The thing about Smash that was most striking to me, almost from the first non-musical scene, is that it is one of the best-directed shows I’ve seen in a long time. Michael Mayer, who has done mostly Broadway shows like Spring Awakening, was chosen to direct the pilot and the first two episodes, and he was an exceptional choice (NBC must be pleased, as they’ve just signed him to do another drama pilot for them). The musical scenes are not cut to pieces and usually give you a clear idea of where everyone is – essential for a show where most of the numbers take place in a real space. The dialogue scenes avoid hamminess and aren’t artificially pumped up: Mayer isn’t afraid to keep the camera steady or hold a shot for a few extra seconds, and the whole thing feels almost like a classical movie in its un-fussy style. That style goes a long way toward making this show work. A more obviously interventionist director would just wind up making the thing look glitzier or grittier than the subject can bear.
Because Smash is not the kind of show that would work if it tried to be gritty. It’s really the sort of story that has been done a million times in a million backstagers, and there’s almost no modern-day twist on it at all in the first four episodes that NBC sent out: most of the characters and situations are familiar, and there’s not – so far – a lot of attempt to put much of a spin on them. The show was originally conceived for cable, where it would presumably have made everyone dysfunctional and awful. As a mainstream network show, it’s taken the opposite tack, making nearly every character at least somewhat sympathetic or likable.
I think this is a good approach to take, because it’s probably more realistic: no one, except maybe in the very highest echelons, can get anywhere in show business without being at least somewhat likable and functional (some of the time anyway). But for the moment, this means that the show has even less of a twist on its premise than Glee. Glee has a layer of irony to everything it does, and there’s an inherent irony in the contrast between these characters’ star-level performances and the reality that most of them aren’t going anywhere in their lives. Smash is about the behind-the-scenes lives of people who have either made it on Broadway or have a chance to make it, and so it’s really just straightforwardly about the characters’ goals: getting out of the chorus and getting a lead part, getting out of the Midwest and making it in New York, and the ultimate goal of every backstager, puttin’ on a show.
This isn’t a bad thing; a show isn’t required to have an ironic attitude to its subject, and it certainly isn’t required to make everyone a dysfunctional wreck. What a backstage musical needs now is what it’s always needed: good characters and good numbers. Those are the things that Smash hasn’t quite proved itself on yet. A possible downside of the un-ironic approach is that the show is very earnest about almost everything that happens; there’s not much humour other than the occasional funny things the characters say to show that they are capable of bantering with each other. Being so earnest all the time, every character is sort of on the same emotional plane for now: serious, smart, trying to deal with personal issues while putting on this musical. The show is trying to keep these types from becoming broad silly caricatures, but in avoiding that, they haven’t yet figured out how to individualize them. The characters on Glee are mostly cartoons, but at least they’re very distinctive.
One of the things that could damage the show, and the thing that took me out of the show most frequently, is that people are going to have very divergent reactions to the quality of the songs, and therefore to the quality of the musical that the characters are trying to put on. This is a very subjective thing, and subjectively, I’m not a great fan of the songs Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have written for the show (but then I was not a huge fan of their Hairspray score either, at least as a whole). They’re very professional songwriters and the show is lucky to have them – they can write fast, and they can write the kind of pop-flavoured Broadway tunes this show needs – but their work sometimes sounds like a spoof of whatever subject they’re writing about, or whatever type of music they’re writing.
This was fine for a live-action cartoon like Hairspray, but the writers in Smash are supposed to be writing an emotional musical about Marilyn Monroe, and everybody keeps talking about what a powerful subject she is for a musical, yet the songs are mostly goofy songs (“The 20th Century Fox Mambo”) that sound like a Hairspray-style ’50s spoof. Like a lot of shows about musicals – or for that matter, a lot of musicals – the numbers suggest that we’re seeing bits of a musical that would never make any sense as a whole, and the seriousness with which the characters take it, especially the writers, can seem a bit odd. While I was writing this, James Poniewozik published this long post on the show, and one of the things he worries about is that Smash is less The West Wing than Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show that sank because it was attaching so much importance to the creation of trivial comedy sketches.
On the other hand, the show does manage to avoid the traps that Studio 60 fell into, of placing too much weight on the quality of the show-within-the-show. (This is possibly unavoidable if the show-within-the-show is original, rather than a revival as in Slings & Arrows. Just as a revival is less risky than an original in the theatre – something mentioned in Smash – an imaginary original play is harder to pull off than a real one.) The characters do talk some about the importance of the Monroe show and the subject, but most of them are just trying to get the show on: the producer wants to prove herself by getting this show to Broadway, the director took this because the funding for another show fell through, and the actors, of course, just want to be in the show and have a great part. The assistant who suggested that the writers do a Marilyn musical (sort of a cross between Eve Harrington and Waylon Smithers) wants some credit for his idea. The musical they’re putting on could be the greatest or worst of all time, and it wouldn’t change any of these motivations. The only characters who are really changed by your perception of how good the work is are the two people writing it – and so far, they seem like the least sympathetic characters, even by comparison with the casting-couch-happy director. So the show probably can work even if you choose to see the Marilyn musical as a sign of how far Broadway bio-musicals have fallen since Gypsy. After all, Idol and Glee work even for people who don’t like every song they pull out of the trunk.
In spite of these reservations, I watched all four episodes the network sent out, watched them more than once, and I intend to keep on watching. One reason is just that it’s such a handsome, well-made show and that some of the actors have a natural charm to them. Another reason is that I love the subject, so I’m inherently fascinated by the process of putting on a musical, even in the very simplified form that’s presented here. The process of writing a song, or deciding where it goes in the show, is so simple in movies and TV shows that I’m amazed we don’t all just write musicals. There’s nothing to it.
My hope is that the show will go on to deal with all the other things that can happen in bringing a musical to Broadway, including the many things that can go wrong. There are many real-life stories that make it clear that this process – the frantic rewriting, the fight for money, the sheer panic after a song bombs in front of an audience – is full of dramatic possibilities. More so than, say, the Debra Messing character’s dilemma about whether to adopt a baby (the weakest part of the show so far).
That’s my hope, and I admit that this may just be wanting the show to be something other than what it is (this is usually a mistake, and it’s never constructive criticism; you have to accept shows for what they are and root for them to be the best possible version of what they are). My fear is that they’ll pump up the personal-life melodrama too heavily and continue merely skimming the surface of what you can do with the making of a musical. The reason to root for the show is that they’re sitting on a lot of material television hasn’t really dealt with before. The West Wing succeeded in that way: it was a workplace drama about a job that TV had only dealt with in a very broad way, and by focusing more on the nuts and bolts of the job, they were able to find a lot of new stories. We’ll see if Smash finds the previously-untold stories in theatre. If it does, it could become gripping. If it doesn’t, it’ll be a very long backstage musical movie. Which isn’t such an awful thing.