THE "SMASH" REPORT: Season Two, Episode 9, Or, I'm a Pretty Girl, Mama
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 April 2 episode, "The Parents."
This week's episode is called "The Parents," and two of them — a mother and a father — appear in guest-star turns by performers we saw in Season One: Bernadette Peters as Ivy's ageless, Tony Award-winning mother, Leigh Conroy, and Dylan Baker as Karen's Midwestern dad, Roger, who is in New York City for some conference. Roger is supportive of Karen (Katharine McPhee) and her longtime wish to be on Broadway — and he's proud of his daughter's talent — but just doesn't understand why she chose to leave Broadway's Bombshell for Off-Broadway's Hit List. (You are not alone, Roger.) Her downtown urge might have something to do with the leather-jacketed man that Roger saw sneaking out of Karen's window one morning. Later, while watching a Hit List rehearsal, Roger sees director Derek (Jack Davenport) in a leather jacket!
Roger all but accuses Derek of being a Svengali. Still later, Roger sees composer-lyricist Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan) in a leather jacket! Roger gets the picture. He misjudged Derek. Little does he know that Derek still carries a torch for the starlet daughter, and that Jimmy is a drug user and former drugrunner. But that's another story.
(By the way, Baker's real-life wife, Becky Ann Baker, who played Karen's mom in Season One of "Smash," is absent in this episode. She also plays Hannah's mom in HBO's hot series "Girls," which, like "Smash," is also shot in New York. Coincidentally this week, Dylan Baker resurfaced in the recurring role of scummy Colin Sweeney on the CBS series "The Good Wife.")
Ivy (Megan Hilty) learns early in this episode that the role of Marilyn's mother, Gladys, has been cast. "Patti LuPone?" Ivy coos. No, someone closer to home. Enter two-time Tony Award winner Peters as Leigh. Mom got the offer to come out of retirement yesterday, and is already down in the city from upstate, and has her lines memorized (we wish the teleplay writer had used the phrase "off book"). Bombshell's producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) and writers Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) all agreed that the show needs star power, and they knew that the New York Times would love the angle of the mother-daughter casting! (Artists and producers shaping their art based on the desires of the Times is a troubling idea, even in the shaggy hyper-fiction that is "Smash.") Even Leigh tells her daughter the show needs a star, and that Ivy is not enough.
Now that Ivy is finally getting her shot, after years of work, ready or not, here comes mama threatening to overshadow her. Ivy resents Tom, especially, because she thought their friendship would prevent such a hurtful casting decision. (Ivy and Leigh have longstanding, unresolved issues about ego, competition, narcissism, neglect and more.) By the end of the episode, Ivy draws the line with Tom: They are no longer friends, just colleagues.
Composer Tom, who is now also the director of Bombshell, still needs schooling on how to be a director — specifically, how to coax performances of depth out of Ivy and Leigh in their Marilyn and Gladys moments in rehearsal. Their "contentious" scenes are lukewarm, polite and robotic. Watching their flat work, stage manager Linda (Ann Harada) makes a face that indicates someone in the rehearsal room has soiled their pants. Linda is that rare stage manager who is decidedly un-Sphinx-like! (Harada is delicious Stepsister Charlotte in Broadway's current Cinderella, singing a pungent "Stepsister's Lament" by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Here are Playbill Video highlights of the musical.)
"Directors use a variety of methods to get what they want," Julia explains to Tom, in bald, spoon-fed terms that continue to make him look clueless. "If you're not getting the performance you want, find another way." These lines are so low-context as to be insulting to Tom, you, me and the wide general viewership, showfolk and civilian alike. Just show it, don't tell it. (Are the series producers setting up Tom to look so inept that Derek will have to swoop in to become show doctor on Bombshell?)
So, Tom takes a fresh path and urges Leigh and Ivy to talk about their own mother-daughter relationship as a way conjuring some fire in their onstage mother-daughter scenes. As the room looks on, Ivy tells us that at theatre camp, when Ivy was a teenager and played Little Red in Into the Woods, Leigh remarked on the gifted girl who played Cinderella. "If you were born with the talent she has, that could have been you," Leigh reportedly told Ivy, "but you weren't."
Leigh defends the comment by saying it made Ivy work harder, and now she's on Broadway!
Ivy ends up telling her mother, in front of the ensemble, "At least the best part of my career is still ahead of me." This public airing — in the upside-down world of "Smash" — emotionally unlocks the women, allowing them to create something authentic in their scenes together. It also leads to another choice original song, "Hang the Moon," by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, a duet for Marilyn and her hospitalized mother, Gladys. The sequence is classic "Smash": It blends the tensions/passions of the "actors" with the fantasy of what the onstage Marilyn musical might look like, with sets, costumes, choreography, lights and wigs (including a hairdo for Peters that seems swiped right from her Broadway turn in 1974's Mack and Mabel, a Jerry Herman cult classic with a dynamite score and a less-than-dynamite libretto). Broadway's Jonathan Tunick orchestrated "Hang the Moon." Shaiman wrote this on his Facebook page this week: "Our job was to write a song that equally portrayed Marilyn & her mother and Ivy and her mother. Recording Bernadette in our home studio on a song we wrote was as thrilling as you can imagine. As a teen in 1974, I saw the Opening Night of Mack & Mabel with my friend Jamie, and I swear I can still remember the power of BP's voice shaking the theatre on 'Time Heals Everything.' Anyway, tonight's song, 'Hang the Moon' is very special to us. And oh, it was orchestrated by the one and only Jonathan Tunick and for musical theatre writers, that is pure nirvana!"
PLAYBILL BIO: We're told in this episode that Leigh won a Tony Award for starring in Anything Goes, and that she was pregnant with Ivy during the run. The role of Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter's Anything Goes, in real life, earned Patti LuPone a Tony Award nomination as Best Actress in 1988 and got Sutton Foster the Best Actress Tony win in 2011. The Tonys weren't around back when Ethel Merman created the part in 1934. (The shipboard musical comedy that Peters is known for in real life is Off-Broadway's Dames at Sea, a spoof of shows like Anything Goes and Hit the Deck and films like "42nd Street" and "Follow the Fleet.")
SHE'S FLYING! Ana (Krysta Rodriguez, who created the role of Wednesday in Broadway's The Addams Family opposite Wesley Taylor, who plays chorus boy Bobby in "Smash") performs a number from Hit List at the gala benefit for Manhattan Theatre Workshop. Suited up as a Lady Gaga-style performer called The Diva, she swings in the air, cirque-style, wrapping herself in reinforced fabric — spinning and floating above the awed crowd as she sings pop writer Andrew McMahon's hypnotic song "Reach for Me." It's all very surreal and absurd and fascinating, and it makes Rodriguez look and sound like a star. (Watch the video here.) The number was created by Derek with the help of the real-life performance wizards at Antigravity, Inc., which hoisted Jane Krakowski into the flies (to Tony-winning effect) in the Broadway revival of Nine. (Check out Antigravity's other Broadway credits at PlaybillVault.com.) During this sequence, Jimmy sneaks into the coat-check room to root through rich folks' pockets, seeking cash to pay off a drug dealer that he stole from before his Hit List life (read: weeks ago).
JIMMY, OH, JIMMY: So, Jimmy took $8,000 from this nasty Drug Dealer (played by David Call, a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and Atlantic Theater Company School who also appeared as Ben Donovan on "Smash" showrunner Josh Safran's "Gossip Girl"). Jimmy used to run drugs for this guy, and he did drugs with this guy, and he also had a different last name when he was with this guy. At any rate, Derek discovers Jimmy stealing from MTW patrons, and decides to give Jimmy the money to pay off the debt without having real proof of the debt (never give a lot of cash to a drug addict, kids). Derek gives Jimmy the money in the name of a budding friendship. Jimmy pays off the debt, and the Drug Dealer offers Jimmy a bag of smack for the road. Jimmy takes it. Let's hope that Jimmy and Karen used a condom when they had eight hours of sex in the previous episode. Cue the theme to "The More You Know…"
CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Richard Francis (played by Jamey Sheridan), the Arts and Leisure Editor of the New York Times, admits that the only reason he signed on to write an article about Bombshell was to get to spend time with his old friend Eileen Rand, but he's aware that it's a conflict of interest — and the Times hates conflicts of interest. Eileen wants that Times story, but now that her shady, greasy boyfriend Nick is in the clink and out of the picture, maybe Eileen also wants some romance? She arranges to be seated at Richard's table at the MTW gala, where they witness Ana's high-flying act. Richard tells Jimmy and librettist Kyle (Andy Mientus) that he loved Ana's turn, and overeager Kyle blurts out that there's more of Ana throughout Hit List (only there's not!). Later, Richard decides to pass the Bombshell article to another Times writer (paging Patrick Healy?), thus avoiding any conflict of interest in the paper's coverage of the show (except the conflict that the Arts and Leisure Editor is apparently romantically interested in the producer of a Broadway show and is placing a story about her new show in the Sunday arts section!). We suspect there will be many column inches devoted to Eileen's show in the future.
PLAYING DOCTOR: Overeager MTW artistic director Scott Nichols (Jesse L. Martin) tells Jimmy and Kyle that if the Times wants more of Ana in Hit List, then they have to write more for Ana! Once again, the expectations of the Times must be met! (More and more, Nichols seems to have the demeanor of someone who runs a civic theatre rather than a serious-minded, writer's-based not-for-profit.) Later, Scott asks Julia if she might privately serve as dramaturg on Hit List, to clean up the storytelling. But don't tell Derek! Julia's about to go into tech for her Broadway show, but why not? She's trying to right her ancient wrong toward Scott (see last week), and maybe this is the way to do it — by playing show doctor to Scott's pet project. Perhaps she can clone herself.
CASTING WE WISH WE SAW: The oddest revelation of the week is that Leigh Conroy played Maria in a Broadway revival of The Sound of Music when Ivy was a fat child. Ivy wanted to be in the show, as one of the Von Trapp kids, and the casting director expressed interest in seeing her for the role of Kurt. We are not making this up.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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