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Will America buy “Smash”? – NBC – Pilot episode (review) January 18, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, TV.
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Your going to love it or your going to hate it, but there isn’t anyone that will be able to say that SMASH isn’t slick, well-produced, and professional when it comes to musical numbers. It’s no GLEE (thankfully); but will America buy into a show about creating a Broadway show?

In the pilot episode, (to air February 6th), Debra Messing and Christian Borle play musical theater writers/composers/lyricists of a new Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Those of us of a certain age will remember there actually WAS a Broadway flop musical in the 80’s called Marilyn: A Musical Fable (which Frank Rich called “incoherent to the point of being loony”). That flop is referenced here in passing by Messing’s husband, played by Brian d’Arcy James. He’s the biggest Broadway star in the show – here delegated to a thankless non-singing character.

WIthout having written a script, and with only a song to demo, they somehow get picked up by producer Anjelica Huston, who may or may not have enough money to produce the show. But she’s in it to get back at her in-process divorce from her husband, another Broadway producer. Within the first 15 minutes of the pilot, they suddenly have three songs and a draft of the script (um, yeah)….and by the midway point, they are auditioning director/choreographer Jack Davenport (yes, that Jack Davenport, who has yet to find a suitable role in any U.S. television show — someone please find this man a decent part!) – who is set up to be the antagonist opposite Borle’s writer/composer.

Bring on the auditions — Likable American Idol loser Katharine McPhee and “Wicked” veteran Megan Hilty step up to fill the bill as two actresses competing for the part of Marilyn. Throw in a subplot right out of Dynasty involving director Davenport, and you have the basic makings of SMASH.

The show is designed to follow the workshop development of the show in NYC over the course of the season, and in its climax this spring move to Boston for an out-of-town tryout.

Yes, the show is entertaining. The musical numbers are well-staged, and the use of fantasy sequences to suggest what rehearsal songs might look like “on stage” work well. There is a lot of dancing here, and it is professional and slick, the exact opposite of the haphazard GLEE sequences.

It’s also all overwrought and somehow wrong. Auditioners are not even given three bars of piano-accompanied audition when a full orchestra already sweeps in, as if to say “this is a really big budget show, kinda like Glee, but for adults, so listen and enjoy, and buy our soundtrack.”  I have never in my years of theater ever heard of a producer picking up a show based on one song, and no written script. While there is a casting couch at work on Broadway to be sure, it certainly doesn’t work the way its implied in this show either. Messing seems out of place, and Borle here is reduced to a sniping gay stereotype — so good in Legally Blonde and Angels in America on Broadway, here he’s wasted in a part that virtually falls apart before your eyes.

The show is filled with a virtual whose who of Broadway performers — so watch backgrounds carefully to spot your friends. Most are appearing as line-less studio assistants and errand-boys. A few get to dance and sing.

In short, it’s an entertaining pilot, that should keep theater folks arguing about realities vs exaggerations, while the rest of the country makes a decision as to whether a show about Broadway actors, producers, and creative teams will be interesting enough to viewers to keep this novelty going. I’m going to tune in again — albeit the next night since NBC has very unfortunately decided to put the show on opposite Castle and Hawaii-5-0. I suggest they move it pretty fast if they want to pick up a tv audience. I dunno about you, but most of my theater friends watch Castle at that time, and personally 5-0 has become a guilty pleasure. On Comcast, two shows at a time and that’s it — making no room even to DVR Smash…

A word of warning — if you download and view the pilot (free) on iTunes, please DO NOT watch the “coming season” trailer at the end of the pilot episode. If you watch it carefully, it gives away who will get the role, and how the show will develop. Don’t watch it – it’s already partially ruined it for me…if you want a nice insider snapshot of the show, read the Brian d’Arcy James interview on IMDB – he carefully describes what the development of a Broadway musical is really about, and very carefully avoids talking about the unrealistic elements depicted in Smash.

The show has already created a stir in the NYC Broadway community in forums such as All That Chat, where multithread topics discuss the lack of reality of the creation process depicted here, as well as the shear fact that only one of the auditioners for the Marilyn part is appropriate for the role and there is zero doubt who would get that part in reality. I repeat — DO NOT watch the coming season trailer which gives it away and will cause even more controversy when it is revealed a few episodes into the series.

Will America buy it? There are a lot of theater fans out there — if the show avoids the pitfalls of playing for personal drama instead of the inherent drama in the actual development of a show itself, it might stand a chance. But I bet with NBC’s track record this show will quickly veer off in the wrong direction.



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