Desperate for a hit, NBC is doing everything it can to make people watch Smash, their making-of-a-Broadway-musical drama. They're hyping it to The Voice levels of annoyance, they're putting it on the Monday after the Super Bowl, and they're making it available for free on iTunes right now! So, I watched the show. Just like a Broadway hoofer, it's brilliant...and a bit of a mess.
Conceived by Steven Spielberg, of all people, Smash tries to do for Broadway what The West Wing did for the White House. It wants people to care; it wants to show them everything that goes into the making of something they take for granted; it wants to highlight all the big personalities, talented people, and superior intellects that operate fascinatingly out of the spotlight. Smash also has the added attraction of original songs and production numbers, which, to people like me, looks like what a little baggie of white powder must look like to a person stepping out of Promises.
The story is that a songwriting duo (Broadway's Christian Borle and Grace herself Debra Messing) is trying to get a musical about Marilyn Monroe off the ground. They have the help of a steely producer down on her luck (Anjelica Houston, not really bringing the fierce), an asshole British director (Jack Davenport), and all the chorus boys they could want (mmmm, chorus boys). The main conflict of the show is who is going to play Marilyn, Broadway vet Ivy (Broadway vet Megan Hilty, doing insecure chorus girl/wannabe star brilliantly) or neophyte Karen (neophyte Katherine McPhee who, contrary to what the promos say, we were already introduced to when she was on American Idol).
As Broadway so often is, Smash it is at its best when indulging in big splashy numbers. Songwriting duo Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman (Hairspray, the South Park movie) are writing new music for this fake Marilyn musical and the two numbers from the show—one of those you can watch above—are breathtakingly amazing. The sequence in the middle of the episode where we see a bunch of dancers doing one of the songs, interspersed with how the director sees it in his mind as it will appear on stage, is the most rousing thing I've seen since the first episode of Glee.
The trouble is what's in between. The show looks expensive and has this gray New York seriousness about it (think The West Wing) but some of the dialogue is absolutely groan-worthy. When talking about musicals, the songwriters' ambitious assistant says, "Even backstage...I felt (dramatic pause)...whole." Yeah, it's no West Wing. It's the sort of very sincere sentiment about something that is (let's admit) a bit trivial that you'd only get from theater geeks. There's also the obligatory "straight director trying to sleep with the hot actress" scene, which may be "realistic," but this was just one Coco and a crying jag away from being a campy Fame joke. And Karen auditions with Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," the most tired audition song this side of "At Last." There were no other songs available?
The other thing about Smash that I just can't qualify is that it has a little bit of what I'd call an attitude problem. First of all, NBC admitted today in the Times that it badly needs this to work. "We're in a pretty bad situation. We desperately need something to catch fire, and we hope this is it," the head of the network said. That makes watching this show like going on a first date with a girl you know is dying to get married and start a family.
The show also has a bit of Broadway insidery-ness that is both an asset and a curse. The show feels like a bunch of Broadway people making a show for and about themselves and just wishing that all of America would watch because they know, they just know, that if people out there knew about them that they would just love them like a three-legged puppy they brought home from the pound. But it's that same insularity (a hallmark of so many New York industries like fashion, media, and finance) that will keep people out. There is a Michael Riedel joke in the first episode along with an explanation of just who Michael Riedel is, because the show knows that no one who lives west of Eleventh Avenue knows about the vitriolic Post theater gossip. For those of us who know, it's hilarious. For everyone else, it comes off as annoying and will make them feel stupid and out of the loop.
The show is trying to serve two masters: the Broadway people who populate the ensemble and the mass market who don't care about what happens backstage at the show, they only want to see the show. It's driving for realism in a world where a gigantic percentage of the viewing public will never visit and knows nothing about.
But the public does know about Glee and comparisons will be made. I already made one. This show is not Glee, thank god. But so many people hate Glee (even before it got lousy) that I wonder if Smash even has a shot in hell. Maybe it's a good thing that it's still rough around the edges. Glee started off so strong that we had no idea that we were just crash test dummies waiting for the inevitable destruction. Let's hope that Smash is like a dented car you buy just so you can fix it up and love it like it's been yours all along. Yes, it has its fair share of faults, but as a Broadway baby, I'm going to watch every damn episode. The real cliff hanger isn't whether the director will choose Karen or Ivy, but whether or not America will choose this.