SOUND OFF: SMASH Casts Its Marilyn
Last night, SMASH cast Marilyn Monroe in the big Broadway musical based on her life at the show's center. Or, did they? While Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) may have done whatever it took to make an impression on the show's lothario director, Derek (Jack Davenport), it was Ivy's long-standing friendship with the songwriting team of Julia & Tom (Debra Messing & Christian Borle) and the belief in her readily apparent talent by the lead producer, Eileen (Anjelica Huston), that really sealed the deal. So, where does that leave Karen (Katharine McPhee)? In the chorus, it seems - at least for now. The drama escalated and reached an early peak along with the crescendos of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's smashing "Twentieth Century Fox Mambo" showstopper - the musical highlight of the impossibly strong second episode - as the heated fully-staged and fully-choreographed audition gave way to a dream reality which finally showed us all out there in the audience what a Karen/Marilyn could potentially be: a true blonde bombshell to beat the band. Of course, nothing is quite so cut and dry as it may appear and Karen may get her chance in the spotlight on the actual Marilyn musical's stage after all. Yet, for the next few episodes at least, Ivy is the star of the show - and she is going to wring every last wiggle, coo and peck out of the role. Plus, who can put over a number in true Broadway fashion - as Marilyn Monroe, perfectly played, no less - than Megan Hilty? Did you hear her line in the newly envisioned "Let Me Be Your Star"? In much the same way as Hilty with the Broadway pizazz, McPhee effortlessly puts over treacherously tricky pop songs with smoothness, sweetness and near-tangible sincerety and conviction. Which way will the score ultimately go - and, furthermore, what shall be of the show that contains it? Will the musical be more Norma Jean or more Marilyn, thus more befitting of Karen or Ivy, respectively? Who knows, perhaps there ultimately will be two Marilyns required - as was proposed in this very column last week at this time and seems the logical ultimate conclusion of the casting dilemma at the show's core. We will certainly have to wait and find out what happens next on SMASH and what the show ends up requiring of its incredibly talented cast of hoofers and stars-to-be. Plus, Nick Jonas, Uma Thurman and Bernadette Peters make guest star debuts in the next several weeks! "Nothing is bigger than Broadway," quoth Eileen.
Beginning with a brilliant use of the 1980s AMERICAN GIGOLO anthem by Giorgio Moroder made famous by punk band Blondie, "Call Me", last night's second episode of SMASH followed up on the massive promise - musical, dramatic, thematic, cultural and otherwise - exhibited by the supremely entertaining pilot, which was seen by almost 12 million viewers last week (yes, it beat GLEE's ratings, as well). Surely, if GLEE cracked open the door to serious musical storytelling on a national television stage then SMASH has blasted off the doorframe like the Big Bad Wolf himself. Is this exactly like it really works on Broadway? No way. But, again, how closely do the top TV hits such as CSI, CRIMINAL MINDS, THE GOOD WIFE, MAD MEN and others hew to their central event's authentic truth - whether forensics, law, advertising or what have you - in sacrifice to addictive, entertaining and compelling storytelling; particularly storytelling - such as that on SMASH - that ultimately rings true to the clearly defined characters, complex situations and pertinent themes the show has firmly established even at this early stage? Would you really prefer actual documented historical occurrences or assumed truths? I think not. Documentaries are for that sort of depiction - and, just check out Dori Bernstein's exceptional documentary, SHOWBUSINESS: THE ROAD TO BROADWAY, all about Broadway's 2004 season - for proof of just how uncanny all-too-much of the backstabbing and almost unbelievable events that crop up on the Great White Way, season after season, is and always will be. That's part of the magic formula, after all - what makes Broadway work. The answer? Nobody really knows. So, no, this is not the real deal in a historical sense, but it's as close as we could ever imagine to get on a nighttime drama considering the slightly sensational but all-too-accurate portrayal of the putting on of a big musical that acts as the lifeblood - and musical foundation - of SMASH.
Indeed, the villainy and treachery and backstabbing endemic to the experience of entertaining on Broadway was brought much more to the forefront on last night's episode and the waters only get muddier - and bloodier - from here on out. The die has now been cast - and so has the role; Ivy is Marilyn. While this episode gave McPhee the musical lion's share - the opener and show-stopping real/fantasy number - Hilty scored major points for her fiercely committed dramatic moments, and, at the show's close, a sweet and effectual rendition of Carrie Underwood's "Crazy Dreams" (with Tom Kitt on piano). From "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "Beautiful" in the pilot to last night's "Call Me" and "Crazy Dreams", SMASH has shown in just two episodes that the powers-that-be have the recipe for the covers versus original songs quotient down to a refined science. The reworked and refocused "Let Me Be Your Star" - unquestionably the most exhilarating and water cooler-worthy moment of the premiere episode (in its first version, sung diegetic "real-life" version) - exhibited the quite ingenious nature of the Shaiman/Wittman tunes and how they will be revisited over the course of the season/series as the Marilyn musical develops before our very eyes (and ears). The 50s-styled production number of the ballad version of "Let Me Be Your Star" was a total reinvention of the roof-raising duet we fell in love with in the pilot and showed the foresight and detail imbued into these sensational songs by the Tony Award-winning songwriting dynamo duo responsible for the scores of HAIRSPRAY and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (the latter whose poster makes frequent appearances in scenes set in the outer office of Eileen, the producer). The attention to detail is impressive - for example: did you notice the original "Call Me" on the radio in the restaurant immediately after Karen awoke from her dream of singing it? What about the INTO THE WOODS and CABARET posters in Karen's apartment? Or, better yet, the way Ivy's Marilyn and the "crazy" speech and discussion tied into her final song, "Crazy Dreams"? The Broadway professional cameos were abundant, as well, with Joshua Bergasse, Spencer Liff, Wesley Taylor, Savannah Wise, Jordan Roth, etc.. As far as all aspects of casting are concerned, the possibilities are absolutely endless for where we can go from here given that the show films in New York.
While "Call Me" and "Crazy Dreams" were both more than merely worthwhile musically and all-too-dramatically apt, the true standout of the second episode's song-stack was the terrifically thrilling new song from the Marilyn musical within SMASH, amusingly titled "The Twentieth Century Fox Mambo". From Rodgers & Hart-esque opening through to Ann-Margret-esque bridge and brassy chorus, the heart-stopping coup de theatre achieved by Karen transforming from plain-jane brunette Norma Jean to va va voom sex symbol Marilyn in a flash of purple light was a moment to entice, excite and delight even the most cursory of theatrical entertainment fans. This is going to be quite a show - I meant the Marilyn musical, but, I suppose I mean SMASH, too. What a ride we are in for in the upcoming weeks as the show stretches its legs and flexes its muscles to show us the full breadth of where this story can go and the places SMASH can take us - Will Chase's explosive introduction set to the Bruno Mars hit "Grenade" is merely the beginning, believe me! And, what can we expect from the show-within-the-show itself, the Marilyn musical, as it progresses?
As far as the drama of SMASH's second episode is concerned, Julia 's adoption storyline was given additional shading and development, as was her warm and lovingly pseudo-familial relationship with her songwriting partner, Tom. The nefarious nature of Ellis was also explored more, as well - just wait until what he does next to meddle with the magic behind the music of the Marilyn musical! The stakes are rising precipitously for the musical at the show's heart, and, so, too are the prices for the relationships of the characters - romantic, business, professional, personal and otherwise - becoming more and more expensive and dangerous. SMASH is ostensibly about the show-within-the-show, so there are countless details - both major and minor - that play into the themes of Marilyn's life, and, additionally, the way Tom, Julia, Derek and Eileen envision the final show. If Marilyn herself just wanted to have a husband and family like she perceived everyone else did, what would she think of those that put work first, as she herself often did, sacrificing what supposedly really matters most? Is being a legend really worth the price? Is making it on Broadway - whether as a member of the ensemble, the star, the songwriter, the director, the producer and onward - worth everything to you? That's the question SMASH asks. Ivy will apparently do everything - and anything - it takes to make it to the top. What will Karen sacrifice? What should the star have to give up to get what she so clearly deserves? Is "deserves" the wrong word? "Qualified for," make it.
As was clear to see last night, SMASH qualifies as a Joe DiMaggio-worthy home run and next week is even further proof that this show can - and should - be around for many seasons to come. The biggest question of all - and there are more posed than answered at this point in the season; as it should be - will the Marilyn musical actually be completed thirteen episodes from now? There is so very much to look forward to for the many millions of viewers out there - insofar as the content of the show and the show-within-the-show. SMASH not only gives us two Marilyns, but two shows in one, as well. Which one do you like best? What a confounding choice it is to have to choose!