Sunday, May 27, 2012

Smashed

It seems strange to think that only a few months ago, Smash was being touted as the show that would save network television.  As you'll know even if you haven't been following the show, simply from the tenor of the conversation surrounding it, this has turned out to be most emphatically not the case, but if Smash couldn't be excellent, engaging, fun TV, it has at least proved to be the next best thing--a series whose creators' arrogant certainty that they are crafting a masterpiece is matched only by their inability to grasp just how far the finished product falls from perfection.  Smash doesn't quite reach Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip levels of hubris, but it comes close enough to make one wonder whether that quality is a particular pitfall of the "let's put on a show" genre.

Smash, whose first season came to a close last week, follows the early stages of the production, from inception to previews, of Bombshell, a new Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Its main characters are writer/composer team Julia Houston and Tom Levitt (Deborah Messing and Christian Borle), director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport),  producer Eileen Rand (Angelica Huston), and the two actresses vying for the role of Marilyn, newcomer Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) and long-time chorus girl Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty).  The show's flaws have been enumerated too many times in too many places for me to need to go into them in much detail here.  Most of them stem from a crucial disconnect between writers and viewers, an inability to convince us that what we're seeing on screen is what the writers want us to see.  That Julia's marital woes are high drama rather than an insipid, soapy storyline that only distracts from the main event of the musical's production (and along the way seems to find endless ways of castigating Julia for failing as a wife and a mother).  That the character of Ellis (Jaime Cepero), a power-hungry assistant dreaming of a producer's credit, is a true Eve Harrington rather than a talentless troll whose transparent and ineffective conniving the rest of the cast inexplicably tolerates instead of booting Ellis to the curb.  Most of all, that the wan and listless Karen is the true future star while Ivy, whose performances pop off the screen, brimming not just with musical talent but with the energy and emotion that set apart a musical theater performer from just a person who can sing, is the also-ran (Hilty's credibility as a Broadway star, by the way, is well earned--she's had starring roles in several productions, including, just this year, the Marilyn role in a revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).

Where I demur from the consensus about Smash is the oft-expressed sentiment that the one advantage it has over Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is that its show-within-a-show is convincing as a worthwhile cultural artifact that is actually as good as the characters in the show-without-the-show think it is.  The songs for Bombshell were written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, an actual Broadway songwriting team, and, taken individually, they are indeed very good.  Cleverly written and instantly hummable (I could rattle off a few bars of several right now), they are the only part of Smash that feels as if it was created by people who actually know what they're doing.  Taken as an aggregate, however, a certain obviousness begins to emerge.  The view the songs take of Marilyn is familiar and not a little shopworn.  We've got Marilyn using Hollywood as an escape from her sad life and the love of the crowds as a substitute for the love she never felt in her personal life--the opening number, "Let Me Be Your Star," bids farewell to Norma Jean Baker as Marilyn begs the audience to accept her.  We've got Marilyn as a canny user of sexuality--the brassy "I've Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Love to Howl" explains how to make the most of your assets--and as a victim of it--singing bitterly in "On Lexington & 52nd Street," Joe DiMaggio expresses his frustration at being married to a sex symbol, as epitomized by the Manhattan street corner on which the famous skirt-billowing scene in The Seven Year Itch takes place.  And, of course, we've got Marilyn, the wounded, emotionally unstable orphan too fragile for this world--the sad ballad "Secondhand White Baby Grand" compares Marilyn to an old piano and reminds us that "something secondhand and broken/Still can make a pretty sound."

Smash tries to echo and modernize these issues in its show-without-the-show storylines--like Marilyn, Ivy has her own problems with pills but is also more aware of their dangers and less willing to be browbeaten into using them, and her relationship with Derek seems at first like a classic casting couch situation but develops into something more complex; Karen, meanwhile, is torn between beckoning stardom and her non-theater-person boyfriend who, though supportive, doesn't understand either her drive or the demands of the life she's chosen.  But, like everything else non-musical about the show, these plotlines are handled in such a trite, unconvincing fashion that it's left to the songs to shoulder the show's entire thematic burden where Marilyn is concerned.  Which leaves Bombshell feeling not only obvious, but shapeless--there's never any sense of the story that Tom and Julia are trying to tell about Marilyn, or any statement they're building up to.  As good as the individual songs are, the musical they belong to quickly comes to seem like a string of Marilyn Monroe clichés.  (For a while I thought this reaction was at least in part the result of not being very versed in Broadway musicals, but here's New York Magazine's theater critic Scott Brown, in an article asking if Broadway songwriting is in crisis, noting that Smash seems to reflect a trend of neglecting the "book"--the storyline and non-musical portions of the play--in favor of the music, and saying that Bombshell has "no discernible book.")

The paucity of Smash's ideas about Marilyn is exposed in the mid-season episode "The Coup."  Following a tepidly received workshop performance, Derek tries to wrest control of the show by suggesting his own spin on the material.  Working with Karen, he stages a number called "Touch Me," which features Karen writhing in a state of near-undress, initially inviting the audience but then menaced by faceless figures who transform the bed she's been dancing on into a cage.  Tom and Julia are appalled by this betrayal of their vision (and by how terrible "Touch Me" is--if the goal was to replicate soulless, personality-free manufactured pop, the job could scarcely have been done better).  What they should be appalled by, however, is that by stripping away their clever lyrics and arrangements, "Touch Me" reveals how many hands their take on Marilyn has already passed through.  More than anything, "Touch Me" is reminiscent--to the point of seeming derivative--of Britney Spears's "Piece of Me" (and even more than that it puts me in mind of this rather brilliant fanvid juxtaposing the song's triumphant lyrics with the not-so-triumphant reality that inspired them).  And Spears is of course a wannabe Madonna, an artist who based a substantial portion of her public image on Marilyn while updating it to reflect modern notions of sexual and economic autonomy--most notably in "Material Girl," whose video famously quotes the staging of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  In other words, Smash's ideas about Marilyn Monroe are less innovative and less original than a 25-year-old pop song.

The "Touch Me" debacle pretends to be a conflict over the soul of the musical.  "Marilyn was gorgeous and wounded," Derek sneeringly tells Tom in a shouting match they have after it, a scene that might have been one of the season's highlights were the issues it raises not so thoroughly squandered. "But she was also a drug-addicted sexual icon the likes of which the world cannot get enough.  She is an insanely provocative and timeless figure.  She is not some sweet little gay male fantasy."  For the rest of the season, Derek insists that he alone has the vision and the guts to turn Bombshell into art, but his decisions--or rather, the one decision to cast Karen, rather than Ivy, as Marilyn--move the show in the direction of safe, inoffensive, crowd-pleasing pap--a sweet little fantasy, and not so much gay as asexual.  It's obviously a mug's game to complain about the inconsistent or nonsensical behavior of Smash characters--we're talking about a series whose cast includes one attempted poisoner, one sexual harasser, and a man who calmly explains to his girlfriend that she should be fine with his infidelity because it's in the service of the show's success, and outside of campy soap opera (which Smash is sadly far too self-serious ever to be), it's never a good sign when writers have to make a substantial portion of their cast into sociopaths in order for the plot to work.  But neutering Bombshell not only destroys the one aspect of Smash that works, it completely defangs the characters' insistence that they are doing something worthwhile, and only further exposes the hollowness of their vision of Marilyn, if someone as bland and unsexy as Karen is good enough to fulfill it.

It was thus with perfect timing that The London Review of Books published, halfway into Smash's season, the text of Jacqueline Rose's lecture "A Rumbling of Things Unknown," which shows that there are still ways of talking about Marilyn Monroe that don't descend into the same familiar clichés.  Rose's piece reveals a Marilyn who is not just intelligent, well-read, and bent on self-improvement--aspects of her personality that Bombshell, at its best, ignores, and at its worst seems almost to be mocking--but politically savvy, able to connect the trap laid for her by Hollywood's attitudes towards gender and sexuality with issues of race and class, and both versed and invested in the political issues of her day.  This is all, perhaps, rather heady stuff for a musical, but it is rather depressing that when Tom and Julia are finally called upon to come up with a final statement on Marilyn, it is almost the exact opposite of Rose's lecture.  In the play's first preview, the audience is dumbfounded by its ending, in which Marilyn kills herself and the curtain falls.  Though the blame for this is placed, rather typically, squarely on Julia's shoulders ("She died!" Julia indignantly responds), this is yet another demonstration of Smash--and Bombshell's--neglect of the book.  Until this point, it had genuinely not occurred to anyone involved with the production that something more meaningful than the simple chronological recitation of the events of Marilyn's life--set to song--was necessary to make a good show.

Tom and Julia hastily cobble together a closing song, "Don't Forget Me," sung by Marilyn to the audience after her death.  It's the only Shaiman & Wittman song that I genuinely dislike, not simply because its lyrics, in contrast to the witty wordplay that characterizes Bombshell's other songs, are obvious and insipid ("But forget every man who I ever met/Because they only live to control/For a kiss they paid a thousand/Yet they paid fifty cents for my soul"), but because it serves to completely depoliticize Marilyn.  "If you see someone lost and in need of a hand/Don't forget me," Karen sings, and later "There are some born to shine who can't do it alone/So protect them and take special care," as if the only problem Marilyn had was that she was in need of a hand, and as if the Hollywood system that both made her and helped to destroy her was guilty of nothing more than not taking enough care.  If Jacqueline Rose shows us a Marilyn whose exploitation she herself can connect to the systematic exploitation of racial minorities and lower classes, Bombshell, in its final statement on her, pretends that Marilyn's own exploitation was the result of bad people, not a system designed to do just that.  (This is somewhat counteracted earlier in the musical, in two songs--"Don't Say Yes Until I've Finished Talking" and "Smash"--in which the Hollywood system's predatory approach towards young actresses is addressed, but as both of these songs are focused on the single figure of Darryl F. Zanuck, and the former even make much of his idiosyncrasies and autocratic temperament, it's hard to see them as extending past that figure, especially in light of "Don't Forget Me.")

Bombshell is not the only worthwhile thing about Smash--Angelica Huston is wonderful as Eileen, it's great that Jack Davenport has not only been given a major role but one that gives him a chance to be snide and sarcastic as often as possible, and the Broadway actors with which the show's cast has been stuffed are uniformly excellent, particularly Borle and Hilty, whose careers, on and off Broadway, will hopefully receive great boosts from the show.  But pretty much everyone on this list is working against their material, struggling to craft believable, complex people despite a writing room that has the impulse towards campy soap but produces po-faced melodrama.  Bombshell was Smash's one chance to work as intended, but it too falls prey to the show's critical disconnect between what shows up on screen and what the writers think they are producing.  "I don't want anyone else to do her," Julia tells her husband in the pilot episode, implying that she has some special insight into Marilyn, some idea of how to do her right that no one else will.  But that idea, as both the platitudes that open that exchange in the pilot ("she wanted so much to love and be loved") and the rest of the season reveal, is entirely conventional and familiar.  Which is the problem with Smash, in a nutshell.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you don't include "having Marilyn Monroe as the subject of a play" as a criticism.

Gareth Wilson said...

Is it even possible to make a sucessful Broadway musical about a woman who commits suicide at 36?

Anonymous said...

I think that fact that her legacy is entirely based on her looks is a bigger problem than her age.

"She was a sex symbol" is a sentence, not a story.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Gareth, Anon.: did you read Jacqueline Rose's essay? There's quite a lot more to say about Marilyn than "she was a sex symbol." I don't know if there's a successful musical to be made out of that material, but there have been successful musicals about presidential assassins and the book of Mormon, so why not political Marilyn? But you do need to try to rise above the cliches, which Smash doesn't do.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Also, Gareth: Eva Perón was only 33 when she died, and Evita ran for years and has had many revivals.

Anonymous said...

Abigail: I did, and I disagree completely with your appraisal. It's the same sort of tedious "OMG! She was like, SOOO pretty!!" garbage that has always been said of her.

Admittedly, Jacqueline Rose seems to be a decent writer (albeit one who still writes something as laughably ponderous as "...the psyche is a shape changer."), but that doesn't compensate for there being exactly as much to say about Marilyn Monroe as there is to say about Kate Upton.

Pretty, blonde, white, no discernable skills or intelligence above average. See? You don't even need a verb and you get the whole story.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Did you read past the first paragraph? Because that's literally about as far as any discussion of Monroe's beauty gets in that article, which is all about her politics and her involvement with the bohemian, counterculture scene of the 50s and early 60s.

Gareth Wilson said...

My point is that Marilyn's story is a tragedy about abuse, mental illness, addiction, and suicide. I'm not really familar with what makes for a successfull Broadway musical, but I wonder about selling such dark material to a mass audience. I suppose "Rent" is an example of a success with equally serious themes.
There's another issue in what Marilyn's place in the popular culture actually is. I'm 35 and I just think of her as some olden-days actress - I've never seen any of her movies. I really wonder what say, a twenty-something woman from the Midwest, even an aspiring actress, thinks of her.

Anonymous said...

I did read past the first paragraph (I hope that my lies are more interesting than "I totally read the whole thing").

What I saw is a perfect example of the halo effect. "She's pretty, therefore her Kurt Cobain level philosophizing is deep", except, you know, subconscious-like.

That said, I will concede that my original statement would be more accurate if it was "OMG! She was like, SOOO pretty!! And deep! And funny!".

I'm curious to know what the second and third acts to the story of "she was pretty" are.

Dan Hemmens said...

@Abigail

I don't know if there's a successful musical to be made out of that material, but there have been successful musicals about presidential assassins and the book of Mormon, so why not political Marilyn?

I'm not sure I'd say that The Assassins was *successful* per se, it's not like you get people doing covers of The Ballad of Czolgosz on X-Factor (which is a shame because that would be *awesome*). The Book of Mormon *was* a smash hit, but didn't really say anything worth saying about the Book of Mormon.

So I'm kind of with Gareth on this one - I think there's basically two ways to do a show about Marilyn, you either do something shallow and trite about how she lived her life like a candle in the wind, or else you do something that really isn't going to fit on Broadway.

You could write a really *interesting* musical about Marilyn, but I don't think you could make it a smash hit at the same time.

ecbatan said...

Gareth (and others) should watch SOME LIKE IT HOT, quite possibly the greatest comedy film of all time ...

At any rate, I have to confess philistinism here -- I really enjoy SMASH. Yes, many of the criticisms are fair -- BOMBSHELL has no discernable book, and its treatment of Monroe is certainly cliched, and there is plenty of silliness elsewhere is SMASH -- Ellis's character, for instance ... But I still really enjoy it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Gareth, Dan:

I'm generally wary of declaring that topic X can't be successful, or that it can only be successful if done in the most conventional, crowd-pleasing way, because we can all think of many examples in which that turned out not to be true (and of just as many examples of carefully crowd-pleasing efforts that fell on their faces). There's really no way of knowing what's going to become a smash hit until it does (the number of times I've seen people say dismissively that J.K. Rowling was being entirely calculating in writing about a young orphan wizard because clearly that was going to be a breakout success is simply staggering).

And Gareth, I've also had little experience of Monroe's films (though I agree with Rich that Some Like it Hot is fantastic), but I do think that she remains iconic despite an increasing distance from her work. You're right that there was space in Smash to discuss characters who have no great attachment to Marilyn - for a short while, the pilot seems to be doing this with Karen - but like so many of its other opportunities to say something interesting about either Marilyn or Broadway, it backs down from it.

Anon.:

That formulation is a bit closer to the mark, but still a massive misrepresentation of Rose's essay. I think you're vastly overestimating the prominence that Monroe's beauty has in the essay, which isn't saying that Monroe was intelligent (or, to use the loaded term you chose, "deep") despite being beautiful or as a correlation to it. In fact she comes out against that approach several times, in her own words and by quoting others, making the entirely common-sense argument that the two traits aren't related.

I have to say, you're the only one who seems hung up on Monroe's beauty, and that preoccupation seems to be preventing you from seeing the second and third acts that Rose charts.

Abigail's Mom said...

There's a wonderful line in the 1953 film "Niagara:"

The Max Showalter character asks his wife (Jean Peters) why she doesn't have any dresses like the one Marilyn Manroe is wearing.
Peters' charter explains: do wear a dress like that you have to start planning when you're 13!

Even in '53 they were making jokes on screen about the fact that beauty is one thing and talent another.
Manroe had both plus a sense of humor and a fragility that made her irresistible to just about everyone.

50+ years on and w still find her story fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Abigail: Wait, you believe she's intelligent? That what she is quoted as saying in the article are intelligent things to have said? I'm sorry, I genuinely assumed that everyone agreed that they were inane.

It puts us at something of an impasse, doesn't it? Trying to argue you out of your conception of intelligence seems to be like trying to argue you into new music tastes.

I quite like the "you're the only one" line (sincerely), it's a wonderfully nuanced bit of handwaving, of dealing with by not in any way actually dealing with.

Abigail's Mom:
Hi! I can't tell if you wanted me to respond to you or not. Either's cool.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think what puts us at an impasse, anon., is that you seem to think that it's OK to come to my blog and speak rudely and condescendingly to me. That is, in fact, not the case.

Anonymous said...

Condescending? I don't see it in my posts.

Self-impressed, sure, but that's the cost of not writing beige prose, so I begrudgingly accept it.

Calling disagreement a "hang up", and "a preoccupation" seems dangerously close to condescending though.

Can we get back to not assuming the worst of each others intentions?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Here is how a person who is interested in conversation speaks:

"I don't agree that Jacqueline Rose's essay depicts Marilyn as an intelligent person, because of..."

Here is how a person who is being rude and condescending speaks:

"Wait, you believe she's intelligent?"

Neither one gets you agreed with (in part because the purpose of Rose's essay isn't to demonstrate that Monroe was intelligent - a fact on which, at this point, there is little dispute - but that she was politically aware), but only one gets you spoken to like something other than a troll.

As for what "we" are going to do, there is no "we." There's you, and you have chosen to come into my space, and speak in a way that I consider unacceptable and that I have now made very clear is unacceptable. Your options at this point are either to modulate your behavior, or to leave. An apology wouldn't go amiss either. Your options do not include arguing with me over whether you were, in fact, behaving badly because again, this is my space, and I set the rules about how people behave here.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, Abigail, I assumed that there our cultures did not have such large differences as to require such deference. Feel free to read that as insincere.


The pattern in our exchanges has been thus:

Me: I disagree, here are reasons in a jokey tone.

You: I disagree. Everyone disagrees, you are wrong. I shall give no reasons and ignore the ones you have given. Apologize to me for your insolence!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hmm, as your "apology" has taken the form of excusing yourself on the grounds of cultural difference and blaming me for being oversensitive, I think I will take your generously granted permission and read it as insincere.

Still, there may be some cultural difference involved. In my culture, when one's "jokey" tone has been taken as offensive, especially when communicating online where such misunderstandings can easily happen, and especially when commenting anonymously on the blog of someone who has no idea who you are, it's customary to apologize sincerely. In your culture, it's apparently customary to compound the insult.

Anonymous said...

Your culture sounds quite different. In the United States, we generally only consider insults (as in "you're an X") as being out of bounds when having a discussion.

Is there perhaps a way we might meet in the middle? You stop instructing me in how I must speak to you (horribly inappropriate in every context in the States), I stop being sarcastic?

Or are you more comfortable imagining that I'm some preposterously indirect and on-topic troll who never actually insults anyone?

Sounds tediously melodramatic to me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, gosh, I've been trying to get you to stop being sarcastic - and rude, and condescending, and generally unpleasant to talk to - for the last 24 hours. Don't hold off on my account!

But as for a "middle ground," you're still not getting it, are you? This is my site, and you're the one who wants to talk to me. What both of those things mean is that you either play by my rules, or not at all. The only reason you've been allowed to keep commenting today is that I found it amusing to see how long it would take you to grasp that you don't get to dictate the terms of this conversation. Turns out the answer is at least one round past the point where I still find it amusing.

So: your next comment should either be a sincere, heartfelt apology that will go some way towards making me forget just how unpleasant it's been to talk to you today, or it shouldn't be posted at all.

Anonymous said...

Oh lord, I do hope Abigail has had enough experiences of U.S. culture and people that the first anonymous there doesn't come off as representative. We have enough to be embarrassed about.

KL said...

Anon 11:24 --

Your culture sounds quite different. In the United States, we generally only consider insults (as in "you're an X") as being out of bounds when having a discussion.

Speaking as a U.S. citizen: you were rude. You did not hold yourself to the standard of conduct expected when participating in friendly debates of opinions and ideas -- even by us oh-so-informal Americans -- via a medium as variable as the internet. Please stop using U.S. culture as a defense for your own issues with communication.


Gareth Wilson:

Actually, I think it's safe to say "dark" material has a pretty broad appeal to the musical theater crowd, as long as it's packaged correctly. Les Miserables deals with prostitution, starvation, exploitation of the poor, the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, mass deaths, failed revolution, the philosophy of crime, etc. Phantom is about a man with a deformed face who stalks young women and commits gruesome murders (and derives from these acts, it's made clear in the book and songs, the sexual pleasure his physical state denies him). Even the relatively benign A Chorus Line is really about the desperation, limited opportunity, and relatively low success rate of struggling performers. And these are some of the top-performing Broadway musicals to date, not even taking into account lesser-known hits or the works of cult figures like Stephen Sondheim. (Dan Hemmens doubts labeling Assassins as a "hit," but by regular Broadway standards it's a solid success.)

As for young women concerning themselves with Marylin Monroe... she's still looms large in popular culture, especially when it comes to the portrayal and survival of feminine sexuality in the media. She's often the favorite "photo shoot recreation" figure for actresses, including Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga today and (as Abigail mentioned) Madonna several decades before. And when we take into account the amount of accessories her image is sold on, it's not like you have to see any of Monroe's movies to know what she's about and how she was sold. I think it'd be out of the ordinary if an aspiring actress didn't have an opinion on or interest in Monroe.

Basically this is a wordy way of saying I think Abigail is right in suggesting Smash had very good ideas but fumbled the follow-through.

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