Giving Regards To ‘Smash’

”Follow your dream – but watch your back.”

This has been a recurrent motto for the television series ”Smash,” which will be debuting its second season with a two-hour episode on Tuesday of the coming week. The show tells the story of how a Broadway musical goes from an idea in someone’s head to a living, breathing production, employing hundreds of people, to which audiences buy tickets at as much as $200 per seat or more.

The central story of the series is the many attempts by an immensely talented collection of people to successfully produce a musical show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. There has been a considerable amount of talk that since there are, already made, costumes and choreography and a long list of Broadway-style musical numbers which the television producers have had created for ”Bombshell,” their fictional biography, that such a show ought to actually be made and run on Broadway, although at this time, and probably for as long as the television series continues to be renewed, there are a great many, probably fictional, claims that such a transfer will not happen.

The executive producer of the series is none other than Steven Spielberg, so that is a reasonably good prediction that the production values of the series will be first rate.

One of the most frequent complaints about the show on critical web sites and similar locales, has been that there are so many people involved in creating a Broadway show, and their roles are so complex and so inter-connected, that the poor viewer who drops in on the whirlwind without a complete, printed background, has little hope of becoming too deeply involved, nor of understanding everything which is going on. Despite this, 76 percent of all submitted reviews have been positive.

Not long ago, the 15 episodes which were made for the series’ first season, were released on four DVDs, and indeed, I think that is probably the best way to come to grips with everything the program involves. The series debuted on Feb. 6, 2012, on the NBC network, and I managed to watch two episodes before the demands of life intervened, whereupon I gave up on watching the series. On one occasion, I ventured to watch a later episode, but was so lost, I quickly gave up.

Now, I’ve been able to apply myself to everything which is happening in the series, and I find that the characters are very well written, if a bit shallow, and the events of the plot are completely believable. It’s a worthwhile examination of an important industry, but it’s not something a viewer can drop in upon, which episodic television almost demands.

THE PLOT

The plot of ”Smash” has a pyramid-shaped structure. At the apex of the plot are two talented, attractive young women. Both begin the series as possible candidates to play Monroe herself in the fictional ”Bombshell.”

Ivy is played by Megan Hilty who has had a starring role in the long-running Broadway show “Wicked,” and who was a national winner, a few years back, in the national scholarship competition of the National Society of Arts and Letters. Ivy is the daughter of one of Broadway’s reigning talents – her mother is portrayed by Bernadette Peters. When the series opens, Ivy is performing in the chorus of a successful show on Broadway.

Karen, portrayed by ”American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee, is newly moved to New York, a major talent with no experience and no structure of alliances, yet, among the writers, designers, choreographers, and other sub-kingdoms of the theater.

The two women recognize each other as competition. Karen falls behind at first, due to a naive faith that talent and hard work are all it will take to get ahead, while Ivy comes out of the gate recognizing that a well-aimed elbow under the basket can be more help than all the talent in the world.

The show uses a technique of frequently having a number of actors on the stage at the same time, all dressed as Marilyn, which gives both women several opportunities to wear the costumes and lead the dances, sometimes simultaneously. Both are capable of doing the job, so the question is which will out-maneuver the other.

The director of a Broadway show is usually a person of enormous power, at the helm of a multi-million dollar corporation. ”Bombshell’s” director is Derek Wills, an Englishman with an ego problem, but a considerable talent and a good deal of successful experience. He is played by handsome English actor Jack Davenport, as a man whose word is only good as long as it gets him where he wants to go, who has learned that there are dozens of different ways a man can be attractive to different people. Davenport is brilliant at turning on whatever form of charm is working at the moment.

Film veteran Anjelica Huston plays Eileen Rand, the producer of “Bombshell.” The producer is the person who puts up the money to make a production happen. Sometimes it is the producer’s own money, or more likely, it is money which is put up by individuals or corporations who consider the money which goes into a show to be an investment. In real life, backers learn that they frequently lose some or all of their money, but they consider it an investment which gives them the opportunity to be seen by their friends, dining in public or chatting in lobbies with actors, dancers, and other artists.

Producers have to be willing to ask friends or strangers to put up large sums of money which they may never get back, and everyone in show business must to some degree be willing and able to charm the money people, if they hope to ever be allowed to do their jobs. How much charm and what kind of charm are basic questions, of course.

Eileen is in the midst of a miserable divorce, which means her need for money increases and decreases, often at fiendishly inconvenient moments for the needs of a Broadway show.

Further down the pyramid of the plot are Julia Houston and Tom Levitt. They are the lyricist and composer of the music which is the core of ”Bombshell.” Julia, whose character is allegedly based upon the life and career of Theresa Rebeck, who created the series, is played by television veteran Debra Messing, best known as the flaky Grace Adler of ”Will and Grace.” She and Tom, who is played by Tony winner Christian Borle, are good friends, and their relationship is one of the few really genuine ones in the show. She is married, with a teen aged son, and he is gay and trying to steer his way among people who are willing to appear to care about him, while really wanting to take advantage of his fame and his influence in the theater. Borle is often called upon the play the piano for rehearsing singers, and he ”fills in” for cast members who are away from rehearsals, turning in stellar performances.

Messing’s husband is played by one of the most talented men in musical theater, Brian d’Arcy James, who curiously isn’t given any musical numbers to demonstrate those talents to the series’ viewers. One of the plot conflicts happens when the company hires an actor to play Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio, in the show, and the actor turns out to be a former lover of Messing’s character, creating conflict with both her husband and her collaborator. Will Chase, a frequent headliner on Broadway plays the lover.

There is more, but I suspect by now you’re understanding the complaints that there are too many characters and their interaction is too complex for the standard issue television viewer. You have to love the theater to enjoy this show. The point of the entire project isn’t made, unless they have captured what a huge and difficult chore it is to produce a Broadway show, but the details involved in that huge and difficult chore can be daunting.

CAST

We’ve already named the principal actors in ”Smash,” but there are a great many more. Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers band has a recurring role as a young actor who has made a pile of money, who is willing to lend significant sums to Eileen, when the mood strikes him.

Dylan Baker, who not long ago headlined a play at the Chautauqua Theatre Company, and who has appeared in many feature films and television series plays Karen’s father. His real life wife, Becky Ann Gelke, plays his wife on the series.

Norbert Leo Butz who has headlined a number of major Broadway hits, plays the leading actor in the show which Ivy abandons, in order to audition for ”Bombshell.”

Uma Thurman, of ”Kill Bill” and a dozen other major film hits plays Rebecca Duval, a film star who is brought in to play Marilyn when preview audiences complain that they don’t recognize anyone in the cast. When her character proves full of challenging characteristics, she is fed a smoothie laced with peanuts, to which she is allergic, and dispatched to a hospital.

Among the well-known names expected in season two will be Harvey Fierstein, Daniel Sunjata, Buffalo-born Jesse L. Martin, of ”Law & Order,” Nikki Blonsky of ”Hairspray,” Jennifer Hudson, Sean Hayes, and Liza Minelli.

Reports of the second season, intended to open this week, say that both Messing’s husband and her lover, Brian d’Arcy James and Will Chase, will be leaving the series, as will Raza Jaffrey, who portrays Karen’s businessman boyfriend who cannot understand why she puts in the hours and the stress of competing for a leading role, and Jaime Cepero, who portrays Eileen’s personal assistant, who created the Thurman character’s deadly milkshake.

MUSIC

The musical numbers for the show have been created by composers Marc Shairman, Scott Wittman, and Chris Bacon.

So far, 22 new songs have been performed, along with covers of songs which were created before the series.

Joshua Bergasse is the choreographer given credit for the dance numbers. It is quite common that one or two characters from the show will be shown singing one of the songs to one another, and gradually the cinematography will open up until a full production number with a stage full of singers and dancers are involved. Likewise, songs are shown in early rehearsal, then are suddenly opened up to show the way they will be done in a final performance.

Bergasse has performed as a dancer in a number of Broadway hits, including ”Hairspray,” and ”Movin’ Out.”

Directors have varied, some having directed a single episode, and others working through a complete arc of a story.

BROADWAY

Broadway-style theater, sometimes called “musical theater,” has often been called the one, truly American art form. In fact, opera, ballet, and other art forms had their origins in other country, while shows which include singing, dancing, and acting are overwhelmingly American.

According to my research, there are 40 professional theaters with 500 seats or more, and any professional company appearing in one of them can be correctly called a Broadway show. Interestingly, only two of those theaters are actually located on Broadway. Most of them are located within a block or two of the “Great White Way,” mostly in the West 40s and 50s, in New York City.

Traditionally, performances in those theaters, as well as in the section of London which is called the West End, are considered the highest accomplishment of theatrical arts in the English-speaking world. However, recently the cost of attending those theaters has grown so enormous that theatrical producers have been accused of staging productions if little intellectual value on them, hoping to attract the spending power of tourists, while sacrificing the participation of knowledgeable veteran theater lovers.

In 2011, which is the latest year for which such figures are available, audiences paid out $1.1 billion dollars to attend productions at those 40 houses.

History suggests that there was no professional theater in New York City, before approximately 1750, when a 200-seat venue was built by Thomas Kean and Walter Murray. In 1849, a riot broke out, called the Astor Place Riot, in which wealthy and educated crowds eager to see complex drama, and a less sophisticated crowd with less money, but with a desire to see minstrel shows and comedy routines, came to blows.

On the map of New York City, streets run east to west. They begin near the southern end of Manhattan, just north of where named streets which were already there, were located, and continue north to the northernmost shore of the island. Street numbers begin at Fifth Avenue, and most streets have identical street numbers at equal distances east or west of Fifth Avenue

Avenues run north to south, and some are numbered, while others have names, such as Park Avenue, and Lexington Avenue. Broadway begins at the northwestern corner of Manhattan, and runs diagonally, south and west. Where Broadway passes through an intersection of a street and an avenue, there is produced an irregularly-shaped area which is called a square. Among the famous squares are Times Square, Herald Square, and Union Square.

Theaters gradually spread north in Manhattan until around 1900, when the first venues began to be built near Times Square, which is where Broadway passes through the intersection of Seventh Avenue, and 42nd Street.

As transportation improved in the city, people with less money were relocated to the other boroughs of the city, such as Brooklyn and Queens. Meanwhile, the advent of electric lighting made being on the streets late at night safer and more common.

Until World War II, theatrical offerings remained relatively segregated, with inexpensive and unchallenging comedy and singing and dancing – often a bit naughty – for the uneducated, versus opera, ballet, and classic theater for the educated. There were a few notable exceptions, especially “Show Boat,” which ran more than 500 performances in 1927 and dealt with racism in the post-Civil War American South.

Following World War II, composers and producers began to move the entertainment factor of popular theater closer to the intellectual challenges of classic theater. In 1957, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with a score which is still performed by symphony orchestras as part of their classical series of concerts.

Ironically, in the 21st century, the expense of doing theater in New York City has resulted in the creation of what is called the “jukebox musical,” beginning with “Mamma Mia,” in which the producer took music which was already popular and made up a loose, relatively unimportant plot, as an excuse to have it performed. Today, classical theater is largely performed outside New York, in Festivals such as Canada’s Stratford Festival, and in established theater companies such as the Guthrie Theatre, in Minneapolis.