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.