Friday, August 3, 2012

How I'd Fix SMASH

It's no secret that NBC invested a lot of money and promotion on "Smash," the show they unveiled last winter about a Broadway show and its search for a star. Not exactly sure why the NBC suits decided they wanted a show about Broadway, but I'm guessing it was a way to get on the "Glee" bandwagon (where legit Broadway stars sing pop tunes and a few show tunes) now that "Glee" itself is way past its prime.

But "Smash" turned out to be way more of a bomb than a "Bombshell," and way too much like creaky old "42nd Street" from 1933, complete with the naive girl (chirpy, clunky Ruby Keeler then, vague and listless Katharine McPhee now) who is in no way up to the lead role going out there a kid and coming back a star AND learning all the songs and dances in the few hours left before opening night. Carol Burnett did a wonderful parody of that idea on her show in the 70s in a piece called "43rd Street" lampooning just how ridiculous the whole "42nd Street" understudy plotline was. Even in 1933, they relied on camp and big production numbers to sell their story. All "Smash" had was a) a lot of us with general goodwill toward Broadway and the performers cast, b) shining star Megan Hilty singing her heart out and c) a few decent songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of "Hairspray" fame. But I guess exec producers Steven Spielberg and Theresa Rebeck didn't get the memo that the "42nd Street" playbook was out of date. Or that Katharine McPhee has the charisma and charm of a loaf of Wonder Bread left on the shelf since 1973. Or that it wasn't going to work to tell us time and time again in dialogue that her character, Karen, was special and magical when we could clearly see there was no there there.

There were also plot problems. Huge plot problems. As in, scattershot plotting that created no dramatic arcs or satisfying payoffs. And that led to huge character problems. In fifteen episodes, Rebeck and her writing staff managed to shoehorn in so many people doing so many crazy things, I'm not sure I can even summarize them all. Let's see. There were the two contenders for the role of Marilyn -- Ruby Keeler-esque Karen (McPhee) from the sticks who had a mom and a dad and a boyfriend in politics, plus Ivy (Hilty), the chorus girl who wanted to step into the spotlight, and her Broadway star mom (Bernadette Peters) and new boyfriend, Derek (Jack Davenport) the snotty director with multiple personalities -- plus producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) and her soon-to-be-ex, her daughter (played by Grace Gummer, who looked a lot more like her real mother Meryl Streep than was good for credibility), her new bartender boyfriend and her backers, both old and new and crusty and crazy; songwriting team Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia's husband, with whom she wanted to adopt a baby from China, her sulky son, and the stalkerish guy from her past, who just happened to be playing Joe DiMaggio in the show, and Tom's boring lawyer boyfriend and new chorus boy boyfriend and the chorus boy's family as well as the conniving assistant Tom refused to fire who ended up being Eileen's assistant and poisoning the movie star (Uma Thurman) brought into the show to keep their backers happy. Add to that various singers and dancers in the ensemble, various singers and dancers in other shows we saw glimpses of, and a church full of gospel singers. Oh, and some random Iowa chicks in a bowling alley. At least I think it was a bowling alley. It was definitely Iowa.

It was also pretty silly to promote the show as a suspenseful fight between two contenders for the lead role when they gave away the ending in the pre-season poster (shown above). Who didn't know McPhee would be the big winner when she was shown at the top of the heap from the get-go? Never mind the fact that Hilty out-sang and out-performed her in every way possible, showed all the Broadway pizzazz you could ask for, and even looked more like Marilyn Monroe, the role they were competing for. It was a done deal that McPhee's Karen would win. Which pretty much killed "Smash" before it even got past Episode 1.

But a lot has happened since "Smash" offered up its finale back in May, the one where Karen got the coronation ceremony and Ivy was tossed aside. Creator and executive producer Theresa Rebeck was sent packing, with Josh Safran from "Gossip Girl" taking over as show runner. Jaime Cepero, who played the evil assistant Ellis; Will Chase, who had the thankless role of the cheater/stalker guy chasing Julia; Brian d'Arcy James, wasted as Julia's non-singing, Dullsville husband; and Raza Jaffrey, also wasted as Karen's uptight boyfriend, were all booted.

Then came word that Jeremy Jordan, fresh from playing the lead newsboy in "Newsies," Krysta Rodriguez from "The Addams Family," and Andy Mientus, who was in the Broadway cast of "Carrie," have all been added to the regular cast, with Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson in the mix as a guest star for several episodes. Leslie Odom, Jr., who had a recurring role as the adorable guy in the chorus who attracted Tom's eye, has been promoted to a series regular. With three new 20-somethings on board and two over-40 actors out the door, it seems there will be more emphasis on youth and much less on middle-aged angst of the Julia variety.

Does all of that mean "Smash" is moving in the right direction? Well, Debra Messing's Julia lost her husband and her boyfriend, but not the odious son, and McPhee is still on-board. Neither of those is a good thing.

But "Smash" can be saved. Seriously. And here's how I would do it...

In the premiere episode, we see that "Bombshell" has moved to Broadway and is limping along at the box office. Tom and Julia joke about not putting it on their resume because they're not proud of how it turned out and critics continue to mock it as a rickety mess. They are attempting to get backing for a new show, but their association with "Bombshell" is making it hard.

This one is a brand-new, fresh idea, and nothing as hackneyed as a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Maybe it exposes the hypocrisy of religious institutions, providing conflict for Tom with Leslie Odom, Jr.'s Sam, who is a devout Christian. The other wrinkle for Tom is Kyle, the character played by Mientus, a bright new voice who has some great ideas for the new show, making Tom consider cheating on both Julia, as his professional partner, and Sam, his romantic partner.

Eileen has money woes because of the "Bombshell" problems, and her ex is bankrolling Tom's and Julia's new show.

Karen's performance as Marilyn has received universally terrible reviews, but she is sleeping with Derek and considers herself a star because he tells her so.  She's turned into a major diva, adopting a persona she learned from Uma Thurman's Rebecca Duvall, even though she really didn't earn it and people are whispering behind her back that only her relationship with Derek is keeping her in the show. (I think McPhee could handle acting superior, bratty and smug, since she was already doing that as Karen when she wasn't supposed to.)

Derek, meanwhile, is taking more pills than Neely O'Hara, and his behavior is increasingly erratic. Although Karen has no idea, Derek has been calling and leaving messages for Ivy to beg her to take him back, or at least to tell him how to fix the the flop that is "Bombshell" since she was so helpful when they were together. 

Karen is angry that, even though she's the star of the show, she lives in a cruddy 4th floor walkup now that Dev isn't keeping her in style anymore and Derek will not let her live with him, fearing she will notice the drugs and the Ivy-fixation. So she shares an apartment with Krysta Rodriguez's character, Ana, who can't believe that Karen got the role she got given her limited talent and bad attitude. Derek can't help but notice that Ana is talented, ambitious and smart, all things Karen is not, and he hires her as the new understudy. (And if the folks behind "Smash" are just dying to riff on "All About Eve," this would be their chance, with eager understudy Ana stealing everything that matters to Karen.)

Ivy threw out the pills and left the show some time ago. She took the role of Louise in a limited run of "Gypsy" opposite her mother, and got rave reviews. She is currently working with Tom and Julia on their new show, one in which she will co-star with Jennifer Hudson's Broadway mega-star, and the two are best buds. Ivy is trying hard not to let all her recent success change her, and even harder not to let Derek and his weeping get under her skin. She still has feelings for him, but she steels herself  not to let him in.

Julia's husband has left her, and she finds out several episodes in that he has gone back to performing, which is what he did before they were married and he gave up his career to be a househusband. He is in London in the West End production of "The Sweet Smell of Success," which was much better received there than here, and there is talk of a transfer to Broadway. Brian d'Arcy James returns 3/4 of the way through the season, and Julia wants him back. Bad.

Jeremy Jordan's Jimmy is a brash new chorus boy in "Bombshell"; he tries to take Karen down a peg by telling her Derek is cheating with Ivy. Karen sits around stewing and hating on Ivy, coming up with stupid plots on how to ruin her career, while Ana and Jimmy team up to foil her.

The season's arc would be Tom, Julia, Ivy, Kyle and J-Hud on the new show competing with Eileen, Derek, Karen, Jimmy and Ana involved with "Bombshell." Who will get the Tony noms? Who will win?

Overall, we'd see Karen and her inflated sense of self-worth moving down and out, Derek at a low point attempting to get himself together and get Ivy back, Ivy enjoying success and trying to let herself enjoy it and learn from it, and Tom and Julia trying to balance work and their personal lives, with Tom ultimately ditching Julia for Kyle on the new show, and Julia going back to her newly energized husband, the toast of the West End.

Well, it works for me, anyway. I'm looking for lots of conflict, characters who behave in a way that doesn't veer wildly from episode to episode, a focus onstage as much as possible, and a sense of satisfaction that people get what they serve. We can talk about bringing in Laura Benanti, Laura Osnes and Gavin Creel some other time.

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