Let’s pretend you’re a major, and I mean major, sports fan. Basketball, to be exact. And a TV show is being developed about a guy who’s relatively low on the NBA draft, who lands on a team that, surprisingly to all, seems to be well on their way to being conference champs. That in itself would probably draw you in – you love what little bits of life-behind-the-scenes you can glean from interviews and articles – but to make things even more exciting, this will have actual, pro-level athletes. Dwight Howard has a major role, and everyone from Shaq to Jordan has cameos, as well as some up-and-comers. And we’ll just say everyone can act, too.
But then the TV show hits the air and there are storylines where the main guy – who’s on an NBA team, mind you – is learning how to shoot a three-pointer. And half the season is spent focusing on the guy’s girlfriend, who works in a health clinic and deals with inner-city kids – not kids who want to play basketball or anything, just standard After-School Special fare. Hardly any of it has to do with the aspects of the sport you love. But you keep watching, just to see the athletes you adore, and for those rare glimpses of the world that made you tune in in the first place.
Yep, that’s pretty much what’s happening with musical theatre geeks and Smash, a show that manages to be amazing and terrible all at the same time. In Smash, we witness a musical being developed, from the general concept, to writing the songs and script, to taking it through workshops and previews, hopefully to someday land on Broadway. Two women, relative unknowns but both talented, struggle to take the lead role.
A Gem of a Concept
In theory, the show has everything going for it – fun songs, life behind-the-scenes, the excitement and drama inherent in, well, the world of drama. And the talent! The cast contains actual Broadway professionals who do not fall into the cliche of over-acting for TV, and who essentially light the screen on fire with their singing and dancing. Some known pros either haven’t been featured yet or aren’t in singing roles, but the fact that literally just about anyone on the show could break into song and have the chops to carry it off is pretty fun. They even brought in Bernadette Peters, musical theatre legend, for a small role.
And if you’re not straight from Broadway, chances are you’re still pretty amazing. Anjelica Huston, seemingly beloved no matter what geek flavor, as the musical’s producer! Uma Thurman in the role of the Big Star Film Actress Who Isn’t Really Suited For Theater! Heck, even Steven Spielberg was listed as an Executive Producer of the TV show. With such talent, how could this show go wrong?
The Rough in the Diamond
Evidently, in the writing. The show is so completely uneven it’s laughable. The problems begin with one of the main concepts: the two women vying for the leading role (playing Marilyn Monroe, no pressure there) aren’t really equally talented. Katharine McPhee, an American Idol favorite, is well-suited for pop music, but she simply doesn’t have the range or depth of Megan Hilty, who starred in Wicked and 9 to 5. The writers seemingly attempt to compensate by adding scenes where McPhee’s character, Karen, performs for random crowds and is fawned over by everyone under the sun – but all they accomplish is creating an increasingly unlikeable Mary Sue.
Not that McPhee’s the only one dealing with poor writing – pretty much every character on the show is now unlikeable. The humanity that the actors bring in their performances is constantly undermined by mustache-twirling acts of evil and stupidity.
But what really gets under the skin of musical theatre geeks – or just regular geeks like me with knowledge of the performance world – is the dumbing-down. No, just the dumb. It’s perfectly understandable if a TV show wants to clue in the audience to some theater term like “upstage.” However, when the main character who moved across the country to make it on Broadway doesn’t know a Drama 101 term? That’s just bad writing. There’s a non-pro character who could easily serve as an audience proxy… if he wasn’t busy twirling his cape and scheming his way up the ladder because That’s Showbiz! Ooh!
As much as I scream at my screen every time I watch Smash, the potential is just so there I can’t give up on it. I’ve heard there’s a little reorganizing and overhauling going on behind the scenes, as well there should be. I’m hoping the creative team sits down and analyzes what works and what doesn’t, and adjusts accordingly. Luckily, geeks aren’t known for keeping quiet about their passions, and it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out what audiences love and hate.
If only one thing is changed, I hope it’s that there’s more focus on theater and less on ridiculous soap opera elements. Because, though mainstream audiences are certainly drawn in by Kat McPhee and the star-studded cast, the people who really make up the passionate fanbase will be the geeks. Why water it down?
Luckily, they’ve got the most difficult aspect of a show about musical theatre covered: the talent. The music, the choreography, and the performances are almost always stellar. Here’s hoping they take a clue from their own script, and know that with a show in progress, it’s always possible to rework it into something better.
What about you? Have you watched Smash? Love it or hate it? And what other geekery would you like to see explored on the small (or large) screen?