Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why "Smash" Matters

Hey, fellow theater geeks. Do you remember a time, not so long ago, when "Smash" was a brilliant, highly anticipated idea? OMG, a show that finally shows the whole world how cool and edgy and fascinating contemporary Broadway is! Stephen Spielberg conceived it! Theresa Rebeck is the show runner! Marc effing Shaiman is composing all the music! And it has tons of seasoned, super famous (for Broadway, anyway) people in it! It's gonna be like "Glee," but not even a third as horrible!

All that excitement dissipated when, several episodes into the first season, hopeful spectators began to realize that "Smash" was something of a big, hairy, idiotic mess--albeit one with jazz hands. News began to emerge of significant behind-the-scenes problems that seemed, at least at first, easily blamed on Rebeck, who was fired. Blogs about the awesome awfulness (or awful awesomeness) of the show popped up on line. Critics and spectators alike began to bitch about some of the stupider plot-lines: the evil, sexually nebulous Ellis, whom no one trusted, but who nonetheless just kind of got to hang around, getting up in everyone's business and messing shit up all the time anyway; Tom's taste for the most socially and/or politically conservative gay men in New York City, if not the world; the curious inability of a single member of a seasoned Broadway creative team to figure out how to cast the lead role in a big-budget musical; Julia's stupid romantic issues, her bizarrely grating teenage son, and her dizzyingly stupid wardrobe.The attempt to force musical numbers into situations that didn't always justify them quickly became an issue; it didn't help that the show seemed hellbent on appealing to Broadway aficionados and middle-Americans as if they were in completely different, rigidly polarized camps. You got your big production number here; you got your middle-of-the-road country tune in a spruced-up cowboy-themed bar there. Ivy changed personalities weekly; Katharine rolled her eyes back while singing to express emotion just about every time she opened her damn mouth. Don't get me started about the Bollywood-themed dream sequence. Or about the whole casting-couch vibe that seemed to drive Derek through the first season. Hopes for a really great series about Broadway dissipated; "Smash" was a brilliant idea that, in execution, became a sub-par soap opera.

And thus, like just about everyone I know who watches it, I resolved to keep up with the show, but with an enormous grain of salt sitting, boulder-like, on my shoulders. I admit it: I have a vaguely disgruntled, comfortably resigned love-hate relationship with "Smash."

What frustrates me most about the series is that buried under its poorly-paced, soap-inspired shenanigans, its disappointing reliance on sexual stereotypes, and the condescending way it courts most contemporary music tastes are occasional glimmers of brilliance, or, at the very least, of spot-on moments that absolutely nail the way that the commercial theater industry functions--socially, economically, aesthetically--in the slyest, smartest, subtlest of ways. These are, for the most part, the reasons that I can't stop watching. They give me too much hope.

Hence: while approximately four out of five of the musical numbers broadcast last season were less interesting than the Scrabble game I typically have going on my iPad while I'm watching, the fifth was not only engaging, but even memorable. This is, after all, Marc Shaiman we're talking about. "Smash" might be struggling, but Shaiman knows his shit. Some of the story arcs were promising; some even delivered. Take all the Ellis shit out of the mix and Uma Thurman's stint on the show was pretty enjoyable. She, too, after all, knows what she's doing. Sean Hayes is holding his own this season. And the scenes in the rehearsal studio are often engaging, especially when the company is actually rehearsing and staying relatively free of melodramatic bullshit.

My favorite moment of the entire first season was the scene in which Ivy fell apart on stage during a big production number in the middle of the fictional hit musical Heaven on Earth. Not because I believed, even for a second, that this professional, driven chorine had suddenly become a pill-popping disaster who would willingly or unwillingly sabotage a show she was performing in. Because that part, like so much of "Smash," was stupid and made no sense. No. What I loved about the scene was the fact that it featured Norbert Leo Butz, basically doing what he did in Catch Me If You Can while dressed in white and shimmying manically up and down a silvery staircase. Everything about that cameo--like everything about Butz in the flesh--was inspired, brilliant, extraordinary. If you don't know why, I can't begin to explain it to you, except to assure you that while "Smash" is a mess, someone who works on it knows the Broadway landscape well enough to lampoon it very, very well.

"Smash" was spared the indignity of being canceled after its first season, likely because of the fancy people behind it. The hope remained during the hiatus...and then quickly plummeted again, as season two started out even worse than the first one. New characters who make less sense than the ones who got canned did! Astoundingly wooden exposition, and dialogue that sounds like it was written by stoned monkeys! Plotlines that continue to lead nowhere before simply going away! Serious confusion among all involved about how a dramaturg differs from a script doctor! A completely random cameo by Jon Robin Baitz!

And yet I can't stop watching. I continue to see glimmers of real potential in the strangest and subtlest of ways. And lo and behold, the show is starting, somehow, to feel like it's getting better.

Sure, the whole Jennifer Hudson sequence kind of led to nothing, and sure, no one seemed clear on how to highlight her voice in ways that didn't make her sound like she was strangling. But the musicals she was connected with? The gospel-driven, all-black musical that she was starring in when her story arc began? Her desire to appear in The Wiz? Breezy commentary, perhaps, but that arc pointed directly to how segregated Broadway musicals continue to be in 21st-century New York.  And while I have yet to figure out why Jimmy is such a huge bag of dicks, why Kyle is still around now that it's been revealed that he's a talentless schmuck, and why Katharine and her new BFF can stand to even be around these dudes, I kind of like their story arc anyway--I have a soft spot for rock musicals, and let's face it, these guys are making music that sounds like something the offspring of Tom Kitt and Jonathan Larson would compose. And while no one on the series seems clear on what, exactly, a dramaturg does, and even though you know Peter and Julia are totally going to do it and then have a doomed romance (yawn), I nevertheless think that the very idea of an evil dramaturg is, however inadvertently, one of the funniest goddamn things I've pondered in a long time.

The fact that the series is no longer focusing entirely on the development of one show is only a good thing, as is the use of music, which seems wholly less forced this season. Some of the characters seem more grounded, or more compelling, than they were when they were playing to stereotype. Jack is worlds more interesting when he is on the defensive than he ever was when he was in control. And his less-rocky, newly tentative relationship with Ivy is suddenly sort of believable.

In short: There's ample hope that this series is on its way to clicking into gear. For once. Finally. Maybe.

A love-hate relationship is nothing to scoff at, if you think about it. Especially since, at least in this case, so many spectators share it. I'm hardly alone in wrestling with "Smash." The frustrations that arise as a result of watching it imply that for all its flaws--and there are so very, very many of them--"Smash" nevertheless matters. It resonates. It could improve, and we want it to, and we would be thrilled if it did.

Some years ago, before record stores died en masse, a fellow musical theater fan joked that buying a show-tune CD is a little bit like buying pornography: "you go ahead and grab, like, a Prince CD, so you can say 'I'm kind of cool--and that's for my mother.'" That's changing--even rapidly--as Broadway becomes more sophisticated, more tech- and marketing-savvy, more committed to reshaping the old-fashioned, stereotypically corny American musical into an entertainment form more befitting the 21st century. But still, the tang of awkward outdatedness haunts the form. This residue is precisely what still makes it somehow socially acceptable to claim acceptance of all music styles except the musical theater; it is why even people who should know better blithely respond to explanations I offer about my scholarly pursuits with "Oh, my God, I hate musicals. They're all just so stupid." The stereotype of musicals as corny, stupid, outdated and lame is why "Glee," however disappointing that show has become, exists at all.

I mention this because in the end, it's why I am rooting for "Smash." Broadway took decades to figure out how to reintegrate itself into the web of contemporary popular culture after Tin Pan Alley went the way of the dinosaur and rock became the coolest kid on the block. That was over half a century ago. Musicals have been catching up ever since; nowadays, Broadway bends over backward to offer international audiences the shit they want: glitzy musicals based on comic books, tv shows, pop songs, and movies. There's more, of course--believe me, there is so much more--but the Broadway musical is still trying, sometimes pathetically,  desperately, to find its own place at the pop-culture table. "Smash" may backfire--it already has, in some ways, and it could well continue to do so--but it remains another potential means of keeping the American musical alive, and of showing people why it's interesting, and important, and beautiful.

Or--and I admit that this is more likely--"Smash" could wheeze along for another season or two and then go away. Which maybe wouldn't be so terrible either. After all, there are tv shows about cops, and lawyers, and spies, and aliens, and British nobles, and mathematicians, and doctors, and haunted houses, and country music stars. Why not a show about Broadway? Why not seven or eight? Maybe "Smash," whether it lasts or not, is important merely because it is a show about people working on Broadway. And maybe, however flawed they may be, tv shows about Broadway matter because they help the Broadway musical, along with the people who love it, sit just a little taller at the table.

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