Opinion column by Melissa Anelli
We are finally here. Nearly three years ago, in May of 2009, we first got a look at Glee. The series has had a rocky relationship with the TV-watching public since, but there is no doubt that it is a wild success. Hundreds of millions of iTunes downloads, enough merchandise to circle the world a few times, international tours that play like scream machines, the ejection of little-known actors to bulb-flashing stardom: Glee has become an industry so expansive that it was only a matter of time before someone tried to do something like it.
We’ve certainly had a lot more episodes of musical television since Glee’s premiere, including an hilariously obtuse hour of covers on weepy nighttime soap Grey’s Anatomy. Now, however – tonight – Smash, Glee’s illegitimate child, premieres on NBC.
Smash is the story of Karen Cartwright (American Idol alum and first-runner-up Katharine McPhee) and her Broadway dreams. Her star trails a glittery comet right into the casting of a musical based on the life of another industry climber, Marilyn Monroe: and boom, we have god-I-hope-I-got-it drama on two levels, wrapped into a modern musical fabric.
If you have eyes, or have ever indicated on a Web site that you like musicals, musical shows, or hell, even television, you have seen a promo for Smash. The apparent Gleewannabe is brought to you by NBC, Steven Spielberg, and a good crop of the people who are most relevant to American theater today.
Usually, this level of forced hype presages some sort of well-intentioned disaster. Yet, having watched the first episode of Smash, I am fairly certain we’re in for at least a full season of it. Actually, I was intrigued, mildly impressed, and made very curious about the future of this new musical-tv genre after I watched it. It got me thinking.
A bit of an analogy, first:
GLEE : SMASH :: AMERICAN IDOL : THE VOICE
Glee is to Smash what American Idol is to The Voice. This, I think, is going to bear out. The two NBC shows are different from the FOX shows in a number of ways: they are derivations of the FOX originals and are, at least in some way, a response to public tastes. The NBC shows have more of a critic appeal (at least so far) and have or will garner a small and very vocal audience that insists it is better than their FOX forerunners. Some will even say NBC’s show is what FOX’s should or could have been, and by that they will mean that the show elevates some aspect of its parent that they miss. The Voice has the focus on raw quality over look, at least at the start; Smash seems to have fidelity to character and plot (which admittedly is an early ruling, but I am hopeful) — as well as a more realistic approach to characterizations in general — that is often the marrow of the bone people pick with Glee. As The Voice is successful, but not the mega behemoth that is American Idol, so will be Smash.
I have a lot of nascent reasons for this prediction. For starters, Smash didn’t wait until a season and a half in to start on its original songs: like a real Broadway musical, we are being introduced to new music from the get go. That is a number of things, including incredibly brave and incredibly stupid. There’s a reason themes are repeated over the course of two and a half hours during a musical; it’s partly because you need to leave the audience singing them. The only time you don’t need to repeat a theme is when the song is so standout, so excellent, that it has the power to stick in someone’s craw regardless. It is pure guts to stick new lyrical material, nevermind quite a few songs, in the center of a show in its first episode. Glee even gave us time to build up to the very idea of songs we hadn’t heard before: there were a few episodes introducing us to the themes and intended point, so much so that when we heard the song, all that backed up memory let us know that yes, this was a satisfying experience. Smash had a bit of that, too: 20 minutes.
And then there’s the potentially stupid: While Glee began its run with a setlist that included whole performances or small callbacks to songs that were not only favorites but deeply baked into the American psyche via pop, movies and Broadway, Smash is banking on the hope that the (excellent; it’s Shaiman and Wittman after all) new songs are memorable enough not to handicap a TV audience’s notoriously limited ability to find resonance without repetition. These are the songs that we heard in full (i.e., excluding audition snippets) in the first episode of Glee:
“Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
“You’re the One That I Want,” from Grease
“On My Own,” from Les Miserables
“Rehab,” by Amy Winehouse
“Can’t Fight This Feeling,” by REO Speedwagon
“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” from Guys and Dolls
Even the audition snippets had chips off old gems: “Respect,” “Mr. Cellophane,” to name two. The three Broadway shows called (four, if you count Chicago’s “Mr. Cellophane”) to mind were some of the biggest hits in history, and so were the songs from them (maybe not so much “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” but it is by no means a wilting flower of a standard).
These songs only need to be well-performed to get converts to their side, and with the kind of singing and auto-tuning talent prevalent on Glee, that’s the easiest part of things to accomplish. Anyone who does these songs justice is going to do well by them. In other words, they are gimmes. And frankly, only “Don’t Stop” and “Rehab” were reworked, so really, it was mostly karaoke.
Contrast that with the known songs in the pilot episode of Smash:
“Beautiful,” by Christina Aguilera
A small clip of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which is the song that nearly won McPhee “American Idol” (and a brilliant opener for that reason, even if they put her in a godawfully fuzzy dress).
And that’s it.
The other songs were new musical numbers: one of them (the baseball number) of the talk-sing-exposition style so germane to musicals and so difficult to spin outside a musical, and the other a works-on-all-levels duet between the two stars who are battling it out for the role of Marilyn, entitled “Let Me Be Your Star.”
Here’s where we need to effusively and endlessly praise the people creating this show for resisting the urge to stuff it full of household names, and embracing the better instinct: to pack it to the cheap seats with people the Broadway babies already know but the general public might not. If you are a habitual theatergoer, you have a drawer full of Playbills, which are full of names that you know were memorable, fantastic, on stage, and whom it feels criminal never had any TV or film exposure. Christian Borle (the composer Tom Levitt on Smash) played Emmett Forrest on the Broadway Legally Blonde to adorably dorky and charismatic success. Brian d’Arcy James (who plays Debra Messing’s husband) has about six TV and film credits: he’s known to be a darling to a number of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows including Floyd Collins, The Wild Party, Titanic, Shrek, and most importantly (and far and away above) to this editor, Next to Normal. Megan Hilty? Theater lovers love her (any stint as Glinda in Wicked will do that), TV and film hasn’t really heard of her. It even has Will Chase, who was the first person I ever saw wield a squeegee during the Christmas sequence in Rent. To a Broadway baby? This is sweet justice that endears the show right at the opening curtain.
Yet the show is also very smart to sprinkle the cast with known names: Katharine McPhee has the Idol pedigree that will bring over habitual FOX viewers but more importantly is someone whose face is recognizable (even if her post Idol career really isn’t); most importantly, her talent is not a lie. She has some serious chops. Debra Messing is an Emmy winner, and a serious darling with this demographic (plus, she’s funny. We like that). And Academy Award-Winner Angelica Huston, well, she’s Queen of Badassery.
Seriously, Smash’s creative team, even outside the actors, is almost entirely the realization of a showtune-o-phile’s wet dream. Songwriters? Did Hairspray. Casting agent Bernard Telsey is the gold standard on that greatest and whitest of ways. Michael Mayer, the director, did Spring Awakening (and discovered Lea Michele through this, natch) and American Idiot. The producers and executive producers have created movie musicals of Hairspray, Chicago, Annie, Gypsy (TV), The Music Man (TV) and more.
Oh, and EP Steven Spielberg. He’s no slouch.
It is made up, top to bottom, of people who have (whether by will or not) gone the tougher, less rewarding, route of theater. In theater the wholeness of the show matters, and everything must match: the characterizations to the music to the set to the five-and-a-six-and-a rhythm of the storyline.
I don’t think these people are capable of treating characters, plots, and story with such casual detriment as the Glee writers generally do.
The truth is that Glee is like a boy band. It consistently puts out perfectly pleasing entertainment without ever overly concerning itself with what is traditionally known as originality and quality. That is not, in and of itself, a criticism. It takes talent to know which buttons to push to spell success. It takes a whole lot of hard work to pull it off.
It does, however, leave those of us more interested in the synthesis of the music and story (full of the tightening and release of tensions upon which great stories are made) a bit cold. Characters flit in and out of believability; they change their qualities/hopes/fears/desires/romantic partners to suit that episode’s setlist (which is to say, to boost that episode’s eventual bottom line, after iTunes sales and such). They show little-to-no interest in the viewer’s emotional interaction with their material, in the feeling that, after you can no longer buy Darren singing Duran Duran on iTunes (will there ever be such a day?), time spent watching Glee was rewarding or at least gave some sort of chewable thought on the human condition. That’s a lofty thing when talking about TV, but why not? It is part of why we watch things, right? A) to escape, but also B) to imagine what it’s like to be and see other people and things.
In other words, being a monetary success is Glee’s main goal. Telling a great story isn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming to be a monetary success. And let’s not even attempt to pretend otherwise: Smash isn’t being created by three homeless Parisians and the real-life cast of Rent. The amount of money that some people will take away from this show will be grotesque. No one’s arguing Smash is the more altruistic of the two, and in fact, I would never even argue that being altruistic makes you a better show.
I would, however, argue that the people who are producing Smash are a group of people more interested in the nonfinancial rewards of good storytelling. It’s got elements of 42nd Street and A Star is Born all over it: Cartwright, the person who obviously will end up getting the role of Marilyn in the inside-musical of the show, has that going-out-an-understudy-coming-back-a-star thing going in spades. You have the Broadway veteran, who seems icy but has just been walking off her tired feet a little too long. The sardonic composer, the idealistic lyricist, the bitchy director, the rich-and-slick producers. But most importantly the show seems to be more interested in how to show what is happening to these characters cleverly than staging cleverness and passing it off as characterization. We as a culture love backstage stories: it’s part of the American dream. We want to see how it happens. We want to know how it is done.
And while were at it, here’s another plus side to Smash, one that could also read as a negative to some:
While Glee shoves references to Broadway and the American theater tradition into shows otherwise stuffed with mainstream pop culture, and has to make its case to its main audience that this music and tradition are worthy of its time, Smash has to do no such thing. The audience will largely be made up of those people anyway. It is being created by those people. The show is about Broadway, so Broadway is part of the expected material.
What’s going to make Smash so interesting is to watch the argument be made that Broadway music is equally as appetizing, and in fact complementary of, pop culture fare. Look at the first episode. A touchingly sung version of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” wasn’t jarring one bit with the larger, Broadway belt style, “Let Me Be Your Star.” Part of that comes from the storyline, and the difference between a solo audition and a two-voiced callback sequence. But part of it was also shrewdly manufactured to show the unwitting viewer that hey, you can enjoy this musical stuff too. That maybe there’s something to this, and there’s a reason that people continue to make musicals when it is so notoriously hard to have a career doing so. The heart pumping feeling when the music, story, lyrics, performer, and performance itself come together to a glorious crescendo, especially in front of a live audience: it is extraordinary. It is why we musical theater babies are so hopelessly smitten.
This can happen on Glee, too, but it won’t. It won’t, because mostly, these are songs we have heard before, and the story will always be at least slightly left of the intention of the song. That’s not so in a true musical. The music, the staging, the performer, the lyrics, they are written and created for that moment. Bringing that to television could be, if played right, completely transformative. Remember: the songwriters did Hairspray, the director was behind Spring Awakening. Those were two of the most unironic, emotionally unvarnished shows in recent years. (A lot of people think Hairspray doesn’t qualify as “unironic,” but I disagree. The original John Waters one was as ironic as you get. The recent Broadway musical and subsequent film was full to bursting with heart and genuine sentiment.)
Granted, I have only seen one episode. But I can say for now that:
I think that Smash is a better show.
I think that Glee will always be a more popular show. Though I would be happy to be proven wrong.
If it can manage to be successful, Smash is going to open a lot of questions about the future of theater and television: about whether they can coexist, about how excited the new generation can get about the stodgy old Great White Way; about the mishmashing of American Idol’s brand of pop culture with a type of lyricism that is considered so tragically unhip by so tragically many. But even more promising, it may open new possibilities to those young composers and lyricists who have the potential to make both very popular. It could be a boon to both, and it could inspire a kind of creation not very common on Broadway these days.
Or, the creators can prioritize their iTunes earnings.
It is really their choice.