Megan Hilty and male chorus in "the baseball number"
The new NBC television series, “Smash,” is an interesting little thing. First – and I’ve only seen the pilot so far – it has every stereotype and trope of the story-about-Broadway genre I’ve ever seen…but they are all handled with great skill by the songwriters, writers and actors. The result is a very enjoyable 45 minutes with enough little chuckles and uplifting musical moments to make want to see what comes next. Isn’t that what a pilot is all about?
Characters are well-drawn but the can be partly because they are so stereotypical. The ingenue from Iowa – yes, Iowa; the womanizing director, the gay songwriter, the struggling chorus girl.
Debra Messing plays her part as half of the songwriting team subtly and with great skill. Her chemistry with Christian Bole is delightful. (Okay, I think in the dictionary under the term “winning smile” there is a picture of Debra Messing.) In fact, I didn’t see a weak cast member in this episode. Even Emory Cohen, who plays Messing’s teenaged son, Leo, does a fine understated job with the few lines he has in two scenes.
Jack Davenport, as director/choreographer Derek Willis, channels his inner Alan Rickman and is the character you love to hate. I hope he can sustain the balance between genius and horse’s ass required of his character.
Katherine McPhee. I have to say, I never watch “American Idol,” so I had no idea who this young lady is. However, her audition solo piece in the middle of this episode show in less than three minutes why it was possible to build a television series around her. She really is a musician. Great sound, great range, with a subtle kind of control. Megan Hilty is a superb talent as well, but her performances just show how much better McPhee is. I’m sure they will be an interesting pair throughout the season – two driven, talented young women competing with each other. That will undoubtably be a major plot point throughout the series.
I realize I’ve been using more superlatives than I usually ever do…and now that I’ve watched it a second time, I stand by my statements. Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman wrote some fine songs, and they know the requirements of both Broadway and television, having experience that ranges from writing “Hairspray” for Broadway to multiple Academy Award and Emmy Awards shows.
Angelica Huston does a credible job as the angel behind “Marilyn – the Musical,” but she is one of the reasons why HD television is not good for everyone – her makeup seemed heavy, designed to cover her age and creating an almost mask-like appearance. She’s still a more than competent actress – I’m sure having her in the cast will provide the writers with many dramatic opportunities later on in the show.
Students of television should study how this was done – how it was written, shot, acted, and produced. There was one flaw that I detected – the director has to give instruction to a dancer in rehearsal, and it was no more authentic in terminology than the portrayal of any musician in “Law and Order.” (Meaning not very…I loved that show, but dang, they really couldn’t portray a convincing musician or conductor to save their lives.) This show immediately made up for it by going right into “the baseball number,” which was enjoyable on so many levels. It reminded me a bit of the airline number in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.” (Fosse’s alter ego, played by Roy Scheider, takes a campy and downright trite song about commercial air travel and turns it into a stunning, seductive piece full of sexual innuendo. And I mean that in a good way. You should check out that film.)
One cute trick: all the show-related computer users – songwriters, actresses, etc. – are using Macs. The one Windows laptop I noticed was used by Messing’s husband, who is definitely not in the theater or music business. Messing also gets to put in a little plug for the iPad early in the episode.
I’ll probably watch this pilot, or at least the musical numbers, a few more times. It was a real pleasure to watch. I look forward to how the story – and the musical – will unfold.