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« Curio: Oscar Unsheets, Part II | Main | Oscar Luncheon Photos »
Monday
Feb062012

Smash 1.1 "Pilot"

NBC's new musical drama "Smash", a behind the scenes showbiz drama about Broadway musical theater and our enduring Marilyn Monroe obsession, premieres tonight. If pilot quality and series promise equal ratings, the show will make good on its title. The internet has had a good laugh about its relentless ad campaign and the absurd "Introducing... Katharine McPhee" angle (American Idol being underground experimental television that only 5 people have ever seen, don'cha know) but the show is smartly written enough to use McPhee's familiarity as an opening gambit to throw you into an unfamiliar world.

Reintroducing... McPhee's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is long since the most oversung song in the popular canon and a song McPhee was already known for from her original introduction years ago.  But this cozy dreamy showtune reverie is interrupted by a cel phone, snapping us back to plainclothes everyday New York where McPhee's "Karen" is auditioning for god knows what. The casting director is decidedly unmoved and takes the call. 

Dreamy musical outbursts screeching to a halt for reality-check comic purposes is as familiar a cliché as Somewhere Over the Rainbow but "Smash", as it turns out, isn't actually going to coddle us. Continued after the jump.

Ivy & Karen (Marilyn & Norma Jean?)It throws you right into the business of musical theater, full of references and dialogue details that I imagine only showqueens are going to absorb instantaneously. A poorly written show would surely have one of the many characters be a complete newbie in this world, a surrogate if you will. And while McPhee's Karen Cartwright and one assistant fill that to some degree it's not as pronounced as it usually is in these circumstances. The characters here know the world better than (most) of the audience will.  It's smart to dive in deep for specific textures because inside showbiz dramas can't avoid cliché otherwise; there have been too many of them. It's a happy accident that musical theater, one of the oldest forms of showbiz, is now a fresh milieu for this kind of story since it's been so rarely dramatized in the past few decades.

Since this is a pilot we're introduced to several characters and potential plot threads. Julia and Tom (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) are a songwriting team with a hit show called "Heaven on Earth" currently running. They're supposed to be on break until Tom's new assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) accidently gives them the idea of a Marilyn Monroe musical. Julia's husband Frank (Broadway vet Brian d'Arcy James) is not pleased since they're in the process of adopting and Julia is a workaholic. Meanwhile Eileen and Jerry (Anjelica Huston and Michael Cristofer), powerhouse producers, are in the middle of a "vindictive" divorce and Eileen's current project, a My Fair Lady revival, has been put into escrow. A leaked song from the Marilyn musical interests her and soon she's convincing the songwriting team to hire womanizing director Derek Willis (Jack Davenport) even though Tom and Derek despise each other.

Derek wants the fairly green Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) to play Marilyn. And he also wants her to earn the role in his bed (McPhee's panic about her casting couch moment = Emmy clip!) but Tom and Julia want to promote one of their favorite chorus members Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) to lead status.

Karen and Dev play "Some Like It Hot" in their bedroom

This Ivy vs. Karen drama can't possibly last for a whole series, so eventually they'll have to choose but it's a more interesting contrast than it initially appears. Movies and television are, generally speaking, very anti-education and training, preferring to sell the easy and therefore more inclusive dream myth that all you need is talent and a dream to make it in any profession. So if Smash follows past patterns and promotional clues, Katharine McPhee will be playing Marilyn Monroe by mid season.  Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, who did a great Dolly Parton in the 9 to 5 musical a few years ago) is in the thankless story position of experienced trained performer who might not have the magical "it" factor. But rather than ignoring Ivy's dream and courting full and easy sympathies for Karen who we assume will win out in the end, the pilot episode paints a rather sympathetic contrast between them. Ivy is a consummate professional who just can't catch a big break and whose personal life is empty, everything sacrificed for a dream that might not be coming true. Karen wants the dream just as badly but losing it wouldn't hurt her as much. Her life is rich. She's younger, just starting out. She has a loving boyfriend in Dev (Raza Jaffrey, instantly adorable as her cheerleader and would be husband.) and parents who worry about her. They aren't quite supportive of her dream but you can tell they want her to be happy.

When Dev and Karen take her parents out to dinner they argue, for what must be the 100th time about her choice of profession. "Sometimes dreams are hard," Karen says earnestly, frustrated at the repetitive argument. Out of context in advertisements it sounds like a terrible on-the-nose line. But the beauty of the "Smash" pilot is that in context the line rings absolutely true. Someone's heart is going to get broken and mounting this musical is obviously not going to be easy on any of the principal cast members.

Set List

Peanuts.... HOT DOGS! (Megan Hilty kills it in her baseball number)

Seven songs?! They're totally spoiling us. Standards  "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (McPhee), and "Beautiful" (McPhee), "Happy Birthday Mr. President" (McPhee), "I Want to Be Loved By You" (Annaleigh Ashford),  Originals "National Pasttime" (Hilty), "Kisses Come Free" (Hilty), "Let Me Be Your Star" (Hilty & McPhee). Megan Hilty kills the big production number, a risque funny baseball number but the highlight might just be the duet finale, that's treated like an actual musical number and not just a grounded they're singing because they're rehearsing or on stage number. 

Showbiz References
Deborah Kerr in From Here To Eternity, My Fair Lady, Scarlett Johansson, Kristin Chenoweth, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark ("Reidel! Reidel starting going after Spider-Man before they even started previews he was already attacking everyone. Before they even started maiming people!"), two Marilyn clips from Some Like It Hot

GayGayGay


This exchange between chorus boy Dennis (Phillip Spaeth) and composer Tom (Christian Borle) was great. It was even synchronized to the dance number going on onstage (onstage being offstage in this case). Tom doesn't remember but there was obviously sexcapades. 

Anjelica Awesomeness


Happy news! If the pilot is any indication, it's going to be nearly impossible to choose a best Anjelica Huston moment in each episode. We have a new player in the Emmy Supporting Actress race. I love the expression on her face when her husband calls her vindicative. Ha! But at this moment, I'll take her delicious Mama Bear condescension when she's talking the reluctant songwriters into working with a director they don't want. She laughs at their jokes but she's not listening to a word.

Ohhhh, we're so hard on each other in this business."

Needless to say she gets her way. 

Curtain Call


Full disclosure: I've been dreaming of this show my entire life (Seriously. I've always wondered why only hospitals, courts, police stations and office buildings are allowed as workplaces in series television) and the first time through I was so nervous that I merely enjoyed it. The second time through, without the anxious burden of "oh my god please be good i need musicals in my life!" I was smitten. There are curious moments where it feels a little, um, sedate (?) given the topic -- it could probably use more laughs -- but mostly it thrills. A- 

Next Monday can't come soon enough.

 

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Reader Comments (30)

Now that you mention it, I think I'll have to watch it again. Perhaps the second time around will get me smitten. I loved the My Fair Lady references though, and the last musical number. Angelica Houston, hopefully = all the awards!

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLorena

How much do I love Jack Davenport in this?

Answer: A TON.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKim

I think the smartest thing they could have done was to not characterize Ivy as the villain. I actually don't know who I want to get the part, which, I think, is a huge success for the show.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDylan

Much too slow. Felt like it was on all night.

The baseball number was great and Megan Hilty is fantastic, but the pacing needs a lot of work to keep me on board.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZach

I fully agree that a second viewing turns the pilot from a mere "good" to an "outstanding." I love how subtle and slow burn the pilot is, it gives me hope the show will tell it's story more like "Friday Night Lights" or "Parenthood," where arcs take episodes to unfold instead of "Glee" who needs to cram six arcs into forty minutes each week.

My only selfish gripe is that Brian D'Arcy James, one of my favorite working actors on Broadway, is the anti-musical husband. Please let this man sing in the near, near, NEAR future.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJS

I just kept thinking that if that baseball number song were in an actual musical on Broadway, it'd close in the first month. I really didn't like the song.

I also really disliked Christian Borle's character. I know it's musical theater, but must we get a completely stereotypical character?

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I'm going to be honest: As someone who works in NYC theater but not onstage, where I would much rather be, the SMASH pilot was unbelievably hard to watch. This was my life for two years after college. Well, Karen's life anyway; I was working three part-time jobs at home in Connecticut while catching 4 or 5 AM trains to NYC to go audition when I could. Only I didn't have a supportive boyfriend who could help foot the bill for a decent-sized apartment. And now having worked in a theater for going on four years (in fundraising) and getting to know some of the actors who work with our company regularly, I have come to know so many Ivys.Show business is so often a lose-lose situation: Most people won't even consider you for a star-making role unless you've "paid your dues" and they know your work. But once you get a part in a show on Broadway? You never know how long it's going to last. You never know when you're going to get another opportunity. A friend of a friend was cast in the ensemble of a big new Broadway musical and thought she had made it. A week after opening, she had to start auditioning again because the producers announced the show was closing. I know some people who have been in ensembles for years on end, and some love it but others note how it really becomes a JOB; after a while, you start to lose your enthusiasm. But they don't want to lose their steady paycheck. They've worked too long and too hard to get on that stage, and they don't want to go back to getting out of bed at 4 AM to hurry down to Ripley-Grier so they can make sure they're on the list. So they stay (and sometimes hope for one of the leads to leave or get injured). Even when you work on a workshop, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to continue with the show once the business takes over to actually produce the show. Broadway is very cautious right now, and names are what sell shows. If you're not a name, good luck!

So all of that to say, basically, that SMASH got it totally, completely right. My man blurted out, about ten minutes in, "is this Glee for adults?!?" And he's not necessarily wrong. But the biting wit that made Glee easier to take in the beginning (for me, anyway) is not present here. They're going for realism, and more power to them. But if that keeps up, I don't know how much more of this I can take, even if it is pretty great.

And you know what the worst, most fascinating part of this is? The Karen/Ivy situation is totally spilling out into the advertising for the show. This is the first starring TV gig, and first really big mainstream job, for both Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty. Hilty is a Broadway veteran who had a lead in a new musical that flopped (9 to 5). McPhee was the runner-up of a televised talent competition, put out two flop albums, and was in a couple of movies in very small roles. And who is NBC pushing in the advertising, with the final, "...and introducing..." credit? McPhee. I'm trying to tease out my thoughts about this metanarrative into an actual article (to be published where, I have no idea, but I have to get this out!), but I'll probably need more of the show to do it properly. Still, HUGE point of interest for me. Hopefully I can just turn off the emotional part of my brain when I watch SMASH and just watch it analytically.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

So Nathaniel, what are your Emmy predictions and hopes for the show based on the pilot? Any love for the actors besides Anjelica?

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Based on this episode, I'm thinking it's a real shame that Megan Hilty is forced to compete with the one and only Anjelica Huston for a Supporting Actress nomination at the Emmys. She's absolute dynamite. The biggest hurdle I see the show facing (besides Marilyn fatigue) has got to be selling the idea that Katherine McPhee has more star presence than Hilty. Hell even being comparable is going to be a stretch.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTB

how the hell are they going to stretch this out? if this episode ends with callbacks then ivy or karen should be out the door next week (unless they are going with the marilyn/norma-jean thing?)

the only things i hated in the pilot were the annoying assistant's "even backstage" speech and that everybody had to avoid mentioning what exactly caused the DRAMA between tom and derek (a subplot that's sure to be boring)

loved most everything else, especially theatre babies borle and hilty shining on film and realising that debra messing can do subtle after all those years of mugging on will and grace. plus chorus boys!

bonus - finding out via imdb that karen's parents - the mom from freaks and geeks and the paedophile dad from happiness - are a real life couple

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

My question: is this going into comedy or drama at the Emmys/SAGs? It definitely seems dramatic, but I could see them putting it in comedy (since it would be in comedy/musical at the Globes) simply because they say "Oh, musical = comedy," which isn't necessarily true.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

You can solve Ivy vs. Karen issue by making one understudy of the other.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTaci

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I read that one of them already gets the part in Episode 2, so they won't drag it out. But it will be for the workshop production, and these things can change. Also, one of the Film Experience's favorite actresses (one I can't stand) will be trying to get the part as well--Uma Thurman will be appearing as a movie star who wants her Broadway Marilyn moment.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Taci -- ooh good point.

February 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Is it wrong that I kept wanting Debra Messing's character to have Megan Mullallly from Will & Grace as her assistant again? LOL

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

David -- it's definitely wrong but it feels so right ;)

February 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I just enjoyed it. Glad not to see another CSI/Law and Order/Insert any cop show.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTony

Considerable fun. And I enjoyed the banter with the chorus boy too. Anjelica Huston is GODDESS!

Can they work Sondheim into this somehow? After all, he did "Camp."

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Ehrenstein

OK. I loved both Ivy and Karen. Clearly what they SHOULD do is double cast... Have McPhee play Norma Jean, and the blonde movie-star Marilyn... Show begins primarily with Norma Jean, with occasional fantasies of marilyn, then transitions... 2nd act mostly Marilyn, with longing for normalcy of Norma Jean as she goes into addiciton/etc.

OK. THAT is a show. and a concept. Angelica Huston, produce me.

Additionally, this show has potentially three (four?) amazing supporting actress roles - Huston, Ivy, Messing, (McPhee? depending on who is cast), and two (or more?) supporting actor roles.

Also, i've been running around singing "let me be your star" all effing day.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBilly

I thought McPhee fared surprisingly well in the acting category. I am assuming we are supposed to sympathize with Messing's husband, but he only came across as annoying. I felt the editing could have been improved. Overall, not a bad first episode. Let's hope some of the actors and production can 'refine' their style.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterViewer

Billy - I totally got the same vibe... everything points to what you said as they portray both Norma Jean & Marilyn... even the final number's costumes suggest it. Ivy and Karen are too perfect for the those roles... the dual idea was something I thought of the first time I watched this, but made only clearer the second time around.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScotty

Katharine McPhee and Anjelica seem like sure things for Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. I wonder if this will go comedy like Glee though...I guess it's more drama.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Interesting review and not to nitpick only a marginal point BUT I'm not quite sure Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" is considered a standard and certainly not in the same canon of American song as "Over the Rainbow." To be honest, I was left perplexed by Katharine McPhee's audition in the show. The choice of song (the aforementioned Aguilera tune) was perplexing for a Broadway audition, not to mention her performance of it , complete with incoherent riffs and runs. It felt to me like the the producers were banking on a surefire iTunes download on that one -- nothing more.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

^ Yessssss. As someone who has done lots of theatre, I was like "Uhhh, what?!" when she sang "Beautiful" at an audition. No ma'am! You'd be laughed at for something like that.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Jack -- oh i absolutely agree. i was just trying to divvy the songs up between originals and 'things people know' but i like "standards" better ;)

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

p.s. Nathaniel, what do you think about the comedy/drama thing?

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

RE: Beautiful - For a new musical, the call will sometimes ask auditionees to prepare a pop song or a showtune, depending on the style of the show, so it is possible that they would allow her to sing that. Of course, the way they had set up Marilyn on the show, I thought it was an appropriate choice, IF they allowed pop songs.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Between Angelica, Madeline Stowe for "Revenge" and Jessica Lange for "American Horror Story", Supporting Actress is going to be very, very exciting this season!

Really enjoyed the show. Look forward to more!

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

My biggest quibble with the pilot (being a non-musical theatre loving 'mo) was that you never once see Debra Messing doing anything related to her role; her partner tickled the ivories penning tunes, the actors and dancers rehearsed – both vocally and choreographically (is that word??) – but you never see Debra writing... sure she researched BY WATCHING MOVIES but where was her character's input as to what we saw on screen?

Other than that, I really dug it.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDr Theopolis

The only thing that rang potentially false to me was the speed of it all. Are we supposed to believe that you can put this sort of thing together in (what seemed like) a weekend? I was under the impression that original shows took years to get mounted. But maybe they'll address that some more. It seemed just one step removed from Judy & Mickey putting on a lavish number in their barn.

I know people mentioned the Norma Jean/Marilyn double casting, but I'd rather have an All About Eve tribute (well, Marilyn was in the movie) and have whoever doesn't get the role become the conniving understudy. The thing of it is, I'd think that Katharine would be a much better villain than Megan. She could be anything behind that sort of blank "nice girl" facade. Megan rings as much more genuine and open. So sue me.

I think that cute guy from that dreadful Sex & The City 2 could be interesting. And Christian & Debra were much more subtle than I could have wished.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach
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