[When TV WORTH WATCHING relaunches soon -- almost imminently -- one of the new features, as promised, will be an EVERYBODY'S A CRITIC section, in which readers with expertise in specific areas can chime in on TV shows about those very topics -- lawyers on The Good Wife, science nerds on The Big Bang Theory, etc. With this entry, we give a sneak preview of sorts, as theatrical lighting designer Benjamin Ehrenreich takes a look at NBC's Smash. And it's EXACTLY the sort of informed review we hoped to get! Thanks, Benjamin! ... - DB]
Everybody's a Critic Guest Columnist
Smash, televised by NBC Monday nights at 10 ET, is an incredibly frustrating television series for me to talk about, because I feel it does not really know what kind of show it wants to be.
Does it want to present a realistic look at how a Broadway musical is made, and show the associated struggle, heartache and euphoria? (In which case it would be following in the great tradition of such workplace dramas as The West Wing, a show that the producers have talked about as inspiration)
Or does it want to be a primetime soap, painting its characters in broad strokes and including only enough reality for the folks in Peoria to say, "Yeah! That's how a Broadway musical is made!"
Alack, it seems that the show has erred towards the latter at the expense of the former, while keeping enough glimpses of brilliance around the edges to keep me tuning in week after week, hoping that this time they get everything right.
What Smash seems to do right is get the emotional notes of putting a new work together, while sacrificing the details for the sake of drama.
For instance, a successful team like lyricist Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and her composer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle, seen with Messing above right) would never in a million years let an assistant (Ellis, played by Jamie Cepero) believe that the idea for a new musical was his.
And no matter how drugged up she might be, Ivy (Megan Hilty) would never get out the door of a Broadway theater still in her costume, let alone get past the wardrobe supervisor.
Why are possible investors sitting in on what is supposed to be a first read-through with new star Rebecca Duvall (Uma Thurman)? They would never be there, thinking about investing, before there have been any rehearsals, let alone before the star has met anyone involved in the production or signed a contract.
Now this might come across as nitpicking -- but for someone who works in the theatre, all the little slips start to add up. Every Monday, my friends, many of whom work in the New York theatre world, begin to gripe about this issue and that detail -- things that distract us from the otherwise compelling narrative unfolding in front of us.
What drew me to Smash in the first place was the way it promised to show millions and millions of people each week what we as theatre artists go through in our daily personal and professional lives. The pilot showed how hard we work to do what we do, and what we sacrifice on a daily basis to do it.
We're waiters and bartenders, baristas and shop clerks, grad students and plucky talents from Kansas -- what we all have in common is loving what we do and doing it at all costs.
Smash promised that. And it is there when Bernadette Peters jumps into an impromptu performance of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy, or when the cast performs any of the numbers from the new Marilyn musical (now called Bombshell), written in real life by the Tony award-winning duo of composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman.
Here's a bit from their brilliant Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired patter song, written for the actor portraying movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck (but sung by Tom Levitt, standing in for a missing cast member) in last week's episode:
Today the trades are all aglow
With grosses for our Miss Monroe
The things those vermin mustn't know
Is what she puts us through.
She makes directors wait all day
One line per hour's all she'll say
And still she thinks we're gonna pay?
She needs a talking-to!
...She's got them all tied up in knots
Makes each producer faint and plotz
She thinks she's queen and calls the shots
As she sits on her throne
She needs to learn she's only skin
The next girl's waitin' for a spin
I made a star of Rin Tin Tin
And paid him with a bone!
These original numbers are so strong -- harking back to what is great and original about American musical theatre -- that you cannot help but smile whenever they show up. Unfortunately, these numbers are mixed in with broad characters, odd casting choices (Emory Cohen, who plays Leo, Julia's son, appears to be at least 25 while still in high school, and cannot act worth a lick), and unnecessary plot threads (see the adoption subplot at the start of the season).
Now that series creator Theresa Rebeck is (sadly) out of the picture for season two, all we can hope is the show decides to focus on what is great about it, and put aside all the rest.
If that happens, and Smash decides what kind of television show it wants to be, then it has the chance to rival the great Canadian show Slings & Arrows as a backstage look into the making of theatre.
Until that happens, I will still be tuning in each week, hoping for a smash.
Everybody's a Critic Guest Critic:
Lighting Designer Benjamin Ehrenreich has been involved in theatre for as long as he can remember, and it's almost as vital to him as air and food -- though usually less caloric than the latter and infinitely more exciting than the former. He's gone from actor to director to lighting designer (with short detours back and around all of them, and, oddly enough, through physics), with stints Off-Off Broadway, at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, MA and Arena Stage in Washington D.C., where he had the great pleasure to work with designers like Allen Lee Hughes and Kevin Adams. He currently is a MFA Candidate in Lighting Design at the Yale School of Drama, where his design for Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra was seen in March.