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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Musical ‘Smash’ shows promise

Published: February 10, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

“Revivals and movies … why doesn’t anyone do new musicals anymore?” songwriter Julia Houston (Debra Messing ’90) wonders aloud in the pilot episode of “Smash,” a new show on NBC that explores the drama that occurs behind the scenes of one Broadway musical.

Julia’s question is one that crops up frequently both online and in the trade press, so it’s indicative of the intentions of creator Theresa Rebeck PhD ’89 that it appears within three minutes of the show’s opening. “Smash” clearly tries to hit every musical sweet spot imaginable in an effort to reach its target audience of theater devotees, and it largely works.

As far as showbiz stories go, “Smash” is nothing new. Native Iowan Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) is a waitress in Iowa, but of course she dreams of hitting it big on the Broadway stage. Unsurprisingly, her parents are not at all confident about her prospects. Karen luckily has a very supportive, very successful and very British boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey) around to make sure she sticks to her dream. When he tells Karen’s father that he admires her courage, you can hear every theater major sigh with adoration.

Karen catches her big break when she auditions for “Marilyn,” a musical documenting the rise, fall and immortalization of Marilyn Monroe. It’s the brainchild of Julia and her fellow songwriter Tom Levitt (Christian Borle); we quickly find out that they are the hottest creative ticket on Broadway. Of course, they simply can’t do it alone, which is how mega-producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) gets involved. Eileen in turn brings director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) on-board, which naturally leads to a battle of egos when he clashes with Tom.

Of course, Karen’s rise to stardom isn’t easy. Although she gets a callback in the pilot, she’s competing against Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), a musical veteran who has put in the necessary time as a member of one ensemble after another. Tom and Julia clearly prefer Ivy, and it’s easy to see why—she perfectly replicates Marilyn’s voice, appearance and public attitude. Karen, however, possesses that indescribable something that Derek seeks.

What’s immediately striking about “Smash” is how perfect the cast is. Many shows shake up their casts after the pilot episode, but here not a single person feels out of place. As the most famous of the lot, Messing and Huston don’t disappoint; Messing imbues Julia with the neurotic charm that characterized her work on “Will and Grace,” while Huston grabs every scene she’s in and refuses to let it go until she’s taken total control.

McPhee and Hilty, meanwhile, prove impressive both as actresses and singers. McPhee will be familiar to many viewers as one of the more memorable “American Idol” finalists, while Hilty has appeared on Broadway in both “Wicked” and “9 to 5: The Musical.”

Pilots are rarely perfect, however, and “Smash” certainly finds itself unable to escape this distinction.

Take Julia’s story as an example. Though the show first introduces her alongside Tom, it also exposes us to her home life, specifically her relationship with her husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James). Though they share a teenage son, they now want to adopt an infant. Of course, the expected happens: Frank worries that Julia’s dedication to her career will jeopardize their chance to adopt. Julia is such a dynamic character, yet the show already mires her in a conventional “career versus family” plotline. It doesn’t help matters that Frank is such a bore.

The dialogue, meanwhile, is heavy on capital-letter ideas—Dreams, Stardom, Destiny. Usually this works in the context of the show, but sometimes it comes across as overbaked. We first meet Eileen in an antiseptic legal office, where she is engaged in negotiating a messy divorce settlement with her husband (Michael Cristofer), who is also her form production partner. In a moment of passion, he declares that she “came into this marriage with nothing,” to which she retorts “Except love!” What a groaner.

Still, these missteps are minor in the grand scheme of things. Though shaky at times, “Smash” shows a lot of promise, especially for those already in a serious relationship with theater. To paraphrase Tom Levitt, I’m not complaining—just dreaming like everybody else. And while “Smash” doesn’t quite embody the dream version I had in mind when I sat down to watch it, it has just as much promise of becoming a breakout star as its two talented rival singers.