Once the Giants won this year's Super Bowl, it was time for another New York story to unfold on TV screens: Theresa Rebeck's Smash, a behind-the-scenes look at Broadway that includes Steven Spielberg on its laundry list of executive producers. Ratings for the overhyped series were anemic to begin with, and five episodes have only continued to decline. I'm all for the increased exposure of theater, as it can only help the industry and the players within it, but Smash has hit too many wrong notes. What went wrong?
Caption: Katherine McPhee in NBC's Smash.
It isn't Glee. Rebeck, Spielberg, and whatever other creative powers at be who convinced NBC that the success of the FOX show had pulled the rip-chord on a mainstream musical television audience throughout the country missed the point. The songs on Glee are almost entirely covers of pop songs past and present. They're evergreens, songs with a built-in audience, chosen the way a wedding band picks which songs to perform and which ones to avoid like the plague. Some may be dramatically arranged or choreographed, but audiences applaud them because of their familiarity.
Smash does shoehorn in occasional covers as well, but composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, have endeavored to write original show tunes for the show's Marilyn Monroe-themed show-within-a-show (which, in a wily act of commercial desperation, Spielberg, et al, hope can become a real Broadway musical). Some ("Let Me Be Your Star," "Let's Be Bad") are better than others ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith"), but few tap into the contemporary sensibilities that send Katy Perry and Flo Rida up the charts. Are they more qualified than those guys to do so? Yes. Should show tunes dominate airplay and downloads? Yes. There was a time when singles like "And I am Telling You," "I Am What I Am," and "Memory" were top-selling, Grammy-winning pop hits. But that day ended before most Glee fans and cast members alike were even born.
Moreover, while Glee features a bunch of theatrical teenagers, the focus is on their relationships. Creator Ryan Murphy's skill in engineering the show is that the music is a conduit to the characters' stories, which ? inane and inconsistent as they can often be ? are ultimately universal. Glee is about the tentative connections the characters have with each other. It's about their vulnerabilities; their unchecked ambitions and the fear that any of their dreams might not come true. People feel all of these sentiments more acutely in high school, when they are still coming to terms with who they are, than they do as professionals in adulthood. The characters in Smash, on the other hand, are mostly already established and rich. Their dreams have come true, and their bitterness is already inherent by the time we met them. The characters in Glee look forward to their future; the ones in Smash have a past.
That's why when any of the students in Lima rejoices at the thought of eating out at Breadsticks, even those carb-counters in the audience can embrace the notion of going out to family-friendly chain restaurant. When Eileen (Anjelica Huston) gets her table at Bond 45, though, it's a tell-tale elitist tag. These characters are rich and enjoy a lifestyle (I mean, those townhouses? Come on!) most people in any industry, let alone show biz, cannot. It's also a reference that only a tiny fraction of the national audience might get. Murphy has opened up the world of Glee to celebrate and embrace all of its watchers, while Smash essentially closes the doors on its own. Its world remains hermetically sealed.
There's one more problem with Smash: they picked the wrong girl. Broadway baby Megan Hilty's Ivy got cast in the lead role of Marilyn in and on the show, but Katharine McPhee's Karen is the series' protagonist, as well as presumptive eventual replacement for Ivy as Marilyn. Karen is the underdog, though many have scoffed at the "Introducing Katharine McPhee" treatment Smash has laid out for her, as she's been in the public consciousness since coming in second place to Taylor Hicks on American Idol more than a half-decade ago. This is the same treatment Bill Condon gave to Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, but that worked because she played opposite Beyoncé Knowles, a bigger star playing a bigger star the whole time. Smash looks to synergize McPhee the star with Karen the character, but the parallel is disingenuous: Hilty is the real underdog here, and in having the audience root against Ivy, the series subverts its main plot, making whatever turns come in between now and season's end feel like moot filler.
Still, a show could have all of these flaws and still be a hit. Maybe, for better or worse, the most alluring venue to catch a show about Broadway is?on stage.
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