Tonight Smash will lose its plum NBC slot--Tuesday at 10--and while its future is unknown, the signs point to doom. It will be banished as of April 6 to the network's graveyard: Saturday at 9. This is sad since it's a highly original show which is clever and entertaining despite a few flaws.
Though I love this program, I've read that many TV fans view Smash, which depicts the birth of a musical about Marilyn Monroe, as melodramatic. But one of my first jobs was promoting a musical that later moved to Broadway, and what I see on Smash wittily replicates the stresses and dedication I saw firsthand.
Creating musicals is an act of faith that may appear to outsiders as an act of insanity. Smash doesn't skimp on zany details, and even when it compresses the production timeframe, the show offers insights into backstage doings that you won't find anywhere else on TV (though you'll find plenty in the Slings & Arrows dvd set). And if the characters in Smash burst into song at moments you find improbable, well, isn't that what characters do in musicals? Yet in my opinion one of the controversial plot elements from last year--the family issues of Julia, the librettist, played by Debra Messing--added texture. How does a woman working in theater have a private life in the midst of all that turmoil and temptation? (Smash trashers became increasingly vocal about their loathing of Julia's domestic subplot.)
The question remains: is Smash worth watching? A million Americans think so, though the show is one of the lowest (if not the lowest) rated NBC programs, falling into the depths after a promising 2012 launch.
But the show is appealing if you enjoy the finely nuanced acting found in the portrayals of Christian Borle who plays Tom, Bombshell's composer, Jack Davenport as Derek, the musical's director, and Megan Hilty as Ivy, a rising star --three actors who earned their chops on stage and ooze credibility and charisma. (Borle won a Tony Award last June for Peter and the Starcatcher, and Hilty played Glinda in Broadway's Wicked. Both are graduates of the prestigious theater program at Carnegie Mellon.) Even if the second ingénue, Katharine McPhee, sings with too many breathy melismas to suit my taste, a holdover from her American Idol days, she's charming as a naïve theater songbird. I also relish the magnetism of Angelica Huston as the producer Eileen and the prickly charm of Messing's Julia (whose family and trademark scarves have gotten the hook).
Here's the big wrinkle for season two. Last year the execs at NBC apparently told the show's creator and showrunner, Theresa Rebeck, to change her concept. Rebeck resigned, and her replacement, Josh Safran, began to impose his sensibility on the plot and characters. His alterations, however, didn't stave off declining viewership. But hey, isn't Saturday, its new night, when the show's target viewers (ages 18-49) go clubbing or perhaps attend real musicals? I wish NBC had given Safran a few more Tuesdays to build an audience. (I have personally missed Rebeck's vision.)
This season Smash has added a major subplot. Bombshell is caught up in various legal and personnel battles, so a second musical Hit List, starring McPhee and Broadway's Jeremy Jordan, now claims equal time. It has hip songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul as well as Andrew McMahon, and this musical (now in workshop) is a contrast in its rawness to the luminous gloss of Bombshell. (Last year Hilty and McPhee competed to play Marilyn, but Hilty now takes the lead, and Bernadette Peters, who plays Hilty's actress-mom in Smash, will return to play Marilyn's mother in Bombshell. Conflict should abound since this mother-daughter duo is always at odds.)
Hating Smash has turned into an internet sport, but I like this drama better than most other comparable programs. Yet since Debra Messing has signed to do a new CBS pilot and the Smash cast tweeted goodbyes when their season two wrapped, I guess the curtain will fall on this unique TV experiment.
The show's music, of course, will have a continuing life on disc, thanks to the inventive Bombshell score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who wrote Broadway's Hairspray (2002) and Catch Me If You Can (2009), and London's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Musical, slated to open this June. Shaiman and Wittman's work glimmers with hummable melodies and clever lyrics and has been reason enough to tune in each week. It wouldn't surprise me to hear this score again in a fully staged Bombshell production. The cast album features great performances by Hilty, McPhee, and Borle, with terrific support from Bernadette Peters, Marc Kudisch, Will Chase, and British heartthrob Julian Ovenden.
I'm sorry Smash didn't morph into a "smash hit," but the showrunner has announced that all of season two will be shown and the finale will be satisfying to the show's fans. To be honest, I'm still hoping for a third season which this program deserves. It would be fun to see how Josh Safran might juice up this series as he juggles the madness of producing two musicals.
For now, however, I'm sending a heartfelt "Break a leg" to the uniformly excellent cast as they ponder their next projects. I hope that Christian Borle, Jack Davenport, and Megan Hilty, in particular, find work that is worthy of their shining gifts.
My backstage novel, The Voice I Just Heard, depicts an aspiring Broadway singer who battles doubt and vocal distress after a family tragedy.