SOUND OFF: Bernadette Peters, At The Corner Of Broadway & SMASH
When a big Broadway star like Bernadette Peters makes her way onto a national TV program, Broadway babies await it with abated breath. Yet, when a big Broadway star like Bernadette Peters appears on an actual musical TV series like SMASH, Broadway babies have reason to throw an all-out bacchanal - and, last night, they most certainly had a reasonable cause celebre. While GLEE has spoiled us with a plethora of guest stars from Broadway and Hollywood over the course of its three seasons - Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Carol Burnett and Patti LuPone among them - the presence of two-time Tony Award-winner Peters - to say nothing of the forthcoming appearances by Norbert Leo Butz and Marc Kudisch - is a gift from the theatrical gods that instantly makes SMASH must-see-TV for the theatrically attuned among us (which, let's be honest, is most of us). Playing Ivy Lynn's blithely selfish and calculating former star of a mother, Leigh, Peters wrought every last ounce of bravado out of her bravura performance recreation of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from GYPSY - a show she famously starred in under the direction of Sam Mendes earlier this century - and made her thorny scenes with Megan Hilty blossom; her overall star turn giving the entire affair a cold, brusque but all-too-believable bloom - ice in veins all too tangibly real to feel. The tension was certainly thick for the first workshop performance of the show-within-the-show on SMASH, as well, but Hilty still managed to set fire to her scenes and songs - and McPhee shows considerable promise with her character's burgeoning pop music career (and next week's Ryan Tedder-composed "Touch Me" sequence seems certain to deliver on the sultry, sexy siren of song front as McPhee comes closer to getting the role of Marilyn). And, speaking of songs knocked out of the park for the umpteenth time by this all-star musical team responsible for SMASH, besides the slowed down grand slam ballad version of "Let Me Be Your Star" - given a bluesy Broadway belt only the very best, like Hilty, could possibly provide - we were also treated to a striking and wholly stylistically unique new Marilyn Monroe/Joe DiMaggio song in the form of the arresting "On Lexington & 52nd Street", another homerun to tick off on the perfect scorecard for songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman thus far on SMASH; Will Chase's best (and, apparently, last) showcase. Film noir with a pulsating, almost atonal, steely and terse tinge, this is the sort of character number that seamlessly presents plot development and character exposition simultaneously in a purely, thrillingly theatrical manner and the type of dramatic and musical merging of storytelling SMASH excels at above absolutely everything else, time after time after time after time. While "Everything's Coming Up Roses" was a strong cover of a classic Broadway barn-burner on account of Peters, "On Lexington & 52nd Street" expertly revealed the type of entertainment entity SMASH can ultimately be at its height, firing on all axels - and how utterly enthralling in its layers of meta-narratives the real-life/showbiz soap saga that make it all come together can so entertainingly be. Additionally, the workshop musical montage was the best example yet of how excitingly combustible and hot SMASH can really be when the boiler at its core is at full blast as it was sporadically last night in the appropriately titled "The Workshop" episode - almost always explicitly fueled by the simply spectacular songs for the show-within-the-show by Shaiman & Wittman.
While the verdict may ultimately be split on the somewhat unlikable villain Peters portrayed on the majority of last night's SMASH, it is undeniable that her presence in such a terrifying role amped up the drama quotient of the series considerably - and beautifully built to her emotional scene with her daughter at the conclusion that let us in to her plight and gave some voice to her dismissive disapproval of her daughter. There are major stakes in this Marilyn musical for Ivy Lynn's character - even more so than for Karen at this stage of the game, and not just because Ivy is the current star - and she has a lot to lose; everything, really. How far she will fall and if she will be able to hold onto the starring role in BOMBSHELL remains to be seen, but, week after week, Hilty reminds us why Broadway was, is and always will be the home for the most charismatic, well-rounded performers in the entertainment industry - she is a star. If Peters represents the old school, Hilty represents the new school - and school has never been quite as cool (and fun) as it is at the pseudo-musical theatre school of performing arts known as SMASH. Sure, it's a soap opera, too, but the breath of fresh air that makes SMASH a consistently rewarding viewing experience is without question the high quality production numbers, not the frequent paint-by-numbers drama - as unexpected as some of the twists resulting from the contrived situations and conceits may be. Last night's episode was a prime example of SMASH exhibiting both its best and worst qualities with almost equal exposure and measure - surely there cannot be many fans of the subplot involving Julia's misguided son, for exacmple. Despite plot weaknesses, Messing is wringing every last drop of drama and pathos out of her tryst with Chase's character, but the forefront presence of that character at this early stage of the series at all distracts from what is already an unquestionably unwieldy enterprise to begin with - there are a lot of characters to contain within an hourlong show with musical numbers! Even GLEE gives Sue Sylvester a week or two off from time to time, after all.
The detailed and specific character development by creator Theresa Rebeck and company comes more and more into focus and the master plan becomes clearer to see with each passing week, so there are a multitude of rewards - dramatic, thematic and otherwise - for those paying close attention. Yes, clichés abound, but so do unexpected joys in as equal - if not far greater - number. This may not be quite as clear-cut and easy to read as it may have first appeared to be - and one could say the very same thing for the modern perception of musical theatre and Broadway at large in general with most of the viewing public. While there may be some truth to the idea that many musicals take a tried and true trope of some sort - whether, like in BOMBSHELL's case, a historical figure's life story; or, in most cases, a book or movie - and make it come alive in a whole new (potentially, and, hopefully, better) way by adding songs to the story that further develop the themes, story, characters and milieu and expand upon it all, if SMASH could lose the more obvious soap elements it could play like a real smash hit instead of merely an enjoyable divertissement ostensibly related to the theatre. It is almost there - it really is. Each and every week the show shows more and more room for growth and expansion in further episodes (and, let's hope, seasons) as well as more and more layers of depth and complications to the drama at the core involving the cast of characters that give the show its heart, soul and overall relatability to most of the audience who are not intimately acclimated with the world of Broadway and its machinations. There's a lot of negativity a critic could hurl at SMASH, of course, but you certainly can't conceivably claim it has no heart, nor that it is not completely, unabashedly of its own convictions, for better and worse. More magnificent musical numbers and less soap operatics and SMASH will be set on a course of success from here on out.
Indeed, every week on SMASH there is a sequence or two to set hearts aflutter and hair on end and last night's "The Workshop" episode gave us not only two smashing show-tunes - a classic by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim from one of the greatest musicals ever written (GYPSY's "Everything's Coming Up Roses"), plus the premiere of a stupendous new tune in the form of the SOME LIKE IT HOT NYC movie premiere-themed DiMaggio solo showcase, "On Lexington & 52nd Street" - but also a stunning workshop montage to remind us why SMASH is among the most consistently arresting and emotionally enlivening shows on TV - and, as the only weekly TV series so far about the world of Broadway, a true taste for the world at large of why those who like their entertainment scorching hot come to Broadway to be cool. No one does showstoppers better than Broadway.
So, for those keeping score, the songs heard so far from the show-within-the-show on SMASH (soon to be titled BOMBSHELL) are: "Let Me Be Your Star", "The 20th Century Fox Mambo", "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", "History Is Made At Night", "The National Pastime", "Let's Be Bad", "On Lexington & 52nd Street" and, partially, "Never Show All The Heart". What has been your favorite so far? What will stay in the show as we approach the next workshop and subsequent Boston tryout performances? What songs will get the ax along the way? Most of all, what do Shaiman & Wittman have up their magical, wizard-deep sleeves for us insofar as the songstack? Whatever happens next, let's hope SMASH can keep up the magic until May - and, just maybe, make it multiply along the way.
More On: Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Carol Burnett, Patti LuPone, Norbert Leo Butz, Marc Kudisch, Sam Mendes, Megan Hilty.