SOUND OFF: SMASH Catches Joe DiMaggio's Grenade
"Baby, I would catch a grenade for you," as Bruno Mars wrote in his international smash hit song "Grenade", recently nominated for a Grammy, and, so, too, would Joe DiMaggio catch a grenade for Marilyn Monroe, and, maybe - just maybe - married Broadway star Michael Swift (Will Chase) will cross the line into the danger zone and rekindle his romance with former flame (similarly, married with children) Julia (Debra Messing), half of the songwriting team responsible for the spectacular musical-within-the-show on NBC's SMASH. Yes, the third episode of the new musical drama series was a much different experience from the first two shows, with Karen (Katharine McPhee)'s journey back home to Iowa - complete with down-home karaoke baby shower and Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" - and the introduction of Broadway star Will Chase's character and the subsequent exploration of his prior trysts with Julia, as well as detailing more of Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Derek (Jack Davenport)'s hot and heavy romance. So, too, did the dissolving marriage between the Marilyn musical's lead producer, Eileen (Anjelica Huston) and her ex (Michael Cristofer) see further shading, as did the trusting and caring coupling of Karen and Dev (Raza Jaffrey). Along with recurring guest stars Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Bakeras Karen's supportive but speculative parents, "Enter Mr. DiMaggio" was a relationship-themed episode that reached its thematic, dramatic and musical apotheosis in the stunning new Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman Marilyn musical composition, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", ending the episode on a stylish and all-too-apropos note. A hard rock rendering of the aforementioned Bruno Mars pop hit "Grenade", as well as Karen's spirited country karaoke "Redneck Woman" were the other musical entertainments in an episode that showed that SMASH does, indeed, have legs - a Rockette-worthy line of them, actually - and this story can sustain more than a handful of episodes or, even, a season or two. Sure, this episode had a different feel than the first two, more Broadway-based shows, yet the series seems to be finding a rhythm that is particularly appreciable at this very, very early stage of the game. After all, the first two episodes of an hour-long adult drama such as SMASH usually set the scene for the series as a whole, if they even succeed at accomplishing that. So far, SMASH has already gone far beyond that, and, I promise, next week will be more along the lines of the first two entries, showcasing the simple fact that this tree has many, many branches and exceptionally deep roots supporting the strong core of central and supporting performers that make up its trunk. Episode Three was a gamble that largely paid off dramatically and thematically, and, wow, that final number was a home run hit truly worthy of a show billing itself as SMASH.
It varies from series to series, that moment when a TV show finds its voice. As we all know by now, SMASH found its big, brassy Broadway belt by the final high notes of the pilot episode, if not before, and that absolutely unforgettable musical sequence set to the sensational "Let Me Be Your Star" from the musical-within-the-show about Marilyn Monroe that also expertly alluded to many elements of the characters singing it and their own hopes, dreams, wishes and relationships was an out-of-the-gate stunner. It was one of those magical moments worth cherishing where music perfectly expresses and heightens everything it touches and makes the whole enterprise take flight and dazzle us with its mastery of skill. It's like it has always been there somehow - a part of the show business pantheon. Since then, SMASH has managed to give us a moment as good as that in each and every episode - and, every time, it seems to come from the Marilyn musical. Sure, Karen's cover of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" in the pilot and Megan Hilty's Carrie Underwood ballad last week were welcome additions to the song stack and went a long way in contemporizing the musical side of SMASH for the masses - and Blondie's "Call Me" and next week's Adele cover go a long way in furthering that ever-continuing development of musical personality - the Marilyn numbers are what us Broadway babies out there in the dark are really anticipating above all else - as entertaining as the cover versions and the rest of the drama may unquestionably be.
Last night, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" was the ideal realization of the duet we have known (and have hoped) was coming from the outset - after all, what's a Marilyn musical without a Joe DiMaggio duet? But, the dramatic justification for the song and the interrelationships of not only the performers presenting it, but the songwriters who composed the song themselves and their ties with said performers whipped it all up into an especially delectable moment. Dramatically, musically, thematically, even symbolically - SMASH hits it out of the park every time with these Marilyn numbers, and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" was certainly no exception. They sizzle. They sparkle. They shine - especially as given voice by the incredible cords of Hilty, McPhee and, now, Will Chase. What a knockout debut for a Joe DiMaggio! At first rough and ragged, with a voice of finely wrought steel, Chase makes a star of Michael Swift and really makes us believe his motivations. And, for those out there who may be new to Chase's huge talent - late of the rock musical RENT, which, along with director Michael Mayer's own AMERICAN IDIOT, seems to be the main inspiration for the fictitious "Bruno Mars La Mama musical" referenced throughout the episode and actually depicted in the "Grenade" sequence - he can do rock and traditional musical theatre with apparent equal ease. Plus, how much do those "Grenade" lyrics illuminate Michael's sordid and salacious relationship with Julia? So very apt!
"Redneck Woman" gave McPhee a well-deserved chance to show off her twangy Tanya Tucker side and she did so with a lovely lilt and just enough scratch and grit to please both the Broadway babies among us and those who know and love the original country hit - and made a good case for the song for neophytes, too. In only three songs, the third episode of SMASH introduced a major character through song, showcased the ideal star casting and the future fruits we can look forward to enjoying resultant of the musical marriage of Marilyn and DiMaggio and also threw the country music fans out there a big bone. Indeed, SMASH certainly expanded the scope of its musical influences and references last night - I mean, you can't get much more genre-crossing than a hard rock take on a recent Bruno Mars hit, a karaoke cover of a early 00s country anthem and also fit in a big Broadway duet which, also, establishes both your chosen lead actor and the character of DiMaggio himself through the persuasive power of song (and that's all without even mentioning the scrumptious sounds Chase and Hilty make together in that touching 1950s-tinged tune). Contemporary pop to country to musical theatre, last night on SMASH all bases were covered. We even got to hear Julia and Tom (Christian Borle) sing a few bars together at last!
While Episode Three may have missed the mark for those looking for every episode of SMASH to be more of the same, it gave us a tiny glimpse of all the places that this already legendary series can go in the coming weeks, months, and, hopefully, years to come. Legendary? Yes - without question. Can you name another fictional TV series about the making of a Broadway musical, now or ever? There is your answer. And, what twists and turns we are in for next week - situations are really getting spicy and the temperature is heating up for all the characters involved with the Marilyn musical, believe me. SMASH is getting hotter than Yankee Stadium in August and it is poised to knock it out of the park - particularly for the production number adoring Broadway babies among us - with at least one musical smash hit knocked clear out of the stadium each and every week from here on out.
And it's only the tip-top of the first inning. Play ball!
From This Author Pat Cerasaro