (Christian Borle) and lyricist-librettist Julia (Debra Messing). Chorus kid Karen (Katharine McPhee) is a hit playing Marilyn, and we see her singing "Cut, Print…Moving On," a characteristically muscular number by Hairspray Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, whose original songs (married to the now Emmy Award-winning choreography of Joshua Bergasse) became the major reason to follow "Smash" in Season One.
In a way, "Smash" reflects a reality in musical theatre: The past century (even the past decade) has offered many awkwardly-plotted musicals buoyed by effervescent musical numbers. Anything Goes, in all its versions, has a dopey, groaner-packed book that exists to introduce such songs as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "All Through the Night," "Buddie, Beware," "You're the Top" and the title tune.
Likewise, the musical part of "Smash" remains compelling, even with the serious season-premiere misstep of womanizing director Derek (Jack Davenport) appearing in a fantasy sequence (to the Eurythmics' "Would I Lie to You?") in which he is brutalized by leggy sex objects (including Karen and Ivy) in a bar (in the second hour, an episode called "The Fallout"). The drunken vision is prompted by harassment charges that Derek is facing from six female dancers. The allegations come as no surprise, as he crossed a lot of lines in Season One — sleeping with chorus girl Ivy, played by Megan Hilty; making a pass at Karen; flirting with investors; kissing his movie-star leading lady, Rebecca Duvall, played by Uma Thurman, in her dressing room. Recalling the old "Simply Irresistible" Robert Palmer video, women in heels are getting their revenge (with music) in that bar fantasy, literally throwing Derek around the room. "Smash" fantasy sequences about artistic aspiration are pure oxygen for the series, but fantasy sequences about humiliation are just deflating. (The producers have said they are committed to such fantasy numbers this season.)
But, boy, Shaiman and Wittman shine, and the season is off to an efficient, tuneful, plot-friendly launch with "Cut, Print…Moving On," in which Marilyn is seen going through a major personal and professional change — shedding Joe DiMaggio, we guess, and taking new projects as media and movie personnel swirl around her. Over this tune, we see the people behind Bombshell also moving forward — returning to New York and waiting for the next step.
Karen shows up at her new apartment, greeted by her funky new roommate, Ana (played by Krysta Rodriguez, who played Wednesday in Broadway's The Addams Family). If you look closely at Ana's laptop in the scene, you'll see that she has the good taste to be reading Playbill.com.
Upon entering Ana's place, Karen crumples up a letter from her ex, Dev, who slept with Ivy last season, and that seems to be the end of that plot thread (Raza Jaffrey, you were mis-used).
Ivy returns to her New York apartment and throws away all the pills in her medicine chest, thus dumping last season's prescription-drug-abuse plot and the muddled mind of Ivy. Gifted Hilty is a source of light, and it looks like her Ivy may smile and shine this coming season.
Later in the first hour, Julia's husband, Frank (the classy Tony Award nominee Brian d'Arcy James, seen last fall at The Public Theater in the musical Giant) learns from stage manager Linda (played by Ann Harada, a stepsister of Broadway's current Cinderella) that apparently the entire Bombshell company knew about Julia's affair with the Boston run's star, Michael Swift (played by the unseen Will Chase). Never mind that Linda is the least discreet stage manager ever. How could Frank not know that gossip spreads through casts and crews like influenza? Furious and frustrated, Frank berates Julia at a public press event (attended by the New York Post's oily theatre scribe Michael Riedel, played by the muckraker himself), and walks out on her. (As predicted, rather glibly, in this column in May 2012, Julia and Tom become roommates!)
Goodbye, Dev! Goodbye, pills! Goodbye, Frank! Goodbye, Theresa Rebeck! Mind you, the latter still benefits financially from the series, is named as an executive producer in the credits and can comfort herself with the many, many productions of her plays around the country; Theresa Rebeck does not suffer from writer's block, as she told Playbill.com in a November 2011 interview.)
The second major Shaiman-Wittman Bombshell song of the season-opener happens at an American Theatre Wing gala supper from which Bombshell producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) and her creative team have been shunned, because of all the bad press the show has earned — including Derek's harassment issues, Julia's bad marriage and bad reviews, and the shady capitalization of the show from apparent underworld money (Eileen's bartender-investor boyfriend, Nick, played by Thorsten Kaye, would seem to be out of the picture now, too).
Eileen, Tom and Julia push their way onto the gala stage (much to the chagrin of the sourpuss ATW chair, played Margo Martindale) and, to prove they are not part of a dead show, present another swell number by Shaiman and Wittman, "They Just Keep Moving the Line," a plot song for Marilyn about showbiz powers-that-be changing their rules and challenging her future. It would seem to be a smart book song for Marilyn and a nifty reflection of the hurdles faced by Bombshell in general and Eileen specifically (and, if you want to read deeper, Rebeck).
Negative Ivy, who is to be let go from Bombshell because Karen is now the star and Karen wants her out, is enlisted to sing at that ATW gala because Karen cannot be reached, and the appearance is urgent: "Every Broadway big-wig will be there!" Eileen says, sounding more lightweight than necessary. (Learn more about the programs of the American Theatre Wing, the founding organization of the Tony Awards.)
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 1 (called "On Broadway") and Episode 2 (dubbed "Fallout"):
DREAMGIRL: Special guest star Jennifer Hudson joined the cast for multiple episodes as two-time Tony Award winner Veronica Moore, star of a Memphis-style musical biography of an Aretha Franklin/Ettta James-style singer. The hit show is called Beautiful, and it's playing its final weeks at the St. James Theatre, the coveted musical house where Oklahoma! and The Producers were hits. In addition to Bombshell, Derek's future plate includes directing a revival of The Wiz starring Veronica. Hoping that Veronica's poise and grace will inspire Karen, Derek takes her to a performance of Beautiful (in which Hudson sings Shaiman and Wittman's R&B-flavored "Mama Makes Three," in which a sassy, finger-wagging mama haunts a sassy pop-jazz singer). Backstage, "Ronnie" has this advice for Karen: "Protect the work" and "someone's always waiting to take you down." Oscar winner Hudson (Effie of Hollywood's "Dreamgirls") remains an extremely convincing singer.
IDOL, IDOL, IDOL: Karen and Veronica, to distract the gullible and foolish members of the media at that collapsing Bombshell press event, get up and sing an improvised version of "On Broadway," reuniting two real-life former "American Idol" contestants (McPhee and Hudson). But the press event is marred by Frank's outburst and news that Eileen's financing of the show is being investigated by the authorities. (Eileen even snaps at Jujamcyn Theaters president Jordan Roth, via phone. He has withdrawn his offer of the promised St. James. And, yes, that was Roth as himself in the first hour. Read the recent Playbill.com story about his new role at Jujamcyn.) Riedel reports it all.
JERRY AND EILEEN: Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer (the actor-playwright who wrote the play The Shadow Box) returns as Eileen's producer ex, Jerry, who wants a piece of Bombshell's action. In a bit of soap opera villainy, he sends a text to some unknown party (to Michael Riedel?): "Time to move forward with the plan." He's apparently the tipster who points the feds to the show's shady financing. By the end of the episode, the leonine Eileen draws up papers to deal him in, thus assuring that Cristofer's chewy line readings ("Chordan!" "Chulia!") will be with us later this season. (Sadly, Eileen does not toss drinks into anyone's face in these two episodes.)
TOM AND JULIA: In one of the more awkward plot transitions of the series, incredibly, Tom decides that the Bombshell press event is the best time and place to tell Julia that he saw Frank apparently flirting with another woman. This causes the aforementioned public scene between Frank and Julia, hastens their marital split and plunges Julia deeper into depression and professional torpor. How can she fix their show in such a state? And how can she address the show's problems if she hasn't read the Boston reviews? (Those notices were bad for her libretto, but good for Tom's music; he even gets flowers and a complimentary note from Wicked songwriter Stephen Schwartz!) Suddenly roommates, Julia admits that she read the reviews, and the songwriters come out stronger in the end (in ways that are not completely clear). Wouldn't it have been better — or more humane and sensible — to kill Frank off in a subway accident and send their son, Leo, off to college? (The actors who played Leo and evil producing assistant Ellis, polarizing characters from Season One, are absent in the premiere, though Leo's photo is in a picture frame.)
SAM AND TOM: Bombshell ensemble member Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Tom's boyfriend and Ivy's bestie, has been offered the role of The General in the national tour of The Book of Mormon (the "Casey" mentioned in this episode is Tony-winning Mormon director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw). With the prospect of Sam on the road, Tom views himself as single again. In the real world of showbusiness relationships, lovers separated for months by work make it work by planning intermittent visits, video chatting, phone calls, whatever it takes. (And certainly Tom is rich enough to buy plane tickets to see Sam wherever the tour may take him.) "Smash" would like us to believe that showbiz relationships are thin as tissue paper. In truth, they often are as boring and solid and committed as any that exist outside the spotlight. Is this the end of Tom and Sam?
DEREK AND WOMEN: "You may be a womanizer," Veronica tells Derek of Rebecca Duvall's charges of sexual harrassment, "but I know there is no merit to her story." Shortly after, Derek almost kisses Karen, who is referred to as his "muse" several times in the two hours. But, mostly, Derek is neutered at the top of Season Two. Even once-desperate Ivy doesn't go there. And the producers of The Wiz drop him from the project, his agent reports (that's excellent Brynn O'Malley, of Broadway's current Annie, as the agent, who also surfaces in that bar fantasy number). With Bombshell in limbo for the moment, Derek is hungry, professionally.
KYLE AND JIMMY AND KAREN: In a bold new direction for the series, two twentysomething musical-theatre writers — composer-lyricist Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan, minus sideburns because he was concurrently playing a teenager in Broadway's Newsies during early-season shooting) and librettist Kyle (Andy Mientus), friends since childhood — cross the path of Karen at the Restaurant Row boite (the fictional Table 46) where they work. The gay, adorable Kyle is starstruck (he saw Karen in Bombshell in Boston) and the straight, adorable — but brooding — Jimmy is aloof and pugnaciously flirty with her. Karen's imagination is piqued when she overhears Jimmy performing an ascendant, yearning, pained and inspiring song, "Broadway, Here I Come," in the back room of Table 46. The song is by rising theatre songwriter Joe Iconis, whose musical The Black Suits, is among his projects in development. Iconis wrote "Broadway, Here I Come" as a stand-alone song (not uncommon for the writer) before his association with "Smash." In an ironic twist, it was sung for the first time in one of Iconis' many cabaret-concert shows by future "Smash" regular Krysta Rodriguez. Here she is on youtube. It has also been sung by Molly Hager. "I wrote it when I was feeling fairly depressed, confused, but still totally hopeful about the theatre," Iconis told Playbill.com. "It's very much a song about all kinds of suicide and I think it's kind of wild that it's ended up on a very sparkly T.V. show in a context that really plays down the whole suicide aspect of the song." The song is expected to recur often in the coming season. (Also listen for Iconis' "The Goodbye Song," another one of his tunes that existed before "Smash.") Here's Iconis in a nutshell: with one foot in pop and one in narrative theatre, his work has the swaggering pianistic quality of a Ben Folds, with unexpected, detailed, soulful lyric turns and completely infectious melodies. For him, the piano is as much a percussive instrument as a melodic one. More than anyone whose work I've heard in a decade, he feels like the future of American musicals, a natural offspring from the age of Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown and William Finn. Follow him on Twitter @MrJoeIconis.
Kyle is keen to pursue Karen as a professional contact, Karen is attracted to Jimmy's music and is keen to learn more about their project (and loops Derek in), but Jimmy, in one of those ridiculous "Smash" character turns, resents Karen's interest in the songs! Kyle slips some sheet music to Karen and invites her to a party in Brooklyn. Karen and her chorus pals Ana and Bobby (Wesley Taylor) think the soaring song, "Caught in the Storm," is "crazy good…like, Jonathan Larson good!," and they plot to perform the song at the party. (This number is written by the ubiquitous young songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose A Christmas Story, The Musical did boffo business last year on Broadway. It was their Broadway debut, just months after their Off-Broadway debut with the musical Dogfight. Songs by them and other new writers will be intermingled with the work of Shaiman and Wittman, as showrunner Safran explained in a recent Playbill.com interview. Follow the young writers on Twitter @pasekandpaul).
In a flirtation sequence at the party, Karen begins to sing Jimmy's "Caught in the Storm," which freaks him out. He berates Kyle for promoting their show. "We do it on our own, we don't need anyone's help!" spits the "protective" and "complicated" Jimmy. He tells Karen, "There's nothing to hear. I don't need your help, I write for myself." This will be explained in episodes to come, of course (some kettles are supposed to boil slowly) but it seems as clumsily written and inauthentic as the worst parts of Season One of "Smash." He's writing songs for an experience that is meant to be public, but he doesn't want them sung or exposed? For now, "Smash" continues to succeed on at least one level — when it Says It With Music.
At the end of the episode, Jimmy relents after Kyle expresses a feeling of betrayal; Kyle was always cleaning up Jimmy's messes over the years. So, Jimmy delivers a demo of his music to Karen's apartment (he got her new home address from the back of her headshot — something that does not reflect reality). Karen brings the music to Derek, and a new world dawns for "Smash."
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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