Review: Let ‘Smash’ be your star
Growing up my experience with theater was limited. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I saw a musical on stage. It was the ‘Mystery of Edwin Drood’ at Otterbein University on a class field trip. Later that year we saw their production of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’. What I remember from both of those performances is that one of the actors was attractive and another had some really strange pants. For what it’s worth, I also fell asleep during a performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ in the first grade. I didn’t discriminate in my lack of interest regarding live performances. (However, if it was a movie musical, it’s pretty much a guarantee that I’d seen it.)
But then during my senior year of high school I became close friends with several of the students involved in my high school’s Performing Arts Program. I saw two productions that year; ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Marvin’s Room’, both starring Liz Shivener, who can currently be found playing Princess Fiona in the touring production for ‘Shrek: The Musical’ (I mention this because I think it’s amazing that someone from my high school has actually accomplished something). I also saw several of my high school’s drama club productions because one of my friends was the director. But still I didn’t care about theater the way some of my friends did.
Then at the graduation ceremony of one of said friends, a group of students attempted to sing “For Good” from ‘Wicked’ (they must have had a different high school experience than I had, because the song I’d choose for my graduation would have been more along the lines of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells”). However, I was more concerned about whether or not I had a sunburn from sitting outside in the sweltering heat for several hours in June than about what they were singing. On the way home from the ceremony, my friend insisted she play the song in order to show us non-theater folks how it was supposed to sound. And it was as if a light bulb suddenly came on and I was hooked. ‘Wicked’ did me in. It was my first real experience with a Broadway musical, and even though I wouldn’t see it live on stage for years after that, I still remember thinking, “Holy shit. I get it now.” I still get goosebumps and cry during ‘For Good’, and every single damn time Idina Menzel starts belting at the end of ‘Defying Gravity’ I can’t help but shiver at how beautiful it is. After that I became a show tunes addict. I’m not lying when I say that my iPhone is 90% classic rock and cast recordings from musicals. I love musicals, I love plays, I love theater.
So I’ve been dying to see ‘Smash’ since I heard that someone, somewhere was thinking about maybe doing a TV show about a Broadway musical (and that it was not in any way associated with Ryan Murphy). And even though NBC has been flooding the airwaves for months with commercial after commercial for it, I didn’t get annoyed (well, except for the part where they kept trying to introduce us to Katharine McPhee since we met her in, like, 2006 during the heyday of ‘American Idol’; that was annoying). In fact, I think it just made me more and more giddy for the premiere. And Monday night I stayed up until 1 AM to watch it (Hey, I’m not in college anymore. I try to keep normal adult hours these days.)
‘Smash’ – which I just tried to call ‘Smashed’; that is an entirely different show that I imagine Bravo is probably working on as I write this – is everything I had had hoped it would be. While some of my favorite critics, like Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix.com, didn’t really “hear the music,” there are plenty others, like Maureen Ryan of the Huffington Post, who loved it just as much as I did.
‘Smash’ is enduring the obvious ‘Glee’ comparisons, and for the most part, I think it’s coming out on top every time. NBC has been promoting it as the grown up version of the Fox hit, but it’s more than that. This is a drama that just happens to be set in the Broadway world. Kind of like the way ‘The West Wing’ was a drama that just happened to be set in the White House – a comparison creator/executive producer Theresa Rebeck has been using in interview after interview for the show.
I was initially enraged by, and even scoffed at, the idea of anyone comparing this show to Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece, but I think I understand now why it’s an apt comparison. ‘The West Wing’ was a show about politics, but more importantly it was a show that detailed the lives and the dramas of the men and women who work behind the scenes of the Oval Office. It was about the side of the political process that we, as citizens, don’t get to see. That’s why the comparisons to ‘The West Wing’ work; ‘Smash’ is a show about the making of a Broadway musical, about the side of the process that we theater fans don’t get to see. We just show up and wait for the curtain to rise and be entertained. We never really think about the years of work that had to happen in order for us to be there on opening night. We don’t think about the different people involved except for the one night every June when we hand them statues at the annual Tony Awards for their excellent work. So the comparison fits. Whether or not ‘Smash’ will see the longevity that the Martin Sheen-led political drama did is yet to be seen, but I surprisingly support the comparisons for now.
As for the comparisons to ‘Glee’, I don’t think it’s even a contest. ‘Glee’ has been flailing about for awhile now, being pulled in several different directions at once. Most of the time the plots of successive episodes are so tonally different and far-fetched that it feels as if the writers never communicated with each other from episode to episode. If these shows had premiered at the same time I think you could have argued that ‘Glee’ was on par with ‘Smash’, but time has worn the shine off Ryan Murphy’s once bright star. And it’s not to say the same won’t happen with ‘Smash’, but right now, fresh out of the box and all shiny and new, it looks like the more sophisticated and successful older sibling to the whiny and awkward teenager of ‘Glee’. And I sincerely hope it stays that way. I’d hate to see a show so rich with talent – and not just Anjelica freaking Huston, but actual theater talent – falter in the way that ‘Glee’ has faltered as the seasons progressed.
While ‘Glee’ tends to sacrifice plot and common sense for the sake of outrageous musical numbers that McKinley High could only ever dream of being able to afford, the plot and pacing of ‘Smash’ is right on. And while the musical numbers on ‘Glee’ tend to be awkwardly transitioned (aside from the various numbers performed as part of a choir room rehearsal scene), they fit in seamlessly on ‘Smash’. The story is also tight, the actors and actresses hit all their notes with ease, and I can already see myself falling in love with this show, and I’ve only seen the pilot.
That being said, I find it a little hard to believe that A) Katharine McPhee’s Karen Cartwright is only 24, and B) that we’re supposed to root for her as opposed to Megan Hilty’s more experienced Ivy Lynn. It just seems like an unfair fight to me. I understand that the writers want us to believe that she has that little something extra that Ivy Lynn does not – she’s the girl next door who doesn’t realize her sex appeal (I call this the Joey Potter Phenomenon) – but so far the only thing wrong with Hilty’s character is that she seems a little too perky and a little too uptight and practiced. She feels like the Natalie Portman character of ‘Black Swan’ (without the crazy), while Karen is more like Mila Kunis in that film. But I’m interested in seeing how the writers intend to play the two women off each other as they both compete for the role of Marilyn.
Another problem I had with the pilot is that I find it hard to care about Debra Messing’s character’s family problems. There was a lot going on in the pilot – which is normal, considering you have to lay out a lot of groundwork for the series while still making it interesting enough that viewers want to tune in the next week – but I found myself not caring about the personal stories of the show’s principle characters. And that’s a problem. Because if your viewers aren’t invested in these characters and their stories, all the flashy musical numbers in the world won’t make them tune it. Most shows take a couple of episodes to really get the rhythm down though, so I’m not really worried at this point.
I think this show has a bright future, both in terms of longevity and in the sense that it will do for Broadway what ‘The West Wing’ did for politics. It’s my sincerest hope that this show will give the world a chance to see that theater is something to respect and marvel at. It takes a lot of long hours, a lot of blood, sweat and tears for these shows to come to fruition. And I think this show has done a great job of introducing this world and these characters to the viewers. I can’t wait to see more. I’ve already set my DVR for a series record. Here’s hoping it doesn’t pull a ‘Glee’ and stays on track.
Note: Photo courtesy of NBC.