THE "SMASH" REPORT: Season Two, Episode 8, Or, Tomfoolery
By Kenneth Jones
Playbill's weekly recap, with notes and comment, of the latest episode of the NBC musical drama series "Smash," about the dreamers behind Broadway musicals. Here's a look at the March 26 episode, "The Bells & Whistles."
Bombshell, the new musical about Marilyn Monroe, has a certain negative stink on it from events that happened during its development in Season One (and the first parts of Season Two) of NBC's "Smash." Events such as: A Hollywood star being poisoned by a spiked smoothie and later claiming that the director sexually harassed her; the librettist sleeping with the show's leading man, breaking up her marriage; the producing reins shifting in some cryptic personal-legal negotiation involving husband-and-wife producers, their daughter, lawyers, a district attorney and others too obscure to name; the young starlet quitting the lead role of Marilyn in favor of a grungy downtown rock musical called Hit List; the Tony-winning director quitting the show for the same grungy downtown rock musical; the composer taking over as director. You know, just like what happens with most Broadway shows. (These are probably roughly the same events that happened with Ankles Aweigh back in 1955.)
The dirty backstage doings have been reported by needling gossip reporter Michael Riedel over at the New York Post, branding the show a poisoned one. So what Bombshell needs now is the perfume of legitimacy, says producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston), and there is only one atomizer that will spritz it properly: The New York Times. This episode introduces Agnes, a theatrical press agent, embodied by Rent Tony Award nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega (that show's original Mimi), who is dressed expensively and barks into a wireless Bluetooth attached to her ear. Looking at a publicity shot of the show's new Marilyn, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), Eileen observes, "Ivy looks amazing here, doesn't she? She's got her mother's face." Agnes adds: "And her rack!" (The attempts at humor on "Smash" usually make the characters look tasteless or shallow, but you can't help but be impressed by Eileen's good taste in websites. In this scene, Eileen is logged onto Playbill.com's front page. We love you, Eileen Rand!) By the way, as you know, Ivy's mother is Leigh Conroy, the retired Tony-winning star played last season by a guesting Bernadette Peters.
The Times has passed on a Bombshell feature, Agnes says. But there's a good story here, no? Eileen is old pals with the Arts and Leisure Editor, Richard Francis, played by Jamey Sheridan. Eileen bursts into his office in a scene that wouldn't happen in real life at the Times fortress at 41st Street and Eighth Avenue. Security would have retained her at the door. Richard says Bombshell is not material for the Times, unless there's a fresh angle. It gives Eileen an idea that surfaces later in the episode: Why not get Leigh Conroy to come out of retirement to play the pivotal role of Marilyn's mother? (And let's not inform our lead, Ivy, whose past with mom is full of tension! What?) Peters is set to show up in next week's episode, and if you have the rather smashing soundtrack album to "Smash," called "Bombshell: The New Marilyn Musical From 'Smash,'" you know that the recording — featuring the songs of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — offers a serious spoiler.
Composer Tom (Christian Borle) is directing Bombshell with a soft mitten, trying to be everyone's friend — and making the rehearsal room happier with coffee and croissants from downtown's Balthazar. (By the way, Balthazar's scones are awesome, too; the only place we can find them in the theatre district is Oren's Daily Roast on Broadway between 40th and 41st Street.) The "Smash" writers and producers have stranded Tom with very little weight or credibility here. It's hard to believe he's been in professional show business for any amount of time. He's such a novice about what a director's position means that he even encourages everyone in the company to give him notes and ideas about the show, inviting them to a cast party at the place he shares with librettist Julia (Debra Messing). He bills it as "an intellectual salon," but without a hint of irony. He might as well be wearing a t-shirt that says, "Walk all over me." Julia schools Tom on the job of director: "You have to be a parent; set strong boundaries."
The always refreshing Leslie Odom, Jr. returns to the series in this episode, as Tom's ex-boyfriend, Sam, Ivy's bestie — a Bombshell ensemble member who ended up snagging a principal role in the super-hot national tour of The Book of Mormon. (He's got a week off, so he's visiting New York.) When Sam took the job, Tom decided their relationship was over. Sam, we learn, is not happy on the road (mostly because "Smash" is committed to the idea that any artistic expression outside of New York is a humiliating waste of time — see last week's "Smash" Report about Manhattan Theatre Workshop artistic director Scott Nichols [Rent's Jesse L. Martin] complaining about regional theatre as a kind of purgatory).
Tom decides as director that he's going to create a specialty principal role for Sam — Nat King Cole, no less. Sam quits his job in The Book of Mormon! Sam and Tom sleep together naked! And then Tom, with some advice from frenemy director Derek (Jack Davenport), realizes he cannot cast Sam in the show! Nat King Cole meeting Marilyn and JFK is not right for the show. Tom cannot be a pal to all. He has to set those boundaries. Sorry, Sam.
Meanwhile Julia wants to set things right with MTW's Scott Nichols, an old friend that she had betrayed years ago. Fresh out of grad school, she promised Scott that he could direct her first play, at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. (Now in its 30th year, Vineyard is one of the great Off-Broadway incubators of new American plays and musicals, including plays by Nicky Silver and Paula Vogel, plus Avenue Q and The Scottsboro Boys). But back then, Lincoln Center Theater also wanted Julia's play, offering her powerful Mike Nichols as director! Julia had two Nichols to rub together, and she chose the Oscar and Tony winner, which launched her career and potentially robbed Scott of a career-changing opportunity; he didn't work for a year, he says, and look where he ended up before his current job at MTW — regional theatre! She apologizes. He says he was sorry to hear about her broken marriage.
This business of having some power and some choices in your career — and being perceived as being able to employ your friends — is the most authentic aspect of this week's episode. Theatre is a world of hungry freelancers. Directors, playwrights and music-directors often struggle with the tension of friends circling their projects, and sometimes that tension prompts those leaders to pull away from their old community. Those not in power do indeed often have irrational expectations from those in power, just as there is sometimes irrational paranoia from directors who constantly think that everybody wants them. It tears some friendships apart. Or worse, it remains an itchy scab that is picked throughout the course of a professional/personal lifetime. (At a series of dinner parties, you look at your pal across a crowded room and think: "Why didn't he let me sing in that reading?" or "Why didn't he cast me as Dinky in Ankles Aweigh?" or "How come I wasn't asked to sing on that demo?")
Some grown-ups end up processing it with grace and viewing their friend's (perceived) power as a fact of life that might one day swing in favor of a happy solution — maybe that friend will cast you when the time is right. Or maybe you should just concentrate on being excellent and finding work in the great, wide theatre community. There is apparently a gap in the national-touring cast of The Book of Mormon.
MEANWHILE, DOWNTOWN: Hit List composer Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) has a temper and an ego that does not match his experience. On the first day of rehearsal at MTW, he argues about a scene with Derek, the Tony winner who is slumming on this show because a.) the songs are apparently brilliant; and b.) he's in love with leading lady Karen (Katharine McPhee). The tension here is not only artistic: Derek previously told Jimmy that Karen is off-limits, essentially claiming her as his territory. (And Jimmy is not thrilled that Lea Michele and other stars are being considered for the show's vivacious role of The Diva in Hit List.) This triangle would be more interesting if you believed for a second that Derek would be pushed around, creatively, by a non-Equity actor/newbie musical-theatre songwriter. And once again, the meek Hit List librettist, Kyle (Andy Mientus), is silent on the sidelines. Shouldn't the book writer weigh in? Derek then asks Karen's advice (inexplicably), and she agrees with others in the room that Derek's vision of using multimedia (LED screens — all those bells and whistles) in the show upstages the humanity of Hit List. So, he reconceives a scene to feature dancers as literal obstacles in the murky plot of Hit List — Jimmy, stage right, has to fight his way through twisting bodies to get to stage left, where Karen's character dwells. He plays Jesse in Brooklyn. She plays Amanda in L.A. But Amanda is going by the name Nina. (It's still a work in progress, folks.) Joshua Bergasse, the series' Emmy-winning choreographer, staged the number, perhaps as a parody of teeming-humanity sequences in rock musicals of yore — think Jesus Christ Superstar. A catchy pop song by singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon, of the group Jack's Mannequin, is used in the sequence. It's called "I Heard Your Voice in a Dream." Like last week's song by Pasek and Paul, you might want to get it on iTunes. (P.S. Karen and Jimmy have sex on her dining room table at the end of the episode.)
AUDITION: Karen's actress pal, Ana (Krysta Rodriguez), urges Karen to go out on a limb and tell Jimmy that she likes him. Ana goes out on a limb herself and vivaciously sings Beyonce's hit, "If I Were a Boy," on top of a bar in front of the cast and crew of Hit List. She wants the role of The Diva in Hit List, and Derek is duly impressed. She's hired! Who needs Broadway and TV star Lea Michele? (We prefer these singing-in-bar numbers to any of the fantasy sequences in the series. Bring 'em on!) P.S. Kyle is seen making out at the bar with MTW techie Blake, played by Daniel Abeles. The librettist does have some passion, after all.
NAT AND SAMMY AND LESLIE: Shaiman and Wittman, channeling the sanitized Cold War pop of Sammy Cahn, are represented by the number called "(Let's Start) Tomorrow Tonight," which is also heard on that terrific "Smash" soundtrack. It occurs to us that it's possible that if Shaiman and Wittman's Bombshell score had been released as a concept album a decade ago, it would be on Broadway by now. The song is a trunk song by Tom and Julia for a stalled show about Las Vegas in the 1960s. At Tom's cast party, Ivy implores, "Everyone wants to sing!," and Tom plays the number (which boyfriend Sam previously knew). Sam sings and dances around the apartment — part Nat King Cole, part Sammy Davis, Jr., with Wesley Taylor as chorus boy Bobby and Savannah Wise as chorus girl Jessica providing backup. It's just the sort of heightened showbiz whimsy — see the "I Love Louisa" sequence from M-G-M's "The Band Wagon" — that you want from "Smash." This kind of thing reportedly did happen at the cocktail parties of Jule Styne, where you imagine that the words "Stop talking — just sing!" were spoken over the clink of ice. More, please.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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