Skipping over the fact our ratings system is beyond broken, NBC’s “Smash” has taken a nose-dive since its debut two and a half weeks ago. Perhaps if Nielsen homes were comprised solely of members of the Broadway community (and its most ardent supporters), those numbers would rise. Because “Smash,” a look at the making of a major musical, is a love letter to the Great White Way, packed with cameos and insider references surely thrilling to those in the know and just as surely passing over the heads of the rest of us.
“We were surprised at how small the community is compared to film and television, everybody knows everyone,” Neil Meron, an executive producer, said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “We wanted to bring that intimacy to ‘Smash.’ We want the Broadway community to see themselves in this show, literally and figuratively.” That, it turns out, is a problem, one of several to do with “Smash.” For a show so enamored with its subject and so set on being, well, a smash, it’s lacking a considerable amount of believable drama and genuine performances. The onslaught of promos for the series should have been a warning: at three episodes in, “Smash” is mostly all about style, not substance. It plays like one giant opening number for the Tony Awards and how Broadway peeps like to view themselves — Oh, it can be a tough business, but golly, it’s still a great one!
“Smash” has its moments, though, and the original songs for the fictional-for-now Marilyn Monroe musical by Tony and Grammy Award winning writers March Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray,” “Catch Me If You Can”) are quite catchy. I’ve already caught myself humming the melody to “Let Me Be Your Star”:
(Although I’m calling bulls**t on Karen (Katharine McPhee), a waitress, living by herself in that nice of an apartment. No. Way.) Updated: I was wrong — she shares this apartment with her boyfriend, who works for the mayor. I’ve updated the mention of the apartment below.)
Still, the show should work — I want it to work — but it needs help. Here are three suggestions on making it better.
1. Stop Hiring Your Friends
I can’t tell if it’s a lack of screen experience or a lack of good direction, but the “Smash” actors who are fairly new to TV roles need a crash course in the difference between musical theater and TV dramas. Musical theater is hard, but the skills required for it aren’t entirely the same as those needed for any kind of screen acting. Being an extra isn’t the same as being in an ensemble. You don’t have to exude an insane amount of energy, smiling so big that those in the back row of the theater can see you doing so. I’m seven feet from my TV screen — tone it down.
“Everybody in New York wants to be in “Smash,’ ” Bernie Telsey, theater casting agent, also told the L.A. Times. That’s great, Bernie. That doesn’t mean they should all get to. I’m glad the three actresses (Rebecca Naomi Jones, Jenni Barber and Jessica Lee Goldyn) who portrayed Karen’s hometown friends in Episode Three are accomplished on the stage, but their happy-go-lucky, all-smiles performances wouldn’t even cut it in a CW teen drama. Most of the cast is great: Debra Messing (Julia), Anjelica Huston (Eileen), Megan Hilty (Ivy), Will Chase (Michael), Jack Davenport (Derek), Brian d’Arcy James (Frank), Raza Jaffrey (Dev) — even McPhee is decent. But Christian Borle (Tom, at right), known for originating the role of Emmett in “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” isn’t as strong, which I think can be chalked up to his lack of screen experience, too. Not everyone is ready for primetime. Don’t just cast your friends from past shows; cast the best actors for the roles.
2. Think Like “The West Wing”
One of the main reasons that NBC drama worked so well was that it focused on its subject, the West Wing of the White House, from the inside out. We got to know the players first, seeing them primarily at work, and gradually were filled in on their personal lives once we were already invested in them as characters. So many shows these days, now including “Smash,” try to do the opposite, throwing too many storylines in the pot and hoping viewers wait around to see how the meal turns out. They don’t.
A chunk of the second episode of “Smash” was devoted to Julia and Frank wanting to adopt a baby. Who cares? We barely know these people, and we weren’t even given a reason why they want to adopt (they already have a teenage son) before we were submitted to a maudlin support group session for other prospective adoptive parents. All that while time could have been spent on the casting drama of Ivy versus Karen. Then we got to waste time on Karen’s boyfriend, Dev, and the hissy-fit he threw when her rehearsal ran late and she couldn’t be his date at a dinner meeting. It’s almost like dating someone with a time-consuming profession is complicated or something. No wonder viewers began to tune out quickly, writers; you promised them Broadway and gave them a Lifetime movie. Stick to what’s important — the business of show business.
3. Toughen Up
It’s too late to change Karen’s cliche backstory — Midwestern good girl heads to New York to pursue Big Dreams — but it’s not too late to give her a few harder knocks to deal with. She’s miraculously living in a nice apartment, receiving assistance from her nice parents and offers of assistance from her nice boyfriend. How nice. How about she moves out of the apartment, claiming independence, and lands in a tiny studio with three roommates and plenty of roaches? That’s better already. How about we never visit the idyllic Iowa y’all fantasized in Episode Three, where the only thing missing was Karen actually gnawing on an ear of corn in between choruses of “Redneck Woman” at karaoke? I’ve never seen a struggling artist with such a complete lack of struggles. New York City isn’t an easy place to live; show us that.
As for the business side, I like what Jason Zinoman suggested over at Slate:
“Imagine how riveting ‘Smash’ would be if it gave us a character based on the man who is probably the most successful producer working today. Just in the past four months, Scott Rudin, whose latest triumph is the Tony-winning blockbuster ‘The Book of Mormon,’ picked a public fight with a New Yorker film critic and a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright. Rudin is also famous for throwing phones at assistants. If only a quarter of the off-the-record dish about Rudin is true, he’s a Machiavellian chess player whose handling of talent, promotion, scripts, and the press would provide enough fodder for countless plot twists. Add in the fact that his work is of a consistently high quality, and you have what could be an outsized character of Tony Soprano-level complexity, albeit one more feared.”
Or is that too real, Broadway?
4. Kill off Ellis
This is just out of spite. The character is terrible, and the actor, Jaime Cepero, doesn’t appear to be much better.
Rickie Vasquez from “My So-Called Life” Ellis came to us as the good-natured but still annoying and unqualified assistant to Tom. Then, he took a hard left in Episode Three, stealing Julia’s “Marilyn” notebook, telling her off and gathering dirt on her for potential blackmail purposes. What the what? I said you should feel free to show the underbelly of the theater world, writers, but that doesn’t mean you can eschew proper character development.
Why does this character even exist? Let his naiveté — and, say, a gun-toting mugger or a freak subway accident — get the best of him and kill him off. (You’ve already encouraged way too many starry-eyed pop singers to think they can make it in musicals; you’ve got to stop their overflow into New York by making them believe they can very easily be killed there.) Then you can cast a real bad guy.
5. Stop Putting Previous Scenes In The Final Music Montage
What in the world? I’m all for musical montages, but stick to showing new material when you cut away from the performances. Recapping past scenes is bizarre and insulting, as if we need to see that sequence of Julia interacting with her family in a previous episode to remember she has one. The use of imagined sequences — showing us how the numbers will appear on stage with everyone in costume — is great. Just ditch the reruns.
That about covers it. Work with me on this, “Smash.” You could be a star, I promise you. Just give me all you’ve got.
P.S. Use Anjelica Huston As Much As Possible
She’s divine. The more drinks she throws in her husband’s face, the better.
Sarah Carlson isn’t ashamed to admit she wishes MTV would release its filmed version of the original Broadway production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” starring Borle. It’s cute.