Steven Spielberg wanted Smash “to be an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.”
I suppose we’re supposed to be happy that network television has finally seen fit to set an hour-long drama in our little world. Just a few years ago, it was impossible to find any characters breaking into song on the little screen. But I’m reminded of a lady who bitterly complained about the quality of the food at a Catskills retreat. Could have been worse: there could be no food at all.
So let’s be grateful for the tasteless morsel we’ve been thrown, and spend a few moments picking on the bone. It certainly could be worse. They’ve decided to use an admirable quantity of original songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman rather than covers of old rock hits (with a key exception) and the cast includes Christian Borle and Brian D’Arcy James, guys I’ve actually enjoyed in Broadway shows. Good moves, there, and, again, better than starvation.
Since seeing the pilot (I also read the script, many months ago), I’ve been wondering if I’m more upset than I should be. I mean, of course it seems inauthentic to me: it’s the world I live in. And does it really matter if NBC viewers are fed a false impression? Suppose I knew nothing about how musicals are prepared and produced, would I find Smash so disappointing? It’s a little like wondering if that Catskills harridan had eaten ground glass all her life, would she still have caviled on the buffet line?
There are worse things a network could do, sure. And there are worse crimes than seeming ersatz. For instance, being very boring, or riddled with the hoariest clichés. But, given Speilberg’s publicly-stated ambition to hold up a mirror to our little world, you’ll pardon me if I mock the mock.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen this yet, consider yourself lucky.)
Feels a bit weird to be commenting on television. I’ve merely seen the pilot, and a zillion things can change – for the better, I hope – as the series progresses. While I have a lot of friends in the TV-writing business, I’ve no special insight into the making of meat for the small-box medium. Maybe spinning out cliché upon cliché is, somehow, encouraged in Tubetown. As you know, I’ve a sign on my desk that says “Eschew cliché” so naturally I sneeze at:
The set-upon spouse who pleads for the obsessed (and admirable) partner to forget their obsession, settle down and spend more time at home. In a not-so-novel twist, the pleading one is the husband, Brian D’Arcy James. It’s got to be a big let-down for him to go from his stage roles (Burrs, Sidney Falco, Shrek) to a cliché kvetch.
A divorcing couple, where one spurned spouse is itching to show the other up with a public triumph, pronto. Even Anjelica Huston’s hair-do screams 1930s Hollywood.
A more modern rendering of the “skyrocket to fame” idea is the viral video that’s so popular, it actual exerts pressure on the business world. Reluctant songwriters collaborate on a song for a musical about Marilyn Monroe, invite a friend over to learn it and sing it back to them. Someone takes a video of this, which gets posted on-line and voila! there’s a producer green-lighting the as-yet-unwritten project. I remind you of the Spielberg quote above: “an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.”
The main character, an aspiring singer who may win the grand prize or merely come in second, is played by Katharine McPhee, an aspiring singer who came close to winning the grand prize on American Idol but merely came in second. Nice to see her stretch. Her parents worry about all the rejection she faces in the city. Her boyfriend reminds them she’s not a waitress, she’s an actress. Is anything else on? Is ABC running that game show in which ordinary people fall off slippery things into wading pools? I’m there!
At her audition, McPhee transfixes the table with her rendition of the Christina Aguilera hit, Beautiful; and if you listen carefully to the lyric, which few do, it’s about seeing the true beauty in people, not the surface beauty. Marilyn Monroe, of course, is the iconic embodiment of surface beauty. Perhaps the Karen character wants the panel to see past her unextraordinary brunette good looks and find her inner Marilyn. Are you following any of this? The show insists you must.
But wait, there’s an immediate response from the director, in the form of a text message that says come over to my place. Hold the phone! Well, it’s the cellular age; I guess we always hold the phone somewhere on our person. And poor Karen, like Pauline in The Perils Of runs off to this fabulous bachelor pad. There, the lustful Svengali insists she reveal the smoldering sensual fire within her. She considers fleeing, but, just before reaching the door, she steels herself, grabs his shirt, comes out wearing it and no pants, and coos Happy Birthday, Mr. President.
At the risk of sounding like an out-of-touch prude, I’d like to point out that children are going to watch this program and believe every word. After all, some have read famous director Spielberg’s proclamation that Smash is “an absolutely authentic depiction” so it must be so, it must be, that the way to win a role on Broadway is to go alone to the director’s apartment late at night and act all sexy. NBC, by the way, has helpfully launched a program to get school kids watching this thing. Great to see a big corporation supporting arts in schools that lack performing arts, but it comes at the cost of spreading moral turpitude. Does the good outweigh the evil here?
Young ladies: Should you find yourself the recipient of a “come over to my place” late-night text from a director, immediately contact the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, ask “Is this proper?” and forward the text. But why am I telling you this? It’s not going to happen in real life. Scenarios like this only occur in the creakiest of old melodramas, or, to put it in a word, “Smash.”
Warning: playing the drink-every-time Shaiman-&-Wittman-use-a-cliché game may lead to blackouts.