Monday, January 23, 2012

Dueling Marilyns vie for a part, and our hearts

Katharine McPhee stars in the new NBC series Smash.

There's a moment in the pilot of NBC's Smash, a TV series about the production of a Marilyn Monroe-based musical, that demonstrates the kind of sly wit that distinguishes Smash from that other musical TV series to which it will inevitably be compared.

The moment occurs after aspiring actress Karen Cartwright (American Idol alum Katharine McPhee) is summoned to director Derek Wills' (Jack Davenport) house one night during the audition process. Derek wants Karen to show him Marilyn's sexy side, and Karen, after storming into his bathroom and taking a moment of self-analysis, emerges wearing one of the director's dress shirts and crooning "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." She teases him, leans in to kiss him, and then rolls away and leaves the apartment.

This scene accomplishes two things. It proves to Derek that Karen shares with Marilyn a combination of innocence, sex, and marketing savvy that allowed the bombshell to, at least for a while, become a sex symbol without losing herself. It also shows the audience that Smash is both aware of the tropes that characterize musicals and willing to subvert them. Karen begins the hour as the innocent-but-talented small-town girl, reminiscent of 42nd Street's Peggy Sawyer. She ends it as a woman who can look at a situation and weigh what she is willing to do against what she wants. That, Ryan Murphy, is how you create both a compelling, fully realized character and a musical TV show.

And that is the last mention I will make of Glee, because Smash really couldn't be more different. The series centers around the production of Marilyn: The Musical, a show written by Tom Levitt and Julia Houston (Christian Borle, a Broadway actor best known for Monty Python's Spamalot, and Debra Messings), directed by Derek, and produced by Eileen Rand (Anjelica Houston). The second part of the pilot - and, based on the trailer, at least a few episodes more - documents the casting of Marilyn, which comes down to a rivalry between Karen and Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, best known for playing Glinda in Wicked).

The best thing about Smash is the feeling that the action is grounded in the reality of Broadway theater, a feeling that is likely influenced by the casting of Broadway vets Hilty and Borle. Forced references to the Spider-Man musical aside (we're living in a Book of Mormon world now, writers), the show gives off a sense of the real, decidedly un-glamorous life of hard work, unbearable pressure and constant rejection. The opening scene is a sadly funny example: Karen, lit up on a stage, performs a heartfelt rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow (a song, it should be noted, that brought McPhee much acclaim on Idol) when a cellphone starts ringing. Karen snaps out of her fantasy and is left standing in front of an audition panel, being shooed out as the director takes a phone call in the middle of her audition. (If, however, you want to see the real pain of an audition process in front of your eyes, watch the phenomenal 2008 documentary Every Little Step.)

It's not all dark, though. Smash also contains moments that validate all the pain and suffering and answer the question of why anyone would want to go through this. The ecstatic reception of a leaked Marilyn sing is one; the final scene of the episode, in which Karen and Ivy's auditions are intercut and the production team is captivated by their voices, is another. (That audition also acts nicely as a bookend to the opener, and clearly marks the show as Karen's story more than Ivy's.)

Which brings me to the songs. Smash, though it makes use of a few pop songs, largely relies on pieces that were written for the show, and they're generally good. The most attention will likely go to the closing ballad, "Let Me Be Your Star," but my favorite was the witty "The National Pastime," which featured Ivy, as Marilyn, purring out baseball-related double entendres while dancing with the New York Yankees.

I obviously enjoyed Smash - it's one of the best drama pilots I've seen in a long time. However, there are a few worrisome elements. Julia's ongoing personal story - she and her husband are trying to adopt a baby, but her work on Marilyn gets in the way - has the potential to be a powerful deconstruction of the effects that a career in theater can have on a marriage. It could also be a melodramatic series of the-show-or-me arguments that derails the drama happening onstage. Similarly, I fear that the rivalry between Karen and Ivy could quickly become a repetitive, sex-symbol vs. girl-next-door dichotomy (although, to both Hilty and McPhee's credit, they do a great job of creating well-rounded characters to counteract this sort of simple reduction). Tom's rivalry with Derek, on the other hand, is something I can't wait to see more of. Right now, Smash is much more Book of Mormon than Spider-Man. Let's hope it stays that way.

Smash premieres on Monday, February 6 on NBC, but is currently available in advance on Hulu and iTunes.

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