Watching the first four episodes of the much-hyped TV series “Smash,” one may ask, “Whose Broadway is it anyway?”
Theater geeks and chat room obsessives will no doubt have lots to celebrate and carp about as the 15 episodes roll out during the upcoming season. But musical theater aficionados may find it useful to chant the mantra: “This is not a documentary. This is not a documentary.”
It is, after all, a prime time soap series, a melodrama with a song and dance, “Glee” by way of broadwaystars.com.
Regrettably, for most of the early episodes it’s not particularly fresh or compelling, just familiar tropes trotted out with terrific production values.
But patience may be rewarded. The good news is that by Episode Four, its writing takes a turn for the better, the characters deepen, at least somewhat, and there are emotions of genuine -- as opposed to faux -- feeling.
But during the first few episodes, the show doesn’t meet a theatrical cliche it doesn’t like: The brilliant cad of a director, the hustling producer, the innocent actress from the Midwest, the seasoned pro who sleeps her way to the top, the outsider spouse.
Well, there are archetypes in the theater -- and elsewhere (see “Downton Abbey”). It’s what one does with them that makes the difference between a riveting drama and tired retreads.
The show’s creators often refer to “The West Wing” as its behind-closed-doors workplace template. But the characters in that lauded series were offbeat, complex, intriguing and always on the move. Energy abounded in that D.C. series but there was also time for extended scenes that paused for nuance. And the things they came out of the characters’ mouths were some of the best dialogue on TV. In the early episodes, jhe dialogue is eye-rolling: "Nothing is bigger than Broadway!" "She's a star!" "Even crazy dreams come true!"
“Smash” also has a visually brighter tone than “The West Wing,” with a retro palette that evokes the saturated colors of MGM musicals. In this well-lit, heightened world there’s little room for shadings, at least not for the first few episodes.
What the series needs to do is relax and get some scenes with real grit, emotion and surprise -- and plot twists that can’t be seen from satellites. It also needs some show doctors quick, a Paul Rudnick or a Douglas Carter Beane could add some humor and zing, funny lines and surprising situations that can be talked about the next day at the water cooler.
As for verisimilitude, I’ll give the show a general pass for now because, again, this is not a documentary and it takes time to roll out the populated world of Broadway players.
But let’s take a moment to talk about a few of the most obvious points theater insiders might raise:
Who produces a show single-handedly any more? In an era of when corporations and teams of investors that equal the populationm of Guam produce kazillion-dollar musicals, there are still a few brave folks who fly solo, or close to it. Think of Angelica Huston‘s divorcing producer character in "Smash" as a Fran splitting from a Barry Weissler (not that they are -- and I wish their long marriage the best). Or a Scott Rudin, who can start -- or stop-- a show in a New York minute. The point being, though it’s not the norm these days, it’s still possible to have a strong solo producer ruunning the show.
Who takes a show out of town anymore, much less to Boston? Though musicals are mostly developed at regional theaters, by New York not-for-profits or off-Broadway, there are some productions that still take an out-of-town spin in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. Alas, New Haven's Shubert Theater was once the home of Broadway musicals during the Gold Age -- and is now the home of Non-Equity bus-and-truck shows. As for Boston, I reviewed the musical “High Fidelity” in Beantown for Variety as it headed to Broadway. (That show coincidentally starred Will Chase, who is the leading man in “Smash”’s “Marilyn” musical.) So, indeed, it can happen.
Who invests in a major Broadway musical in the near-absence of a book? OK, things aren’t perfect by the time the first workshop gets rolling but there’s at least there's an outline of how things will play out and the answer to the question: What are we trying to say about this show? I understand that writing non-musical scenes aren’t inherently dramatic, but no one in"Smash" is asking some fundamental questions of why will their Marilyn musical work when that other one in 1983 flopped?
Where are the rest of the colorful theater characters? Casting king Bernie Telsey’s teeth must be grinding as he watches the early episodes as the actors are chosen for the musical minus casting directors. “Where the hell am I?” he must be thinking. And by not involving any theatrical agents, the show missing some juicy, funny, wheeling and dealing.
I know, I know. It takes time to roll out all the myriad characters and dynamics and at least for the early episodes, there needs to be a bit of shorthand to hook the viewer.
But I cant help feel there’s a bit of network rush in all of this, that if things don’t land by the end of the pilot, all is lost. I can’t help wondering if this was on HBO or cable there would be more patience more trust, more attention to detail.
But like a musical that’s in trouble out of town, you do what you’ve got to do -- and do it fast. Get it up, get it running and fix it later.
I am rooting for the show to succeed and am somewhat encouraged as the series goes on. But I just wish it wasn’t so desperate to be a smash at any costs and settle instead to be simply great.
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