SOUND OFF: BOMBSHELL's Bumpy Boston Bow On SMASH
Tick, tick, tick... "It's always gorgeous when you sing," and the same goes for NBC's musical drama series SMASH. This week's penultimate episode of the first season order of a total fifteen gave us a long-awaited first real look at the actual production of the musical-within-the-show itself, live onstage in the form of the first Boston preview - the out-of-town tryout of BOMBSHELL. Up until this point, we have only been provided with sporadic glimpses into the mind's eye of the director of the show as he stages and rehearses the various song sequences, but we finally were granted the payoff we've been waiting for - or at least the beginning of it. With last night's "Previews" episode we got our third major iteration of "Let Me Be Your Star" - following the full-out song at the conclusion of the pilot episode and the subsequent ballad opening number version shown in Episode 2 - with Rebecca Duvall (guest star Uma Thurman) belting it out, to mixed results. Mixed results is the kindest way to say that the volatile and kooky movie star simply does not work in any way as Marilyn Monroe in the bio-musical about her life being created - not physically, tonally and certainly not musically - so what does the creative team do next? Croaking out the sumptuous and richly melodic Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman gems that have been specifically created for SMASH's BOMBSHELL - songs dutifully doled out in sparingly small doses of one or two each week - is near-sacrilege when one ponders the talent capable of bringing these songs to the ecstatic and emotional heights they are capable of; even some of those on the very same stage as Rebecca. Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee) could both kill the role and make the songs soar, as we have seen so far. So, who will ultimately make it to the stage now that, in the eleventh hour, the star of the show has walked and left a huge gaping hole in BOMBSHELL? Of course, the sure-to-be action, drama and music-filled finale to Season One arrives next Monday at the same SMASH place and same SMASH channel - will the Marilyn musical be a bomb or a smash? Will the show even go on at all given the unforeseen obstacles and lack of a central Marilyn? A lot remains to be answered, both as far as BOMBSHELL goes and SMASH goes, but the fever pitch fans and viewers have been yearning for to be reached has been hit. Next week we will see who truly sparkles, who really shines and who ends up exploding.
It's Gonna Be A…
Well, the fuse is now lit. Will BOMBSHELL be a firework blast of surefire success or a fast-falling-into-flames disaster of epic proportions? If the premiere Boston preview performance glimpsed in last night's all-too-appropriately titled "Previews" episode of SMASH is any indication, at this point it could really flop either way - emphasis on flop. It seems almost predestined that a musical named BOMBSHELL on a soapy, albeit consistently engaging nighttime network series like SMASH that the show-within-the-show will not really work in its first go-round. How could it? After all, where's the deep well of drama and comedy to mine if everything every step along the way for all the characters is a breezy walk through Central Park? No, Season One has not been smooth sailing and the show has taken more than a few detours in its road to becoming, ultimately, supremely entertaining on a reliable basis if you know what to expect. Yes, SMASH always hits a few bum notes and one can safely assume that next season will be a continued learning experience for audiences and creatives alike - especially given the fact that the creator herself, Theresa Rebeck, is departing, as are a number of other key players behind-the-scenes - but, when SMASH hits its target it often scores a solid bull's eye.
"Previews" gave the attentive Broadway babies among us a treasure trove of winks, nods and insider allusions sprinkled throughout - did you spot that CATCH ME IF YOU CAN cut-out being played by SMASH songwriter Marc Shaiman in the piano bar sequence? What about Scott Wittman as a dapper, martini-sipping silver fox in the same scene? Furthermore, was the concluding melody for the show-within-the-show being worked on at the piano by Tom (Christian Borle) strikingly similar to the same as the Neil Patrick Harris Tony Awards 2011 opening number penned by Shaiman/Wittman or was that merely a coincidence? What else did you spot visually or sonically? Besides those wonderful oh-so-insider-y touches that SMASH manages to always lovingly pack into each episode for theatre fans' delight, Broadway heavyweights Marc Kudisch and Hinton Battle both made guest appearances, as well, over the course of the most exciting and engaging episode of the series yet.
Broadway 9-TO-5 lead Marc Kudisch - a musical he co-starred in with a pre-SMASH Megan Hilty, by the way - portrayed Darryl Zanuck in the sauna-set rapid-fire "Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking" - a song previously performed on SMASH by Tom. Immidiately following that, he joined Ivy, Karen and a bevy of other 50s-era bombshells for the first new song we were treated to in the beautifully balanced episode, the song "Smash!". Perhaps the catchiest and most exacting in its effectiveness of any original songs on the show since "History Is Made At Night" and "Let's Be Bad" - which is really, really saying something significant given this stupendously bedazzling and genre-spanning songstack heard on the show so far - "Smash!" was well worth the wait and gave us the ultimate visual and aural payoff to the multiple-Marilyn concept that has been teased and toyed with throughout the first season, since even the pilot. Indeed, that highly theatrical double-casting device seems the perfect answer to many of the problems that plague both BOMBSHELL as a stage musical as it now stands in its Boston preview version, and, much the same, how SMASH now stands as it heads into Season Two, with expectations set high to give both Ivy and Karen the title role and split the song list down the middle, more or less. Undoubtedly, Ivy has the brassy and sassy broad side of the movie star Marilyn and Karen has the heart and humanity of a winning Norma Jean. Together? Highly combustible dynamite waiting to set our hearts and spirits alight. So, will Derek (Jack Davenport) light the match and make it happen already?! It seems he is about to...
Although "Smash!" was a fantastic new addition to the jaw-dropping catalog of BOMBSHELL songs we have now appreciably amassed fourteen episodes in, the musical highlight for many viewers may reside with a diametrically opposed song in its style, sentiment, mode, tone, and, most importantly, reading. Yes, Anjelica Huston finally sang a song on SMASH and what a remarkable and moving moment to savor it was - "September Song". Elegant. Refined. Classy. Touching. Just as Huston herself revealed exclusively in our InDepth InterView a few weeks back - available here - she made her SMASH chanteuse debut with a song originally written for her Oscar-winning grandfather, Walter Huston, by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson for KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY. Anjelica's grandfather was able to carry a tune if required, but he was certainly no singer and the same could very well be said for up-until-now singing neophyte Anjelica, yet, as lead BOMBSHELL producer Eileen she brought soul, passion and invigorating pathos to one of the most soulful and bittersweet songs penned in the 20th century, infusing it with much more gravitas than many of the technically more impressive song stylists who have sung it, as well as those who were or are far from it. A strong and effective actor's song made undeniably magical by a masterful actor - a truly remarkable, instantly classic scene for us to remember and revisit time and time again. Wistful, romantic, mature, a bit hopeful - just right. Brava.
As if the Boston tryout of BOMBSHELL and all its accompanying drama and tumult behind-the-scenes and onstage was not ample enough fodder to fill the hour, last night's SMASH also had a number of major dramatic developments on the soapy side of things, too - Michael Swift (Will Chase) propositioning Julia (Debra Messing) yet again despite their disastrous fling just a few months before; Julia's newfound reconnection with her husband, Frank (Brian D'Arcy James) and her teenage son; Dev (Raza Jaffrey) and Ivy agreeing to conceal their shocking affair from Karen; Jack informing Ivy that his d'alliance with Rebecca was nothing more than mere "show business" star courting, and, by doing what he did he was merely putting the pro in professional; Tom and Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) attending church together in order to lift the spirits of the faithful few in the cast (and some non-believers, too) while solidifying and strengthening their blossoming romance; the list goes on and on. And, anyway, what really makes SMASH the best show to see on TV for theatre fans is the fabulous if fantastical backstage and onstage action - and last night gave us a generous, hearty helping of what we come back to SMASH again and again to gorge ourselves on: the production numbers.
Speaking of gorge - just how gorgeous were the full-out BOMBSHELL numbers with sets, costumes, choreography, et al? Sure, the sets are sparse - almost Robin Wagner ala DREAMGIRLS mode - hi-tech and overwhelmingly stylized, but that is the look of the show envisioned by the creative team - at least as it now stands - and it fits BOMBSHELL like Marilyn's SOME LIKE IT HOT elbow-length silk gloves. Plus, next week we will get to see even more - though seeing that Derek actually followed through with his first fantasy imaginings of the "Let Me Be Your Star" opening, "History Is Made At Night", "Second Hand White Baby Grand" and the born-in-full, spine-tingling premiere of the aforementioned "Smash!" showstopper was a real sight and a welcome delight to behold and experience in a musical rife with such wonders. Last night's SMASH was so good, even Karen and Sam's spirited church-set duet of the modern gospel soul-stirrer "Stand" was only third-best out of the three full song sequences, as befitting and apropos as it was for the episode.
"The ultimate question is: who is gonna play Marilyn?" And that question will conclusively have been answered once and for all - or, at least as far as Season One is concerned - come this time next week, believe it or not. The fifteen weeks - or more - we have been waiting for this moment to arrive is finally on the horizon - can't you just feel it? As sung in the central song of the series, "Let Me Be Your Star": "Fade in on a girl / With a hunger for fame…" - the opening credits are right now starting to roll, so settle in for a journey to the stars. Who will that girl on the subway grate be? Will it be two - a Marilyn Monroe and a Norma Jean? Is hoping for that too good to be true? Tune in next Monday to see how it all plays out.