Anything can happen in the theatre

Ding-Dong! The Smash is dead. And I could join the throng that reveled in writing about how awful it was, in practically every way. But what’s the point of adding one more voice to a choir of a thousand? You all know in your hearts that Smash was one of the worst series in the history of television. The writing was particularly poor, but also the acting and direction stunk so badly, flowers on my TV stand wilted. The problem was not, as many have maintained, that the show frequently depicted behind-the-scenes outrageousness that would never really happen behind-the-scenes of a musical aborning. It’s that it generally had human beings acting like no human being ever acted. True to our world of musicals? Of course not. True to the experience of being a person on this earth? Even further off.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy (I’m not one) accept not-quite-human behavior all the time. But those cyborgs, zombies, vampires, and extra-terrestrials tend to follow a consistent logic. Smash‘s Broadway babies acted less logically than most mutants. One appears pantless in a private late-night audition in a cushy bachelor pad, yet can’t bear her new flame punching his evil brother, and puts off responding to a marriage proposal with the immortal excuse, “I’m in tech.” The other, hopped up on pills, performs so unprofessionally she’d surely be thrown out of the union, yet quickly returns to deftly play a lead. Pills make you do crazy things, apparently, but at least they’re easy to quit.

With Smash teaching the viewer that drugs are eminently kickable, the calumnies it spreads about the making of musicals seem relatively benign. Makes one wonder if a new flock of musical-makers will think you can write new songs all night long and see them fully staged by next sundown. There were occasional dream sequences but we were supposed to take it as real when a tiny East 4th Street theatre suddenly could hoist Krysta Rodriguez into the air on silk straps. Pulled, pulled, pulled, indeed.

But among Smash‘s many problems was too little time spent in musical flights of fancy while too much time was spent on mundane issues like who’s sleeping with whom. In this, the colossal miscalculation compares unfavorably with the legendary flop musical TV show of years ago, Cop Rock. Cop Rock more wisely found the fun in how unexpected it always is when police break out into song. It embraced its own absurdity while Smash, tonally, was merely a procedural about people putting on a show that had songs in it.

I’ve griped before about the low quality of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and, back in Cop Rock‘s brief shining moment, I complained bitterly that the producers, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to let people who’d never written a musical before write the songs. Smash should have been better, given that it added true up-and-comers like Joe Iconis and Pasek & Paul. But nobody demonstrated a proficiency at writing an actual show tune, or a tune that could work on TV (a tube tune?). It’s easy for me to imagine a party where friends sit around a piano, improvising silly songs for bad musicals. Been there and done that countless times. The thing is, if you came up with intentionally bad improvised ditties about Marilyn Monroe they’d be indistinguishable from the show-within-the-show tunes Shaiman and Wittman came up with (with no shame and no wit). Now, before anyone leaps to their defense with the claim that it’s difficult to come up with an amusing original song every week on television, I’ve got an 85-year-old to throw back at you: Tom Lehrer.

Long before The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, there was That Was the Week That Was, a news satire variety show.  A mathematician, Tom Lehrer was hired for the-job-I’d-most-like-to-have-in-the-history-of-jobs: Every week, Lehrer had to come up with music and lyrics for a comedy song based on something in the news. And every week he made America laugh. The most famous example was The Vatican Rag, which I remember enjoying on radio’s Dr. Demento show: Its premise was that if the Catholic Church decided to promote itself using Madison Avenue techniques, it might come up with a peppy jingle that would begin

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison,
Doin' the Vatican Rag.

One of my early successes was a comedy song based on a news event, My Baby (inspired by Three Mile Island). A lot of people told me it was the sort of thing Lehrer used to write. A nice compliment, to be sure, but, unfortunately, comedy songs that are actually funny are so rare nowadays, anything that produces a chuckle gets compared to Lehrer’s hysterical numbers from the 1960s. It’s disappointing – puzzling, even – that Smash didn’t even attempt to be humorous. Its creators  clearly forgot that “musical” used to have a last name, “comedy” and, back when it did, a whole lot of people liked them. Instead, we got a soapy drama about the making of two mirthless musicals, and, according to Nielsen, nobody liked it.


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