The world of theater has always had a wee bit of difficulty surviving in the mainstream media. Hollywood actors have crossed over to the theater world and vice versa to help engage a newfound group of theatergoers, but maintaining a new audience has been the challenge. So right off the bat, a television series about the creation of a new Broadway musical seems like a major risk. But executive producer Steven Spielberg and Co. are willing to take it, and boy was the pay off worth it! Shall we? Curtain rises.
The pilot of the new NBC series “Smash” starts off with a bang, well, a ring. Karen Cartwright, a budding actress, sings a glowing rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a fantasy world only to be interrupted by the cell phone ring coming from the casting director. An inside joke to us theater folks? Perhaps. But a great way to start off a show? Absolutely. Katharine McPhee, of American Idol 5 fame (she was the runner up to Taylor Hicks…who? Don’t remember? Exactly. She did sing “Over the Rainbow” a capella on AI5, a risk that should have solidified her victory) plays the innocent faced Karen who just wants a chance to see her name in lights. Karen seems to be the centric arc that “Smash” will most likely want to us follow. Sure there’s an ensemble of characters we haven’t even seen yet, but from the get go, we’re watching Karen’s journey to apparent stardom.
From start to finish, the pilot is jammed packed with theatrical inside jokes and clichés. From references to the “Napoleonic Nazi” Michael Riedel to the parents who just don’t understand to what it’s like to audition. The theater geeks will love it for sure, but I think they’re accessible enough for the non-theater watchers to understand.
When we go back to Karen’s story, we meet her stuffy-lite boyfriend Dev (Raja Jaffrey) who is NOT in the theater business. I repeat, he is NOT a theater guy. If only that worked in real life. Jaffrey may be the weakest link in the ensemble. I predict he’ll be the first causality of the “kill off.” When Karen’s parents come to town to check up on her, we instantly see the fear of the unknown world in their eyes. Despite putting Karen through theater training, the Cartwright’s seem to be having second thoughts on the success of their daughter’s career. But don’t worry, Dev saves the day by correcting daddy Cartwright that Karen is an actress not a waitress. The real life couple, Becky Ann and Dylan Baker, play Karen’s parents with ease. I’m sure they’ll be back for more.
After Julia and Frank meet the social worker, who’s a fan of Julia’s, assigned to them for the adoption, Julia and Tom record a demo of Ivy singing the first song they wrote for Marilyn the Musical. In this age of technology, leave it to the unknowledgeable assistant Ellis to record the recording session, which ends up on the internet. Tom and Julia freak out at Ellis and fire him on the spot. That is until the feedback of the song is all positive. Cue the Michael Riedel name drop! Since apparently almost everyone in the theater biz has seen the video, producer Eileen Rand wants first dibs on the show. Despite her being on the potential losing end of her divorce, Eileen wants Marilyn the Musical. Eileen meets with Houston and Levitt (we need to come up with a clever nickname. Any ideas?) and asks them to audition a director to bring on to the project. Eileen mentions Derek Wills, which makes Tom quite irritated. Though we don’t know the history between Derek and Tom quite yet, we do know whatever happened didn’t end so lovely. Derek isn’t thrilled with the idea of auditioning himself, since he thinks way too highly of himself already, but he obliges and puts on a show.
And what a show it was! We get to see the baseball number! Ivy plays Marilyn in a workshop style audition of the baseball number that goes back and forth from rehearsal to stage. We’ll expect a lot of that threshold breaking throughout the series. It’ll help when the show’s producers actually try to bring this musical to life on Broadway. The number is a hit and Derek is brought on, to Tom’s dismay. So now’s the time for auditions. Karen walks in, the only girl not dressed like Marilyn, and silently wows the pants off of the team singing Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” We don’t see Ivy’s audition but we know both girls get a callback.
Karen celebrates with Dev with “Some Like It Hot” as the background, only to be interrupted by a text message from the vile creature known as Derek. Derek is the sleazy director we all wish doesn’t really exist in real life. Derek tries to seduce Karen only to be shut down after singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” in one of Derek’s shirts. Casting couch cliché? Absolutely. Do we forgive it because the very next scene is the closing number of the episode? Totally. We get the brilliance that is “Let Me Be Your Star,” a stunning duet between Karen and Ivy as they do their callback. It’s sure to be a song that won’t leave your head.
The episode ends on a slightly engaging cliffhanger. Who gets to play Marilyn, Ivy or Karen? Based on the previews, it looks like we’re in for a battle for Marilyn for quite some time. How it plays out will be the interesting part. The pilot gives us just enough puzzle pieces that will keep us coming back for more. What exactly happened between Tom and Derek? How will Eileen’s divorce come back to haunt the production? What will happen with the adoption? And just how many gays will there be per episode?
For a pilot, “Smash” is a smash. It has the potential to be a brilliant show. That is as long as it doesn’t fall under the “Glee” trap and oblige to poor writing to make way for the music. Sure we know that there are moments that will be contrived, like writing and recording a song nearly overnight or the director audition, but we forgive it for an intriguing plot. If anything, as a theater person working in the business, it’s wonderful to see familiar faces getting their time to shine. From Christian Borle getting a lead role to recurring role by Brian d’Arcy James to small parts by Maddie Corman, Eisa Davis, and Savannah Wise. This is an opportunity to bring theater to the mainstream. And if the series sticks to this formula, it’ll be a hit. So what did we think of the show? And most importantly: Team Karen or Team Ivy?