Or, How I Learned to Stop Nitpicking and Love the Bombshell
And now the story of an (apparently) wealthy band of theatermakers and the one audience who had no choice but to keep them all together. It’s New Musical Development.
Well, folks, our long, national nightmare has begun. The 11 o’clock number has been sung, the audience is hastening back to their Times Square hotel rooms to upload their bootleg videos to YouTube, the lithe dancers are at home soaking their feet in Epsom salts and watching the DVR’d episode of SVU that their roommate guested on, the ghostlight is all that remains on stage. Show’s over. Smash is done.
Oh, the emotional roller coaster I’ve ridden with this show. I’ve loved it, I’ve hated it, I’ve wrestled with it in a fountain, I’ve murdered it in Moldovia, I’ve acted out entire episodes in my living room. It is the greatest relationship of my life. (Don’t tell my boyfriend.)
It was an often preposterous, maddeningly under-realized, half-baked mess, true. But it was also one of the most strangely electrifying, uniquely galvanizing television shows I’ve ever watched. And that’s why I’ve gathered you all here today.
I think the story of Smash, like the story of Marilyn herself, is a tale of redemption that comes just a hare’s breath too late. (Although wouldn’t hare’s have longer breaths, considering they’re always running races against tortoises and whatnot? Ugh, cardio. The worst.) Admittedly the first season was a strange mix of All About Eve, All That Jazz and transcripts of Theresa Rebeck’s therapy sessions. But Season 2 really showed some growth. I think, in the end, Smash realized what it was really about: three women–Eileen, Ivy and Julia–who had been counted out, walked over and constantly diminished by the grotesque men in their lives, fighting for their right to joy and finally being recognized for their talents. Smash is about strivers; theatre is about strivers. And more often than not the striving is in vain. But not this time. At long last, all three women got what everyone really wants out of life: a boyfriend and a Tony. (And don’t tell me you have bigger goals than that because there’s no such thing.)
It was strangely indicative of Smash’s perplexing relationship with female empowerment that Eileen, upon winning a Tony, forgoes giving a speech and instead uses her time to summon Derek to the stage and squee. I mean, I know this woman’s primary forms of communication are thrown martinis and swiveled bobs, but really. Four lines of dialogue was too much to ask?
It was, however, a Broadway fanchirl dream to see Megan Hilty give the Tony speech that she (she meaning I) will eventually give.
I felt bad for her for a bit—standing on that stage holding an award she’s not yet won–but I realized that she’s got TV money now, and a ton of recordings and while NBC may be less profitable than a banana stand right now, a paycheck is a paycheck, even moreso when its attached to a multiplatform distribution contract. So, good for you, Hilty! Good for you!
But, in general, the whole Tony plot was just more Smash tomfoolery. The nominees for best actress are Ivy, Karen, Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster and someone I’m too lazy to remember. But it doesn’t matter because there’s no way that Karen or Ivy is going to beat Audra McDonald. I mean, I love Ivy Lynn, but come one. Audra McDonald is a 5-time Tony winner. She heaves an especially dramatic sigh and the Tony committee sits up a little straighter. She is the Meryl Streep of winning Tonys (WHY HAS SHE NOT BEEN CAST IN THE INTO THE WOODS MOVIE YET? Did you see her performance of “Any Moment” in concert?). I have no idea what House of Flowers, the fake musical she’s nominated for, could possibly be about, but I’ve been hounding my LincTix rep for pre-sale to it all day (because it’s being put up at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, obvi).
And Ivy beats Sutton Foster, too? The original Ronnie Moore? (Or is Ronnie supposed to be Audra? Because Karen is Sutton. Although Smash had the temerity to compare the scheming backup dancer-cum-Diva to Sutton’s rise in Thoroughly Modern Millie–a moment in which I had to excuse myself whilst I angrily drank a cup of Earl Grey in the sitting room. Sutton would never sleep with Derek Wills for a part. Although, fun fact, Sutton was married for a stretch to Christian Borle, whose sexuality remains in question. By me.) ANYWAY, Audra has only lost to to Heather Hedley (OH! Maybe Heather’s Ronnie Moore!) and Christine Ebersole (who is probably not Ronnie Moore), while Sutton has lost thrice (most recently for Shrek, so…) but the one-two punch knocks Ivy completely out of contention.
Guys! What am I going to do now? This compendium of Broadway trivia that I call my brain is useless on every other television show. You can only yell out lyrics from Camelot during Game of Thrones but so many times before bitches start disinviting you to their houses.
Smash is the greatest Broadway fan-fiction ever composed (outside of whatever it says on the back of my headshot.) It exists in a place where a busboy with no social security number can have a hit on Broadway in less than a year. Where you can just wear angels wings and body glitter in public (without people thinking you just stumbled home from Limelight in 1997). Where Bernadette Peters’ doppelgänger won a Tony for Annie Get Your Gun but plays Mama Rose in real life. Where Anika Noni Rose stars in a musical version of Imitation of Life that is already my favorite thing ever. Where Purlie and The Wiz can enjoy successful revivals. Where Lin-Manuel Miranda is a deliciously gossipy bitch and Christine Ebersole has problems reading a list of 5 names.
It’s a place where theater matters so much that its absurd. Where the medium is thriving and original and bursting with new life. Where corporate money and jukebox musicals aren’t de riguer. Where the Tony producers will let you change your number at the last minute if you have a good reason, like Justice. Where talented singers and dancers can afford lofts that would make Felicity jealous. This place is real. It has a name. This place is called my heart.
I know it’s not realistic. I work in theatre. I work for a multi-billion dollar theatre company. I know what it’s like. But Smash is theatre how I always imagined it. How I dreamt it would be when I was a young, fresh faced thoroughly modern nellie and not the dried up harridan I am now. It’s how I will always see my life in theatre: ridiculous and wild and far more convenient than anything else and drama-filled, girl, and lovingly orchestrated and lazily plotted under the guiding hand of Grace Adler.
Speaking of Grace Adler, though… We have to have one last conversation about the homosexuals on this show. How a show about BROADWAY isn’t literally overrun with grand-jete-ing queens like the sidewalk outside of Marie’s Crisis after last call is beyond me. And what few gays there were were a sad bunch indeed. Every gay character on this show was a cipher, a sycophant, a simp or a psychopath. This is not a criticism. In fact, I wish every show on television was about crazy, scheming gays. I wish The Good Wife was an adaptation of The Birdcage where Nathan Lane had to convince a bigoted politician that he was actually a charming hausfrau every week. This is, incidentally, also the plot of the children’s television show that Mrs. Doubtfire ended up hosting at the end of the movie. And one wonders why the CW went out of business.
But, for real for real, the treatment of gay characters on this show was abhorrent. Maybe I’m oversensitive (of course I’m oversensitive. I’m an artist. I’m just a pile of feelings with eyes. I have a masters degree in Generalized Overblown Emotion).
I don’t buy for a second, however, that everyone loved the saintly dearly departed Kyle or that he managed to posthumuously pry that Tony from Harvey Fierstein’s cold, limp hands. Kyle was a writer who had an abundance of index cards but no discernible writing. Kyle was supposed to be a fan, a receptacle not a creator, a blank slate reflecting the glow of the klieg lights. And I’m not talking some Isherwood “I am a camera”-type vessel; I’m talking undeveloped photo paper: shiny and white and empty.
Which is why it’s even more preposterous to me that Tom (TOM!) claimed to have really liked him. Tom didn’t even know Kyle’s last name. Tom came sauntering into the last place on Earth looking for some impressionable twink to make him feel like he wasn’t an aging queen who’s career was stalling and whose hag was moving on and he found Kyle. They were fuck buddies. And that’s totally cool. But don’t try to tell me they found love in a hopeless place. Tom is a flat, directionless character and probably a selfish lover.
I don’t hate Kyle or Tom. I just wish the show hadn’t tried to pretend that they mattered, that Tom’s ambitions mattered, that Tom wasn’t just a leech sucking the lifeblood out of his partnership with Julia, that Kyle wasn’t just a barnacle that hitched a ride on Jimmy’s cruise ship of fabulous Joe Iconis songs and ambiguous drugs. But whatever, now that the show is over Kyle and Tom are free to pursue their true destiny: forming a boyband with Mitchell from Modern Family called One Dimension
Conversely, I did like that Smash realized, a bit too late, that Karen Cartwright, at least as portrayed by Katherine McPhee, is a tertiary character at best. Karen never really mattered as more than a foil or a function of the ever-convoluted plot. And Katherine McPhee didn’t do the material any favors. Still, while Smash revealed that Katherine McPhee as an actress has all the depth of a dusty glint of light in an artfully distressed Brooklyn apartment, it was also a welcome showcase for her truly lovely voice and serviceable dancing skills. She was blown off the screen by Hurricane Hilty so much that FEMA got its own trailer on set, but alone or in a duet with Jeremy Jordan, she more than held her own. It’s a welcome reminder of a time when the voices didn’t need autotune to be bearable and American Idol’s primary export was singers, and not the discarded snatched weaves of money-hungry pop stars.
In another world, Karen is played by Anna Kendrick with a voraciousness and duplicity that rivals Eve Harrington and Hilty’s Ivy is only asked to be put-upon and noble and human. That is the story worthy of the talents behind this series. For as it stands now, Smash is an ensemble with no center and no villain, just a rotating set of allegiances and a couple of spoken word recitations of “Your Fault”. They’re so nice. They’re not good, they’re not bad, they’re just nice. I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right: Smash was weakened by its refusal to turn against anyone.
Guys, I know what I’m talking about. I make coffee in a Chemex and have multicolored flash cards: I’m a dramaturg.
And don’t tell me Ellis was the villain because I’ll shout you down. Ellis had no agency whatsoever. And don’t tell me Jerry is the villain; Jerry is a collection of dry cleaning bills and a Dabney Coleman impression. All these flawed characters needed something, someone to bounce off, to be exploited by, to fall in love with for all the wrong reasons, to be pushed down an elevator shaft by. If we’ve learned anything from Showgirls (and we’ve learned everything from Showgirls) it’s that somebody has got to toss the marbles across the floor.
Ah, but none of that matters now. Well-drawn or not, that’s the end of these characters, at least until Ivy and Derek’s lovechild grows up, forms a ukulele band with her sister, Baby June, and invites us all to contribute to their vanity music video on Kickstarter, or whatever celebrity anustarts are using to fleece the public that week.
But for now, we’re left alone. Separate and alone. You can have the garden, it’s yours. For this is the end. But only as much as Into the Woods ends at Intermission. It always seems like the most magical, improbable and spectacular shows come to an end too quickly and with far too quiet a fanfare. Smash, Pushing Daisies, Arrested Development (maeby). I’m sure I’ll find something else to write about, but nothing on TV excites me as much as this show does. True, I watch Scandal with the same breathless devotion that an end-of-days cult watches the skies, but it’s not the same. It’s not as ridiculous, as heartfelt, as much the stuff of dreams.
So this is the end. But the beautiful thing about Smash is that it reminds me that the same truth that makes theater the most magical art form can apply to television. Every moment–extraordinary, breath-taking, boring, confounding–exists for just a flash and then evanesces. But it lives on in us forever.