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What I learned from Smash (if I didn’t know anything about theater) May 27, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, TV.
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If I didn’t know anything about theater, Broadway, or musical theater, here is what I would have taken away from the now-cancelled series SMASH which ended its run last night on NBC:

The girl that doesn’t act, look, sing, or dance like Marilyn will get cast as Marilyn because she was on American Idol.

Everyone lives in the theater district in NYC: nobody drives a car, let alone goes home to New Jersey at the end of the night. All cast members walk to work, they don’t take the subway, busses, taxis, or bikes. Nobody has to take the train home to Flushing, Westchester, or anywhere else for that matter. A few of the cast might live as far away as Dumbo in Brooklyn. They walk there.

The director makes all hiring and firing decisions, and he can decide what you will do on the Tonys without notifying anyone, in fact, he can make any changes he wants even seconds before the performance on live TV.

You can fully cast a multi-million dollar musical before you even have a script and score ready to go (although I guess Motown the Musical might have proven this to be true).

The director sleeps with every woman he wants to cast. Its just the way it goes. In fact the director sleeps with women.

Out of town theaters can become available for a pre-Broadway tryout with one phone call. They can have a full house at the first preview just three days later, including newspaper coverage.

You can move a mediocre off-Broadway show to Broadway, because theaters are instantly available, and you can do so overnight.

When a new director takes over a show, mostly he is in charge of how to make scene changes happen during intermission, and the union crew is available at his beck and call.

The new girl gets the role, even when not right for it, because she has “that certain something”.

A big finish will help them forget what came before — especially when its set to practically the same tune as the finale for Catch Me If You Can.

A major broadway director will drop everything and go to the aide of an unwritten mediocre-at-best Off-Broadway musical because he “believes” in his girlfriend’s judgement.

The Outer Critic awards take place in a small dining room with about 25 guests. Oh, and while we’re at it: you can pick up a dead person’s tickets and use them for your friends at the Tony’s.

Shows and major decisions made about them are influenced entirely by whom is sleeping with whom, because everyone cares about that.

You can add a new number to the show between matinee and evening, and have a complete new set and costumes ready to go for that performance.

Nobody uses body mics, there is no backstage crew, and there is no tech rehearsal necessary to make it just happen. Probably because the new director took care of all of that himself.

If you cast the right people in the leads, everything else will happen by itself. (That is only true in community theater).

If you need a really really really really really big movie star to play your lead on Broadway, bring in Sean Hayes.

You can just fire the best performer in your show (Will Chase) because the book-writer slept with him and the book-writer thinks its a bad idea for him to stick around. The book-writer can bypass union rules to do so, because the book-writer is the most important person in your artistic staff.

Speaking of book and score writing: apparently the shows write themselves because the writers are too busy sleeping around and drinking wine at the local bar. The latter is pre-requisite to take over the role of director for a major multi-million dollar musical.

There are no musical directors on Broadway. Music rehearsals don’t take place, just performance quality scenes, and the Musical Director apparently only conducts the orchestra.

And the coolest thing I learned from Smash….when you win the Tony for Best Musical, you can bring your just-out-of-jail boyfriend on stage with you to accept the award.

SMASH is back, and its as infuriating as ever… February 8, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, TV.
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Reviewed after screening the first three hours of the new season (NBC has telecast to the first two hours this week).

Well, Smash is back on NBC, and your like (or dislike) of the show will directly relate to a) your ability to tolerate Katharine McPhee, b) your enjoyment of musical theater as a whole, and c) your like/dislike of soap opera.

Here’s the good news — they’ve toned down the ridiculous interpersonal stories for Messing and her husband (even if it does mean we don’t get to see the excellent Brian D’Arcy James anymore this season) and sent their whining son off to boarding school. They’ve also gotten rid of the horrendous scheming plotline for Ellis (goodbye) and enigma Dev (goodbye).

The many Broadway actors that appear in the show, in cameos, in songs, in backgrounds continues to astound — witness Brynn O’Malley’s excellent little scene firing Jack Davenport. Fun, fierce, and Facebook-worthy.

They’ve also brought on the excellent Jennifer Hudson and Jeremy Jordan, and UM’s Andy Mientus to round out a new storyline. In the first three hours, the show absolutely comes to life when Hudson or Jordan sing — and crashes when the old McPhee/Hilty story comes into view.

And the show actually follows the development of a musical more this season, rather than the soap-opera-like antics of supporting characters. How will the money for the production be raised. How will media rumors hinder the development of “Bombshell”, the Marilyn musical (note to producers: Marilyn Monroe is not interesting, and the musical version already bombed on Broadway), and how will distractions of lawsuits and sexual harassment play into the development of the show.

Pasek and Paul (another feel-good UM success story!) provide some new songs that are a notch above the “everything in Bombshell sounds like it was cut from Hairspray” music of last season.

But that is where the good news ends. The show still depends on time-worn cliches more relevant to soap opera than to musical theater, and a lack of reality that is astonishing…that any single producer or artistic staff of any show anywhere would cast the lackluster McPhee in a lead role over the superb Megan Hilty is just television storytelling of the worst kind. The entire storyline rings false from top to bottom. And when you bring in a rising star like Jordan, why saddle it all down with a ridiculous badboy drug-addict subplot…and throw superstar Hudson into another mother (Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee ralph)/daughter conflict subplot. BLECH.

The musical numbers continue to be the shows highpoint — and they are better integrated into the plotline this season; but the ongoing use of near-public-domain pop songs rather than theater songs is disappointing and panders to the American Idol and Glee set.

I say put Bernadette Peters and Sheryl Lee Ralph into a room and let them duke it out.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to see my Broadway folks at work…but I am not a fan of Smash, even though I watch it just to see what jawdropping disaster befalls the cast each week — like watching a train wreck, and enjoying it for what it is. Still, the show is a notch above most primetime soap-opera fare. But that is where it stands. Its not a comedy. Its not a drama. Its a bizarre mix of soap opera and musical theater. And that’s the view from here.

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.