It would be a case of burying the lead if we ignored the central original song of the latest episode of "Smash." The infectious and driving new rock number, sung by actress Karen ( Katharine McPhee) and songwriter-actor Jimmy ( Jeremy Jordan), is called "Rewrite This Story," an ironic title if ever there was one. The storytelling in "Smash" has received a drubbing from most quarters since its first season. The lyrics of the new song might have been written by fans, critics, hate-watchers, insiders and others who have hoped week after week that the plot and characters of "Smash" might have gotten better, stronger, deeper and clearer in Season Two.
In a presentation to Scott Nichols ( Jesse L. Martin), the artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Workshop, who is considering Hit List for a slot in the coming MTW season, Jimmy sings:
Someone tell me when
I can start again and rewrite this story.
How long can I stay
Lost without a way
To rewrite, I wish I could rewrite, this story?
The number is by wunderkind writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are quickly-rising voices in American musicals, deftly able to adapt their style to suit material: 1940s America for A Christmas Story, The Musical! on Broadway, or 1960s America for Dogfight Off-Broadway, or grungy 2010s America for Hit List, which is heavy on sex, drugs and post- Rent soul-searching, but light on plot. Scott has rich board members and "older" subscribers to answer to, and cannot promise a mainstage spot for the still-developing show, even though it now has a Tony Award-winning director, Derek (Jack Davenport), attached. Further, Scott explains sincerely, Hit List needs an "overriding theme" that's "universal" in order to make it ready for the mainstage. (He thinks the show is more suited to MTW's 80-seat "Underground" space, populated by younger subscribers.) Is "theme" really the golden ticket to a mainstage spot at a resident New York theatre? What about plot, characters — logic?
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It's a sure bet that the "Hit List" boys (including naive librettist Kyle, played by Andy Mientus) are gonna figure out their theme, drawing on their experiences of the week, by the end of this episode. And they do! Hit List is about "transformation," they conclude. That new number says it all! The eager artistic director — who has been given permission to book one slot without board oversight — commits Hit List to MTW's mainstage.
MTW, as reported here before, is patterned on New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), the East Village company where Rent began; Rent's casting director Telsey + Company casts "Smash," too. When Jimmy and Derek and Kyle are seen leaving MTW, they're walking through the doors of NYTW, on East Fourth Street, across the street from the fabled, risk-friendly La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Although MTW is a stand-in for NYTW here, the programming at NYTW, in real-life, is hardly dictated by lace-doily, Pick-a-Little-Talk-a-Little ladies resistant to edgy work and worried about the bottom line. This is the acclaimed downtown not-for-profit where Judge Brack famously quaffed a glass of tomato juice and spat it into the mouth of Hedda Gabler, who swallowed it down, in a rethinking of Henrik Ibsen's classic; where A Streetcar Named Desire was set in a bathtub, in a rethinking of that Tennessee Williams classic; and where a recent play about Armenian genocide included a long and grueling monologue about a mother forced to eat the cooked flesh of her own children. It's hard to believe a board of any East Village theatre would take issue with a rock musical shepherded by Derek.
(If the "Underground" name sounds familiar, it's because you may have heard that Roundabout Theatre Company operates a 60-seat subterranean venue devoted to new writers; it's called Roundabout Underground and it's proving to be a potent testing ground for emerging dramatists and directors. One of its recent plays, Bad Jews, in fact, will graduate to Roundabout's mainstage Off-Broadway home, the Laura Pels Theatre this fall.)
Scott is going out on a limb with his mainstage booking at MTW, where he is the new artistic director. "If I fail," he tells Derek, "it's right back to regional theatre!" (You know, like the Tony Award-winning Arena Stage, the Tony-winning Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Tony-winning Goodman Theatre, where great art gets made every single day.) In the episode, Scott bumps into Bombshell librettist-lyricist Julia ( Debra Messing), and they seem to have a past. Future love interest? Martin is booked for seven episodes.
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Among notable events of this episode:
DANCING FOOL: Composer Tom ( Christian Borle), who has taken over direction of Bombshell, is having great "fun" being at the helm, but the new choreography by the wordless new choreographer leaves something to be desired. And Tom does not speak the same shorthand as Karen (who was Derek's choice for Marilyn). And the producers lack confidence in Tom. Incredibly, Derek agrees to allow the Bombshell producers to use his earlier choreography.
"AMAHZING" CAMEO: Seth Rudetsky, the pungent-snarky-funny music director who has cloned himself to become a multifaceted theatre celebrity — novelist, radio talk show host, actor, playwright and popular Playbill.com columnist and Playbill Video host (his work can be found at SethTV.com) appears in a cameo, voice recorder in hand, to interview first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Liaisons, the period musical drama starring Ivy ( Megan Hilty) and a miscast Hollywood star, Terry Falls (played by Sean Hayes). Seth makes a sour face when he cannot get a straight answer from Karen and Tom about Bombshell: Is it "edgy" or "old-fashioned"? It seems that director Tom and actress Karen are still not on the same page about their show. Seth manages to slip his signature word, "amahzing," into the scene before he disappears. ( Check out Seth's weekly Playbill.com Onstage & Backstage columns.). Karen and Tom later greet Ivy at the stage door to congratulate her on the Bomb she's in. Karen sees that Tom and Ivy are a true artistic match, and she quits Bombshell, on the street, opening up the possibility for soon-to-be-jobless Ivy to go back to play Marilyn, and Karen to join the shaggy Hit List, even though Jimmy is moody and shifty and combative. But Karen's sage advice is breaking Jimmy down: The theme, she says, "is already there: it's about reinvention; changing who you are, your destiny."
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TERRY FALLS, CONSPICUOUSLY: It would appear that Sean Hayes' guest-star arc as the off-his-meds, message-board-reading movie star Terry ends with this episode; and Hayes never got a scene with former "Will & Grace" co-star Messing! Hating Liaisons, the serious-minded musical that he's in, and feeling out of his league, Terry — at the suggestion of Ivy! — decides to have some "fun" at the opening night. ("Fun" is overused in this episode.) He violently improvises on stage, amping up the energy and business in an already unlikely new Marc Shaiman- Scott Wittman number, "Ce N'est Pas Ma Faute" ("It's Not My Fault"), the staging of which includes tap dancing, a can-can and bits that border on sexual assault (the word "motorboat" is included in the song — we don't even wish to identify the wonderful character actress whose bosom is paddled in this scene). Terry collapses on stage in this "Springtime for Hitler"-style turn. It does not make a lick of sense, any of this. Why was this burlesque number in Liaisons in the first place? Was Terry creating "faute" and "boat" rhymes on the spot? Two weeks ago it was a revival of a respected period musical drama. Nobody in this misbegotten "Smash" detour ends up looking smart, not even those who are in the house of the Broadway Theatre, where Liaisons is being performed. (In real life, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is playing the Broadway Theatre. Cinderella seems like realism compared to "Smash.") The song is, naturally, delicious whipped-cream writing from Shaiman and Wittman, with an effervescent orchestration by Jonathan Tunick. ( Joshua Bergasse is the series choreographer, The Book of Mormon's Casey Nicholaw directed the episode.) But it further tears away at the already paper-thin credibility of the storytelling. The misuse of the gifted is becoming the demoralizing hallmark of the second season of "Smash." Not "fun."
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CLEAR AS MUD: Ousted producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston), with the help of wistful blonde daughter, Katie (Grace Gummer, who was seen last season), colludes with librettist Julia to figure out how they might wrest control of Bombshell from Jerry (Michael Cristofer). They haul out boxes of files, seeking a "silver bullet," and dig up something out of an old contract (some agreement with Marilyn Monroe's estate) and they plead their case in a (conveniently off-screen) meeting that includes Jerry, five lawyers and an assistant district attorney. Poof! Eileen is the producer of Bombshell again! What happened? Only Judge Brack knows for sure. Pass the tomato juice!
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)