Smash. If you haven’t heard about Smash, I’m going to have to accuse you of living under a rock. The new NBC show airs February following the Super Bowl but the marketing has been going nonstop for months now. At its basic premise, Smash is the story of the creation of a Broadway musical. I’ve been looking forward to the show for quite some time so when I discovered that the pilot was being aired for free on NBC.com and Hulu.com, I jumped at the chance to watch it. I knew going in that barring an utter disaster, I would at the very least like the show. It’s been compared to Glee (which it’s not-something I’ll get into later) so the worst I expected were some cheesy original songs.
I was blown away. Smash is, no pun intended, smashing. It’s well-written, clever, brilliantly casted and the musical numbers are perfection. Considering the musical for this season is “Marilyn”, and that Marilyn Monroe has seen a bit of a revival in the media lately, one wonders if it would be overkill or piggybacking a good thing. If the current Marilyn focus is the ice cream, Smash is all of the toppings needed for a perfect sundae. (I admit, that’s a weird analogy but it was the best I could come up with).
Let’s backtrack a little. Smash has been the brainchild of Steven Spielberg for several years now but it took David Greenblatt moving to the position of NBC president to get it moving. The idea behind Smash is not a long series about one musical. No, it’s far more ambitious. The idea is to spend a season on a musical and then actually put that musical on Broadway. It’s ambitious, daring and might just be one of the more brilliant ideas to come out of Hollywood in years. And that brings me back to the Glee comparisons. The show isn’t another Glee though the popularity of that show certainly has factored in getting Smash on screen. But what Glee has done is put classic Broadway numbers in front of a new generation and caused them to fall in love. That’s a good thing. And Spielberg seems to understand that if you can hook people on a few key numbers, you can get them to pay to see the entire show. In essence, it’s using a trailer to get people to pay for a movie.
So yes, you could ultimately see “Marilyn: The Musical” on Broadway. Now originally, it would’ve been a musical a season. Because Smash is now airing as a mid-season replacement, this first musical (Marilyn) will still be a focus in the second season while a second musical is slowly introduced and developed. Personally I think this will work a bit better as it forces more continuity within the show and insures fans will return the following season to see their favorites. It might be easy for fans to dismiss an upcoming season if everything is new but this overlap guarantees everyone is already invested. Again, it’s a very smart move.
The last comment I’ll make is on the writing staff. The show’s creator and head writers come from theater backgrounds not television and it works. Smash needs people who understand the theater world and how to write for it as well as all the behind the scenes nuances. I think the show would suffer without this insider knowledge and with it, it ends up soaring.
Getting into the show itself, I’ll refrain from recapping too much since I know there will be many of those once the episode is released. I also highly recommend you bookmark offcolortv.com as there will be a wonderful recap up there after the episode airs. I found the nuances of the characters to be well-developed but the true stunners are in the musical numbers. Early on, the idea of a Marilyn musical is presented and the various characters seem to take even more interest at the idea of a baseball number.
That baseball number is AMAZING. Words do not accurately describe “National Pastime”. It’s cheeky and sexy and full of double entendres and yet it never crosses into absurd territory. You have no idea how much I want to see it played out on stage.
There’s also minimal showing of the poor auditions. The implication is that those in charge know exactly who they want (or at least the ideal of who they want) and there’s no need for a montage of crappy auditions. This also adds to the realistic nature of the show. The real writers, producer & director of a musical wouldn’t waste their time on shitty actresses, that’s why there are agents to send their best candidates. And the one true “bad” audition does more to highlight that only Ivy (Megan Hilty) & Karen (Katherine McPhee) know who Marilyn truly was than to focus on a bad singer. Karen exemplifies the hope & innocence that are familiar qualities to true Marilyn fans while Ivy demonstrates the sex appeal. Though as you probably noticed, pigeonholing either of these characters doesn’t work.
The absolute brilliance in the casting of Megan Hilty is best shown in 2 scenes. First, during the performance of National Pastime. The number itself is easily the best “Marilyn” song in the pilot (though all the songs are spot on) and the entendres are woven in effortlessly. Trust me, baseball’s never seemed so sexy. The thing is, anyone who is familiar with Marilyn Monroe, either through her movies or her life story, knows that you never really notice anything else when she’s around. This is the first thing that Hilty nails. There are a lot of attractive men in the “National Pastime” sequence, something that I, as a straight woman, usually notice. I’ve watched that scene a good 6-7 times now and I can’t take my eyes off of Hilty as Marilyn. It’s not so much that she’s the perfect Marilyn (though she just might be) it’s that she embodies the ideal.
The second moment for Megan Hilty comes in a far different scene, in a quiet moment that truly fleshes out her character (Ivy) and allows the audience to relate to her. She’s talking to her mother about the potential part and learning about someone else who’s dreams faded and has to go to the fallback plan. You can practically hear the hope & desperation in Ivy’s voice as she seems to tell her inner self to keep dreaming and keep trying. Her dream isn’t something she’s interested in losing.
Karen meanwhile, is our (the viewer’s) peek into Broadway. The role was specifically created to be the outsider role. While Ivy is a Broadway vet, who understands the benefits of things like who you know, kissing the right ass, and being willing to help out for free; Karen is the not quite starry-eyed innocent. She’s self-aware about the difficulties but she’s still looking for her break. It’s our chance to see just how hard it is to get into this world, and how much these young men and women want to get there.
My favorite moment from Karen actually comes from one of the more awkward (but very well-written) scenes. The musical’s director told her to come over, rather vaguely, and Karen in her innocence (and haste) didn’t realize exactly what the director was asking for. (In case you share Karen’s innocence, it was sex). This is an aspect to a lot of upward career movement but the TV/Movie world often seems to act like if the girl says no, she can still get the part. While this SHOULD be the case, all too often it is not. Karen’s choice is to borrow a shirt and dress slightly seductively, sing Marilyn’s “Happy Birthday, Mr President” and then tell the guy it would never happen. It works. Like within the construct of the show, it works. It became clear that she wasn’t completely naive & was aware enough of the part she’s auditioning for to know that there’s a level of seductress that needed to be seen. So she proves that she can do it, while maintaining her integrity. It was a well-written and acted scene.
The best part about these two very different girls is that I can’t decide who I really want in the role. I know who I think gets it (we don’t find out in the pilot) but I am legitimately unsure who the best option is or who I want the most. On that I say bravo to Smash.
The rest of the cast is rounded out very nicely and I’ll have more to say about each in the future. But this first episode puts the two main girls front and center so I chose to focus on them. What I loved though, was that even as it’s about creating a new Broadway musical, each character is fleshed out. We manage to understand part of how each person fits within the Broadway world but also who they are as people. That’s a concept that often takes shows several episodes to figure out, emphasizing even more that there are theater writers on staff who know they have only a short time to make you care about these characters.
Overall, I absolutely recommend you watch this show. Even if you aren’t so musically inclined, I’d say at least give it a shot. You might just be as pleasantly surprised as I was.