The television show "Smash," a musical-drama that premiered in 2012 and told the story of the creation of an original Broadway musical, was an enormous hit, especially in its first season when it enjoyed high ratings. Though the show took certain liberties in how it conveyed the process of writing, casting and producing a show for the New York stage, even those who work in the theatre business felt compelled to tune in each week to see how the show's central musical Bombshell took shape.
Bombshell, which tells the story of film and pin-up icon Marilyn Monroe, is now preparing to take the leap from the television screen to the Broadway stage, featuring the popular Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman songs from the TV show. This is not, however, the first time a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe braved the Great White Way.
In 1983, Marilyn: An American Fable opened at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre and remained for a short tenure of 17 performances. It starred Alyson Reed (best known for playing Cassie in the "A Chorus Line" movie, and by today's audiences as Ms. Darbus in the "High School Musical" television movies) in the titular role, and also featured Scott Bakula as Joe DiMaggio, Will Gerard as Arthur Miller, Mary Testa as gossip queen Hedda Hopper and Willy Falk (as a Monroe fan) singing the musical's most-celebrated number "You Are So Beyond." The production was to be directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, but he was replaced late in the rehearsal process by Thommie Walsh and Baayork Lee (Ortega retained credit). Marilyn: An American Fable, which had a book by Patricia Michaels and a score by Jeanne Napoli, Doug Frank, Gary Portnoy, Beth Lawrence and Norman Thalheimer, seemed like an exciting idea for a Broadway musical. However, when concept met reality, the results were decidedly lackluster. Marilyn: An American Fable had a wide range of problems along the way to its opening night. An actress named Gerolyn Petchel, who looked very much like Marilyn Monroe, was originally cast in the title role, but she was dismissed for a convoluted list of reasons ten days before the musical played its first preview. Reed, who had originally lost the role to Petchel, was brought in to replace her. The score proved to be problematic, perhaps stemming from the fact that so many people were contributing to it. Five composers are credited in the opening night Playbill, but it is rumored that over a dozen songwriters were employed in the creation of Marilyn: An American Fable. Wally Harper (music) and David Zippel (lyrics) were brought in to write "Cold Hard Cash," a song that would be the equivalent of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." Michael's book vacillated between earnest storytelling and colorful camp, and didn't always make an accurate account of Monroe's life. Many critics were particularly appalled by just how the dialogue and how incorrectly the story of Monroe's was told. Marilyn: An American Fable had a hard time striking the right tone and capturing simultaneously the human and iconic Marilyn Monroe.
With one high-profile musical telling the story of the life of Marilyn Monroe having failed on Broadway, what does this mean for Bombshell? Is this new musical incarnation of the fabled actress's ups and downs bound to be compared to its unsuccessful predecessor? Is an attempt to tell the story of someone as iconic as Monroe destined for disaster because it is impossible to capture her style and spirit? What is it about Bombshell that will work where Marilyn: An American Fable did not?
Many theatre lovers claim Bombshell has a very good chance of being a hit and overcoming Marilyn: An American Fable's shortcomings. To begin with, the success of the TV show "Smash," especially among theatre lovers, has already cultivated a mass audience for this musical. Viewers spent two seasons watching this show-within-a-TV-show take shape. Since most people agree that the best parts of "Smash" were the musical numbers created for Bombshell, this audience is primed to see it come together, live, before their eyes. It had a two-year, built-in marketing campaign, whether it intended to be one or not. Legions of fans of the program will know this musical and are very likely to gravitate, on a sojourn to New York City, toward a piece they feel personally invested in.
The score is by a pair of tried and true Broadway composers, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who gave us their own mega-hit Hairspray, a musical that brims with glorious, infectious songs. Their second outing on Broadway, Catch Me If You Can, wasn't as big a success, but the score is full of tuneful melodies and the show was nominated for Best Musical at the 2011 Tony Awards. We already know what most of the music in Bombshell is going to be, and that familiarity has it well-positioned to succeed with Broadway audiences. Numbers such as "Let Me Be Your Star," "They Just Keep Moving the Line," "Second Hand White Baby Grand," "The National Pastime," "Don't Forget Me" and "Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking" have already found success through the television show, a subsequent popular recording, and a recent benefit concert that celebrated the music from Bombshell. The music has already proven itself to be popular, which bodes well for an impending Broadway production.
Audiences would be ecstatic to see any of the "Smash" Marilyns take the stage for Bombshell. Megan Hilty, Katharine McPhee or Uma Thurman would be natural casting choices, with Hilty and her theatre experience giving her a slight edge. (Among her Broadway credits, she also played Lorelei Lee in the 2012 Encores! concert of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, a role made famous by Marilyn Monroe on film.) It could also be just as exciting to see a new talent plucked from the throng and watch her Marilyn evolve with the piece. What is clear is that Monroe's fans and ticket buyers will be wanting someone who can capture the myriad traits of Monroe's personality including sex appeal, vulnerability and her highly stylized public persona. People do not want to go to the theatre and see a reasonable facsimile of Marilyn Monroe. She is too well-known a personality for such vagaries. Whoever takes on this role will have to make audiences believe they are seeing Monroe herself. It's a tall order to fill, but one that is essential in making Bombshell work.
Most importantly, one cannot dismiss the iconic status of Marilyn Monroe, an indelible personality that has lived on long past her untimely death at the age of 36. Her appeal transcends time and her much-celebrated physical appearance. Monroe's fame was not just a result of being gorgeous, though she certainly melted the hearts of many with her curvaceous figure and her coy, winning smile. Though many found her merely an adequate actress, she was one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, headlining such classics as "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Bus Stop," "Some Like It Hot," "How to Marry a Millionaire," "The Seven Year Itch" and "The Misfits." Her personality was complicated: equal parts goddess of love, sly seductress, manufactured party girl overflowing with energy and naïve bubblehead, but also with a sadness and lack of confidence underneath the artifice that made her very accessible. Her marriages (to metal sheet worker James Dougherty, baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller), love affairs and dalliances all resulted in heartbreak while becoming the focus of media speculation and sensationalism, and her death of a possible (but unconfirmed) suicide from an overdose of barbiturates adds to the myth surrounding her. A musical that can honestly harness all aspects of the truth and mystique surrounding Monroe and that can effectively tell her story, from her early days as Norma Jeane Mortenson through her transformation into the beloved star she became, should be a hit waiting to happen.
Marilyn, the musical, opened over 30 years ago and the specter of that production's problems is a distant memory (or unknown) to most contemporary ticket buyers. It was never a bad idea to tell Monroe's story through the conventions of musical theatre. It simply needed to be done in a way that served to honor the icon and the human being behind it. Bombshell, or at least the TV show that was the genesis of its creation, is already a hit and continues to be a subject of intrigue for those who want to see how a mythical fairytale about the creation of a Broadway musical concludes. It's the inevitable payoff for two season's worth of devoted viewership. With a strong book, the right casting and a production that delivers all the splash and flash worthy of Marilyn Monroe, all of the other ingredients are in place for a quality musical. This is not Marilyn: An American Fable, where very few things came together to transport us into this Hollywood legend's life. All signs point to a "happy ever after" for Bombshell.
Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."