More and more, the NBC series "Smash" feels like a fever dream. You know — like the entire expanse of Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson. The March 12 episode is particularly odd, clumsy, joyless, illogical, tuneless and unconnected to the way the real world works.
By now we get the point that the series producers don't care if the show reflects the way real musicals are put together (unions, general managers, contracts, orchestrators and agents are not part of this fantasyland!), but must it all be so limp? Lately, "Smash" makes you hungry for last season's Ellis-is-bisexual twist. Or Julia's mopey son Leo smoking weed. Or anything having to do with smoothies.
"The Fringe" is an episode that proves that "Smash" is spread too thin, plot-wise. We've only got 44 minutes per week, folks. Instead of deepening and sharpening the story of the creation of one potent musical-in-the-works (Bombshell), we're bouncing between three shows, obligating the series writers to paint with broader and broader strokes — giving short shrift to intelligence, but also to pulse-thumping musical sequences specific to something (or somebody) we care about.
|Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/NBC|
The Brooklyn potheads Jimmy ( Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle ( Andy Mientus), who are writing the funky downtown rock show Hit List, have snagged two nights in the grungy Winter Fringe (a fictional event). It's a chance to promote a work in progress, in a self-producing scenario (vaguely reflecting what happens at the New York Musical Theatre Festival but more closely resembling the New York International Fringe Festival). In the words of the wildly inexperienced wannabes Karen ( Katharine McPhee) and Ana ( Krysta Rodriguez): With the Fringe, "sometimes it's a disaster," but "sometimes you break out!"
These shaggy troupers have 10 hours to slap their show together in a basement space with minimal sets. (The set is a brick wall with a Pepsi-Cola logo painted as a backdrop.) Rising star Karen has agreed to perform with Jimmy in this little two-performance showcase, which reflects only Act One of Hit List (because nobody in "Smash" has written a complete show!), and her casting has been reported in TimeOut NY. When Bombshell producer Jerry ( Michael Cristofer) reads about it, he forbids Karen to do it. He's got to protect his property! (Really, he's just being a bully.)
So, Karen pulls out of the Fringe, Jimmy feels betrayed, another (unseen) girl steps in, but then for the second night, Karen sneaks in to appear opposite Jimmy. It turns out that the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Workshop (a fictional company patterned after New York Theatre Workshop, where Rent began) is in the house (he's played by original Rent star Jesse L. Martin, who became an NBC star on "Law & Order"), and he wants to produce Hit List based on the hour of material he has seen! And, he says, he hopes Karen and Jimmy will star! Ana was right: You really can break out at the Fringe (and not just from the bed bugs in the seats!).
Tony-winning director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport), who has staged the entirety of one of the versions of Bombshell, is hijacked in his own rehearsal room when composer Tom ( Christian Borle) rearranges and restages a number ("Never Give All the Heart") that was not working for Jerry and ex-producer Eileen ( Anjelica Huston), who wanted to cut it. Tom seeks to preserve lyricist-librettist Julia's vision (such as it is), and she loves the change! But it insults Derek, who quits.
This brings to light an interesting (and, of course, unexplored in the teleplay) question about rehearsal rooms: Who "owns" that room at this point? The producers? The writers? The director? Most smart show people would say "the director," though the Dramatists Guild contract says that writers must be allowed access to the experience. Getting notes from the producers during the rehearsal? It doesn't really happen unless it's the most dysfunctional of circumstances.
Tom is appointed director of Bombshell since he can realize the producers' vision of the show (which Derek and Julia had been fighting against): It's "a dynamic Technicolor fantasy of the way Marilyn made herself…" And Julia ( Debra Messing) is now a convert, willing to discard Derek.
|Photo by Will Hart/NBC|
So, jobless Derek shows up at that second Winter Fringe performance of Hit List and is struck with his own vision: Instead of a logo painted on a brick wall, we see a fully lit, costumed and designed take on the rock number that happens in front of that (now three-dimensional) Pepsi-Cola sign.
The characters played by Jimmy and Karen appear on a waterfront pier in Long Island City, Queens, on the East River (where a historic Pepsi sign really stands), singing a duet called "Heart Shaped Wreckage," apparently written by four (!) contributing series songwriters. (They all chipped in and bought a pencil, as Comden and Green once said of their starving-artist existence.)
The song's writers are "Silvas/Green/Irvin/Emry," Shaiman wrote in a Facebook posting. "I'd tell you their first names but we never met them."
The visual reference is to Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of La Boheme and the film "Moulin Rouge." (Karen looks like she just rolled out of a brothel, or One Touch of Venus, wearing a flowing gown and stringy wig.) What the image also conveys is that Derek is about as original as…Pepsi. Mr. Luhrmann deserves a royalty check from Derek.
By the way, that 12-acre park where the actual Pepsi signage sits is called Gantry State Park, and it's one of the most underpopulated and beautifully developed new parks in New York City, offering the most amazing view of the East Side of Manhattan. Take the No. 7 subway and get off at the Vernon-Jackson stop. The riverfront promenade keeps expanding, down toward Brooklyn and up toward Astoria. While you're walking around the neighborhood, try the best ice cream in Long Island City — the mom and pop shop called Malu, at 12-09 Jackson Avenue. (They named an ice cream flavor after yours truly — Cinnamon Ken. We are not making this up!)
|Photo by Will Hart/NBC|
"This Will Be Our Year," a song by The Zombies, is also covered by the Fringe kids as they inhabit their performance venue. Series songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman also penned a frisky harpsichord-kissed original number, "A Letter From Cecile," for that "Dangerous Liaisons" musical Ivy (Megan Hilty) is starring in. ( Michael Starobin orchestrated it.) But this Liaisons "C" plot in "Smash" — with Sean Hayes as a mentally ill, clueless Hollywood star miscast in a musical — is so tedious that you barely realize the fact that Hilty has a gorgeous, legit head voice in addition to her (earlier-episodes) pop belt. Hilty is the series Superhero, again. (Did you read the Playbill report about Hilty's March 8 Carnegie Hall debut, in which she sang American Songbook standards, one "Smash" number and a Dolly Parton medley? It's been a busy week for the star. On March 12, her album of adult contemporary music was released by Sony.)
Among notable moments of this episode:
CAMEO: Cynthia (played by Condola Rashad), the ex-girlfriend of Season One villain Ellis, pops up at the Fringe and bumps into Karen, tipping her off that Ellis and Jerry were colluding against the show. Karen takes the info to Eileen.
NEVER GONNA DANCE: When Derek quits Bombshell, it implicitly means he is taking his direction and choreography with him, as he handled both chores. Is Tom to clone himself? Is poor associate choreographer Josh (played by the series' Emmy-winning choreographer Joshua Bergasse) finally going to step into the limelight, with complete sentences?
HELLO, LONDON: In a sequence that doesn't make a lick of sense, Julia tells Tom that she's considering going to London in the middle of the Bombshell process (!) for an extended break with dramaturg Peter (Daniel Sunjata), who is helping out with a play at the Royal Court. If she doesn't care about Bombshell, why should we?
TOM IS A MAD MAN: Songwriter Tom mentions that he's going to a meeting with Drew (as in founder and CEO Drew Hodges) of the Broadway advertising giant SpotCo to discuss radio ads for Bombshell. Well, as long as he's got his priorities straight!
At this column's press time, NBC confirmed that starting April 6, "Smash" would move from Tuesday to 9 PM Saturday nights, a broadcast-TV purgatory, and that NBC is committed to airing all 17 episodes of Season Two. The "Smash" Report will be with it to the final curtain!
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)