THE "SMASH" REPORT: Season Two, Episode 3, Or, Transitions Are Hard
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 Feb. 19 episode, "The Dramaturg."
In what must be a first for American television, a dramaturg has been introduced as a recurring character in a primetime drama series. In real life, dramaturgs roughly perform the duties illustrated in the Feb. 19 episode of "Smash," when the impossibly handsome Daniel Sunjata (Broadway's Take Me Out) made his debut on the series as Peter Gilman, a metrosexual script doctor who has been hired to help shape the libretto of the musical Bombshell. Positioned as a critic of the work of book writer Julia (Debra Messing), he is also obviously going to be her love interest. You can tell because he's so awful to her. And she is so resistant to him. Peter's a "parasite," she says. But he's shepherded three shows to hit status, all without taking any credit, says composer Tom (Christian Borle).
This episode includes several convoluted and witless exchanges about the plots and characters of the several musicals that are emerging in NBC's low-rated backstage series. In the case of Peter and Julia, who are working on Bombshell, the Broadway-bound show about Marilyn Monroe, Peter accuses Julia of miswriting the Joe DiMaggio-Marilyn Monroe relationship "because you were in love with the actor who played him" in the out-of-town tryout. He says that she's incapable of writing about sex (or "heat," as he calls it) because "maybe you just never felt it yourself." He considers her work two-dimensional, but she proudly counters that her Marilyn represents the "struggle to find balance between career and family." (Yeesh, really?) Later, they argue ad nauseam about JFK and RFK's connection to Marilyn, and disagree about a new scene she wrote that has JFK as the predator, and Marilyn the prey. Peter also uses the word "ergo." In the soapy world of "Smash," this is verbal foreplay. "All About Eve" it is not.
If the abuse that's heaped upon Julia by this guy is meant to echo the way Marilyn was manipulated by men, it's a long and tedious stretch that makes Julia look not smart. When Julia ends up being inspired by Peter's challenges, he criticizes her rewrites. Debra Messing as a doormat is no fun. Where is Julia's agent when you need him? Paging CAA's George Lane!
Let's not even mention the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman song called "Our Little Secret," in which JFK, in a spritz of bad taste, presses Marilyn against a wall and sings, "Let's do it now for our country." That's the smooth British actor Julian Ovenden, of London's Finding Neverland, as an actor named Simon playing JFK in the rehearsal-room scene. The song might be written off as exploratory on the part of Julia and Tom — a future trunk song?
Almost everything about this episode — which was not offered for pre-screen to media — is weighted down with convoluted exposition that, in theory, once we get through it, will transition the series from the hot mess of Season One to some clarity and energy in Season Two. It is nevertheless a major bump on the road that might dislodge even more viewers from the series.
There are no fewer than five gestating stage shows featured in "Smash," and they muddy this episode: Bombshell, of course, which is inexplicably still rehearsing numbers without any serious production timetable (or libretto); a revival of The Wiz starring Tony Award winner Veronica Moore (played by Jennifer Hudson, who sings a snippet of that show's "Home" by Charlie Smalls in this hour); a nascent rock musical called Hit List, written by librettist Kyle (Andy Mientus) and songwriter Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan), meant as a future vehicle for Karen (Katharine McPhee); a revival of Liaisons, a fictional musical based on the novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (a "lost gem" of a show that, Tom says, earned Madeline Kahn a Tony nomination), meant as a project for Ivy (Megan Hilty); and a one-woman, one-night-only Broadway concert for Veronica, to be directed be Derek (Jack Davenport). You need a flow chart to follow it all.
And you need a translator to figure out the Hit List plot that Brooklyn potheads Jimmy and Kyle pitch to Derek, who agrees to help shape it (essentially playing dramaturg) as a backup project in case Bombshell doesn't materialize (unlikely, since it is the organizing force of "Smash").
As the episode opens, Karen is fantasizing herself starring in a Broadway production of Hit List; we first met its young creators in the Season Two premiere Feb. 5 (here's our previous "Smash" Report). In her daydream, Karen is singing a rock number called "Good for You" (by new series song contributor Drew Gasparini) as she is held aloft in a dance-party/concert/mosh-pit scene in the rock musical (microphone affixed to cheek, naturally). Much like Bombshell, the still-forming Hit List is made up of a bunch of good tunes and a crazy, paper-thin scenario (or, in this case, an outline scribbled on cocktail napkins, matchbook covers, Post-It notes, index cards and notebook paper — it's hard to take these guys seriously as creators of dramatic literature). Jimmy visits a mysterious former residence to retrieve his past notes about his show and gets attacked by someone there; surely the revelation of drug addiction, family dysfunction, violence and abuse will be unearthed in future episodes (these also happen to be the plot elements of Hit List, at least so far).
One of the accurate aspects of "Smash" is the idea that scripts of musicals are notoriously difficult to write. It usually helps, however, for a show to have the solid foundation of story — even if its source is a novel ("Show Boat," say), a play (The Matchmaker or Pygmalion, say) or a film ("Billy Elliot," say). Original musicals without preexisting source material are supremely rare — Bye Birdie Birdie, Brigadoon and The Music Man come to mind, and even those were based on preexisting cultural kernels (Birdie inspired by Elvis going into the Army, Music Man by the Midwestern roots of author Meredith Willson and Brigadoon by a German story about a mysterious disappearing village, though librettist Alan Jay Lerner claimed that he didn't know the tale).
You might think a director like Derek or a producer like Eileen (Anjelica Huston) might say to Julia and Tom, "Give me a play first, not an outline." Still others have argued that librettos should just be coat racks onto which you hang songs — it's called a musical, not a bookical, right? (The late Peter Stone's 1776, drawn from American history, or Alan Jay Lerner's My Fair Lady, drawn from George Bernard Shaw, are two examples of books that sing in their own right. If you don't know these properties, please, please, please seek out their excellent film versions, which are faithful representations of the stage musicals.)
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 3 of Season Two of "Smash":
DOES NOT RHYME WITH RAISINS: Major Broadway casting director Bernard Telsey makes an appearance as himself here, casting a revival of the musical Liaisons. Ivy pushes to be seen for the prime role of Cecile, and Bernie relents, even though Jennifer Damiano and Jessie Mueller are in the running. (These dropped names mean little to the TV audience, but they are cherished young actresses in the world of Broadway. Damiano played the surviving daughter in Next to Normal and earned a Tony nomination, later playing Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. In her Broadway debut in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Mueller was nominated for a Tony, and she was just announced to replace Kelli O'Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get). With the help of some scene coaching from Tom, who has a real eye for directing (foreshadowing!), Ivy lands the Broadway part! Telsey, you might recall, was a face on the reality talent series "Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods," which helped cast the replacement star of the Broadway musical Legally Blonde. Among the hilarious challenges for those contestants was a test of their vocal skills and stamina: They had to sing while spinning madly on stationary bikes! In addition to his duties at Telsey + Company, Telsey is co-artistic director of the respected Off-Broadway not-for-profit theatre company MCC Theater. (By the way, in the real world there are several musical versions of the 18th-century French novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." One is called The Game, and it was revived in 2011 by Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts.)
FRAUGHT REHEARSAL: Derek continues to allow Ivy into the Bombshell rehearsal room, now as a visitor, watching Karen stumble through a number. "Ivy has a great eye, she can tell us where we're going wrong," says Derek. Hmm. It allows for Ivy to sing pop star Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" in a fantasy sequence that weaves Derek, Karen and chorus dancers. And Jimmy shows up at the rehearsal, wondering why Derek and Karen stood him and Kyle up for a meeting. Karen follows him out onto the street (in costume, with wig in hand, on the edges of Madison Square Park) to explain she's committed to getting Derek attached to Hit List. Veronica brings a producer (played by Tom Galantich) of The Wiz to that rehearsal in an effort to get Derek re-hired to the family-friendly show, but the producer remains unimpressed after viewing the JFK-Marilyn scene. (The complete duet version of the song is available on the Bombshell album that was recently released.) He leaves, and "Ronnie" ends up quitting The Wiz. She's ready to be a serious, adult Broadway star, not just an ingénue belter. P.S. Yes, that was Broadway's Matt Bogart (Jersey Boys) in a cameo as "Matt," an actor in the rehearsal room.
THIS CHARACTER IS JUST LIKE ME!!: The earlier "Smash" convention of actors and writers droning on about how they identify with the characters they are creating continues in this episode. Please make it stop.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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