THE "SMASH" REPORT: Episode 12, Or, That Screwy Ballyhooey Bollywood
By Kenneth Jones
Playbill's weekly recap, with notes and comment, of the latest episode of the NBC musical drama series "Smash," about the creation of a new Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. Here's a look at the April 23 episode, "Publicity."
We learn in Episode 12 of "Smash" that the cast, crew and creatives of the new musical Bombshell have not been sweating it out in rehearsals all these weeks in a vacuum. It turns out, an eight-week pre-Broadway tryout in Boston has been secured. The clock is ticking and the tension is mounting.
Movie star Rebecca Duvall (guest star Uma Thurman) gets tipped off by Ellis (Jaime Cepero) that Karen (Katharine McPhee), her understudy, is a threat. So, Rebecca invites Karen into her frenetic off-stage life. They dine out. They party. The paparazzi follow them. They are called "gal pals" in the press. All the way out in Iowa, Karen's parents are wondering if their daughter is a lesbian. (Hey, they have cable and "Access Hollywood" in Ottumwa, right?)
Karen's boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) is not thrilled with the budding friendship, and he tells Karen so as she tipsily rolls around on a bed covered with swag rejects — designer clothes — that Rebecca has passed down to her. Yes, stars get free stuff all the time. You should see what Tony Award presenters take home following visits to backstage "gift suites" on Tony night. Dev is starting to question Karen's values, naturally. One night, Rebecca takes Karen to a club and urges her to sing with the band (Rebecca is sizing up the competition). Karen sings Snow Patrol's "Run," once again excelling in the pop-concert setting. Rebecca has learned what she needed: That Cartright girl is a vocal threat! Karen, who once played Maria in The Sound of Music in the heartland, continues to astound for her ability to have any contemporary pop song at the ready. She has committed the hits of "Snow Patrol" to memory, but does she know "Mister Snow" by heart? If you're a budding musical theatre ingénue reading this report in Iowa, and you don't know the difference between Snow Patrol and "Mister Snow," you have no business wanting a life in musical theatre. You need to learn about Carousel.
Ellis, we're happy to report, has been relegated to making smoothies for kooky Rebecca. In an act that is dramatically fuzzy in the "Smash" storytelling tradition, Ellis and Ivy (Megan Hilty) collaborate to send an anonymous text to Karen, telling her she's not needed in rehearsal. This allows Ivy to step in to sing the moving and moody Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman song meant for one of Marilyn Monroe's "shadow selves" in the show: "Second Hand White Baby Grand."
Shaiman shared on his Facebook page that the reference is drawn from Marilyn's life. A Christie's description from a Lot in a 1999 auction of "The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe" reads this way: "The white lacquered piano is early-20th century, unknown American manufacturer. …The piano originally belonged to Marilyn Monroe's mother, Gladys. After the star's mother was institutionalized, the piano was sold and it would take years of searching for Marilyn to finally locate the piano and buy it back. Her sentimental attachment to this instrument is well-documented in the 1974 book, published posthumously, 'My Story' by Marilyn Monroe, in Chapter One entitled 'How I Rescued A White Piano.'"
Ruminative, poetic, sentimental, elliptical and sad, the number by composer-lyricist Shaiman and lyricist Wittman is one of the most ambitious original songs in the series. We hear it in rehearsal (sung by Ivy), and it bleeds over a montage of domestic activity featuring "Smash" characters. It doesn't completely land as related to the story threads of Bombshell's musical-makers, but it adds musical variety and emotional depth to the musical drama being penned by Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing). You take these writers more seriously. In theatre terms, "Baby Grand" is as ambitious as "Back to Before" from Ragtime, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" from that same-named show, "I Know Where I've Been" from Hairspray or "So Anyway" from Next to Normal. It's so good, in fact, that greedy Rebecca says that Marilyn — rather than one of her shadows — should sing it.
Here's a video clip of the sequence. Shaiman and Wittman generously shared the lyric to "Second Hand White Baby Grand" with us.
MY MOTHER BOUGHT IT SECOND HAND
AND WITH EACH NOTE WE BOTH WOULD SMILE
SOMETHING SECOND HAND AND BROKEN
OH, THE WORDS WERE LEFT UNSPOKEN
THROUGH MISSING KEYS AND BROKEN STRINGS
THE BABY GRAND WAS SENT AWAY
(THAT) SOMETHING SECOND HAND AND BROKEN
OH, THE WORDS ARE STILL UNSPOKEN
FOR MANY YEARS THE MUSIC HAD TO ROAM
I WISH MY MOTHER STILL COULD HEAR
SOMETHING SECOND HAND AND BROKEN
OH, THE WORDS CAN'T STAY UNSPOKEN
Some highlights of (and comments about) Episode 12:
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: The other original Shaiman-Wittman song of Episode 12 is "A Thousand and One Nights" — the writers' first number outside the context of the show-within-a-show, Bombshell. During a tension-filled Indian-restaurant dinner with Rebecca and boyfriend Dev, Karen is mesmerized by a Bollywood musical film being shown on television inside the eatery. She imagines participating in an elaborate Bollywood-style number led by Dev (remember, Jaffrey was the star of the London stage musical Bombay Dreams) and featuring the entire principal cast of "Smash" (!) in wordless vignettes. If it is dazzlingly shot, conceived and realized, it's also kind of baffling and seriously lacking in point of view. Those vignettes within the number illustrate character dynamics and plot points that Karen could not possibly know. For example, Tom is rubbing a magic lamp, making a wish as his two potential love interests (Leslie Odom, Jr. as chorus dancer Sam and what looks like Neal Bledsoe as lawyer John) look on, while Karen and dancing Persian/Indian girls sing, "The man who never chooses finds himself without a choice…" (Cast member Ann Harada, who plays stage manager Linda, informed us shortly after this report went live that the man on the left is actually chorus dancer Phillip Spaeth as Dennis; remember how he expressed his interest in Tom early in the season?)
Listen, if you love random, whimsical "Glee"-style musical larks, Shaiman and Wittman's "A Thousand and One Nights" — the lyrics of which are not easy to discern (wouldn't subtitles have been a hoot?) — is your Nirvana. This number is either an experimental aberration or the shape of things to come, depending on the taste of the new showrunner of "Smash," Josh Safran, whose hiring was reported on April 25. Shaiman and Wittman's gifts are not in question — the series creators' ability to edit may be.
And, by the way, the only person with intimate knowledge of everyone's secrets is production spy Ellis. Shouldn't this number belong to him? Shouldn't he have surreptitiously followed Karen, Dev and Rebecca to the restaurant, hidden behind an arras, ordered chicken tikka masala, gotten an allergic reaction to cumin and had this psychotic musical break in which he questions the status of these showfolk?
The episode is directed by consulting producer Michael Mayer, who helps conceive the series' numbers, and choreographed by the tireless Joshua Bergasse. Like Mayer's potent Broadway musicals Spring Awakening and American Idiot, "A Thousand and One Nights" is certainly, visually, unforgettable.
HOMEFRONT: The storyline focusing on trouble at home for librettist-lyricist Julia has been knocked by critics, but it's almost a relief this week compared to the assault of a Bollywood pastiche. At least we are back to people and story. Julia's teen son, Leo (Emory Cohen), has run away for two days, bringing Julia and her estranged husband, Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) back together. By episode's end, they appear to be reunited, despite the fact that Julia's affair with an actor was an earthquake in their lives. That philandering actor, Michael Swift, who had the role of Joe DiMaggio in Bombshell, has been replaced, we surmise. At the top of this episode, an actor named Ted is singing a snippet of DiMaggio's big breakup number from Bombshell. That actor playing Ted? He's the talented Broadway song and dance man Tony Yazbeck, currently starring as Billy Flynn in Chicago. He's also a veteran of White Christmas, two Broadway productions of Gypsy (1989 and 2008), the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line and the Encores! concert revival of On the Town (which also starred Christian Borle). Learn more about Yazbeck in the Playbill Vault.
TEARS FALL: Eileen (Anjelica Huston), who is never afraid to cry, wipes away tears while listening to the "Baby Grand" number. Borle continues to play Tom as a sensitive soul who is often on the verge of tears. When he learns that Leo is safe, he relievedly and tearfully falls into the arms of Sam. As you read this, Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Sam, is busy opening in the new Broadway musical Leap of Faith, in which he plays a seminarian who questions the flim-flammery of a con-man preacher. It's hard to be both sincere and electric, but the sensational Odom is just that in the new show, and proves that he's a triple threat — dancer, actor and singer. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon, which grows extraordinary talent, he does his alma mater proud. Read his bio in the Leap of Faith Playbill. Someone needs to write a Broadway show for him. But isn't that true of most of the cast members of "Smash"?
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
View Playbill Video's earlier visit with cast and creatives of "Smash."
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