When I first read the description for NBC’s new show, Smash, I rolled my eyes and snorted derisively. “Another television series based on making musicals?” I thought.
I was right about the overabundance of clichés, that’s for sure. Every character seems to be shipped straight from central casting; you’ve got your stereotypical gay musical writer, your Type A diva extraordinaire, and even your bitter, smoldering director from across the pond.
But I must admit: after watching the first episode, I felt a connection with these characters, these cookie-cutter stock roles I never expected to sympathize, let alone fall in love with. This eclectic group of producers, choreographers, politicians, singers, parents, and dancers come together to commemorate Marilyn Monroe in a new musical. Their goal? Take Broadway by storm.
Despite the worn out premise, the directors of Smash take advantage of the most aesthetically pleasing parts of New York. The glitz and glamour of Times Square gives each character the excuse to dress and look like celebrities. Yet they exhibit superhero-like work ethics with stunning results. The rehearsal scenes are peppered with visions of the final product, mimicking how perfectly toxic putting on a show can be. The archenemies and frenemies can’t deny the magic that happens when they’re performing, so they return again and again to the studio, creating even more opportunities for conflict. The romantic interests are forbidden and shady, while the friendships are genuine and affectionate. I found myself concerned about and intrigued by the fate of the musical and its cast. Could Marilyn captivate America again?
This show also seems to be in response to the High School Musical crowd growing up, moving out, and making their way in the world. Despite the characters’ perturbing tendency to randomly burst into song and dance (something I will never get used to, no matter how many of these shows they make), they deal with the hot-button issues a la Modern Family with the same quick banter of How I Met Your Mother.
It’s Glee for the grown-ups — drama, ambition, and Broadway. As the Mecca for the now-college-age Disney teen boppers, New York is back on top. It seems network television has gone full circle, after New York City became cliché thanks to Friends, Law and Order, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Will and Grace, and even Sesame Street dragging on season after season. So they outsourced their settings to Scranton, PA for shows like The Office and Lima, OH for Glee. After this brief respite, America is coming back to the big apple, with shows like White Collar, Mad Men, and Suits.
Likewise, Smash’s protagonist Karen Cartwright comes from Iowa, a Golden Sprout Dance Champion in the Iowa State Fair, with dreams as big as the Midwest sky. Played by former American Idol contestant Katherine McPhee, Karen is a part-time actress, part-time waitress auditioning all around New York City to prove to her parents she can indeed “make it.” Her resume is “light,” her dance moves are less than informed, but her star quality outshines that of Ivy Lynn, played by Megan Hilty. Despite her experience, Ivy is more willing to sell out and lose herself in the role of Marilyn.
This is because she has nothing to lose. Ivy worships Marilyn, but she is too eager to shed her own identity—an unattractive quality not suited to Marilyn Monroe. She harbors self-consciousness and self-doubt. Karen, on the other hand, is able to maintain her small-town innocence and ambition while singing Marilyn. This bright-eyed naiveté is what reminds the deliciously devilish director, Derek Wills, played by Jack Davenport, of Marilyn the most. And thanks to Derek, Karen might have a shot at Marilyn, or so he teases. His mind games are borderline abusive, but with that sexy accent, I’m able to find the capacity to forgive him.
The parallels between Marilyn and Karen are obvious, but the age-old method of performing a show within a show allows for characters to express themselves outside the realm of acceptable behavior. Taking on alternate personalities sheds light on who the characters truly are, or who they want to be.
The best example of this is Julia Houston, played by Debra Messing. Julia is the musical’s co-writer, as well as a mother and wife, who originally fell in love with the idea of “Marilyn the Musical.” While Debra takes on the “Marilyn” brainchild, she also tries to adopt a baby from China, despite her unwilling husband. Debra juggles work and home like every other American mom, but does it with her classic red bun only slightly mussed. She’s trying to adopt a baby while writing a new hit musical – it’s the American dream. And when an old flame, Michael Chase, played by Will Chase, appears to play Mr. DiMaggio, the heart-throbbing duets make Debra question whether that affair was something to remember or something to relive.
The friendship between Julia and the musical’s other co-writer, Tom Levitt, played by Christian Borle, is every girl’s fantasy. He retains his male perspective while remaining so wonderfully articulate in fashion and relationship advice. Just hearing him speak makes me want to go shopping.
Bringing Marilyn to Broadway perfects the romantic idea of honoring, commemorating, and loving a celebrity dead and gone. I appreciate how they bring in references to modern musicals and accept the reality of social media. I wish, however, they used more technical theater lingo; the dumbed down terms, such as the egregious “belt,” insults the audience’s intelligence. Additionally, Karen doesn’t really have a big belt or Christina Aguilera’s stunning soprano voice.
Will her personality actually be enough to compensate? It seems to be more of a factor in television. I’m curious to hear what Broadway actors and directors actually think about this show. Is it realistic? Does it portray what working in New York is really like? Do Broadway stars actually walk around Times Square on a daily basis?
The driving factor for Smash is the hunger. Everyone tastes it —“Marilyn” has potential. The hallucinatory premonitions waver back and forth between the Marilyn that Ivy plays, one in tune with the sexuality and insecurity of Marilyn, and the one Karen embodies, with passion and youth. The problem is both ideas of Marilyn are valid. And each character will fight to the death for their vision of Marilyn, making this series the drama worth watching.
Meghan Thomassen is a Boston native studying English, Philosophy and Literature at the University of Notre Dame. She aspires to work in publishing, or travel the world, or do both. Her favorite authors include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Plato, and Oscar Wilde. She can be reached at email@example.com or you can follow her on Twitter @thomassentropes.