Posts Tagged ‘music’

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”Smash” episode 6 – ”Chemistry”

March 14, 2012

Karen wows 'em at the Bar Mitzvah...

I’ll leave the recap to others, as usual. Here are the thoughts I had on this episode, though. What? Of course I have thoughts!

I’m increasingly unhappy with the Michael/Julia relationship. I don’t see it as authentic, or romantic, or even as something that helps create tension in the plot threads. I just find it…uncomfortable.

According to this show, there is no professional behavior to be found on Broadway: directors sleep with performers, lyricists sleep with performers, the producer is out in some bar with a bunch of kids – see how much respect you get after doing that in reveal life – the composer has his own personal agenda in promoting one performer over another, the “star” just automatically assumes she has enough power to get another performer fired. I could go on. Is there anyone in this bunch in whom an investor should trust? Especially with a couple of million dollars?

The Karen character is beginning to annoy some people in the blogs I happened to read yesterday. The doe-eyed innocent bit is wearing thin with some folks, I think. TV and movie audiences aren’t very patient nowadays. Watch a film or television program from thirty or forty years ago and see how slowly it is paced compared with today, even that action shows. We are used to a sort of ”plot shorthand” from years and years of watching TV and movie plots compressed into anything from forty minutes to two hours.

This collectively-understood shorthand translates into a kind of suspension of disbelief of its own. In a situation comedy we don’t expect characters to change or grow. That’s why ”The Simpsons” has been so successful for so many years. The characters never have to age. As far as we know, it’s still the same year it was when the show started.

In dramas, though, we expect some development of the characters. I like to credit this to J. Michael Straczynski and his groundbreaking story arc concept, Babylon 5. It wasn’t the first show to us an arc – heck, ”The Fugitive” had a sort of one decades before – but the show was sold to the fledgling PTEN network with that intention: 5 years, no more. The story would be told in 5 years. To hell with the generally-understood plan back then that seven years of episodes were needed for successful syndication. (Of course, DVD and Blu-Ray season boxed sets, as well as secondary sources like Netflix, have changed that playing field a great deal in the last decade.)

”Smash” was intended, from what I have read, to become a multi-season show by creating a new musical each season. It won’t take five years to get ”Marilyn” to the stage. However, this interview with creator Theresa Rebeck says otherwise. Also from what I’ve read, this season is 12-15 episodes. I expect the show will be on the stage for the out-of-town tryouts at the end of this season. I may be wrong about that, of course.

So…we expect some development in our cast members. Last week’s episode showed Karen being a bit sneaky and seductive and non-Midwest good girl to get information for Dev at a dinner. This week she’s so babe-in-the-woods that she can’t even figure out that she should ask someone what to do before going out to sing at a bar mitzvah for the first time. I don’t buy the bit that she’s just too preoccupied, waiting to hear if Ivy has lost her star gig. Which is she – street-smart or not?

On the upside, ”History Is Made At Night” may be the best tune in the show so far. It has a great melody, great harmonies, and great lyrics. The arrangement is skillfully done as well. (Get it on iTunes so you can hear the whole thing without the distraction of the action in the show and the dopey looks between Julia and Michael.) I really hope there will be enough of a book put together so that, at the end of the season, there could really be a ”Marilyn” show.

I love Katherine McPhee’s voice, I really do – but I must say that Megan Hilty, as a singer, is doing a damn fine job sounding the way I think Marilyn should sound. Maybe Katherine can do it just as well – I expect we’ll find out, eventually!

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“Smash” – Episode 5

March 6, 2012

Episode 5, “Let’s Be Bad,” sets up some personal conflicts and expands on some already set up and developing. However, I don’t want to get into the soap-opera aspects of the show: I would rather discuss a little something that irritates me. Since I like so very, very much about this show, the annoyances loom larger than they would probably seem otherwise.

Here’s the thing: Character Derek Wills, the show’s director, has repeatedly shown himself to be an obnoxious and egotistical, yet talented, artist. Tom, the composer, calls him “a horrible human being.” His talents are supposed to be so unbelievably great that people tend to cut him a lot of slack in both his professional and personal relationships. Okay, I’ve known some artistic types like that. Most of the time they weren’t nearly as talented as they thought themselves to be.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Derek really is that good. Does that excuse the fact that he is having an affair with (or, to be more accurate, just sleeping with) the show’s star – and he has been since before she was selected for the role of Marilyn? Is this common practice in the world of today’s Broadway shows? I hope not. Perhaps it’s just a plot device, like in any other show, designed to increase the conflict between the characters.

Okay, I’ll concede that it might just be dramatic license. But his behavior in rehearsal – a professional environment – is another thing altogether. Lots of shows about musicians, actors and other entertainers have featured the stereotypical obnoxious, demanding boss: sometimes it’s done for drama, sometimes for comedic effect.

One of my pet peeves in the “Law and Order” franchises is their treatment of artists of all types. (They also consistently hate rich people – all rich people. But that’s for another day.) Temperamental, overbearing painters, orchestra conductors, architects,even novelists have usually been portrayed pretty much one-dimensional. Even murderers generally got treated better!

But I digress. In this episode, Derek not only embarrasses Ivy in front of the ensemble – repeatedly – he even forces Karen to demonstrate how he wants Ivy to sing a passage, in what I thought to be a very uncomfortable scene. (At least it was uncomfortable for me.) This is made worse by the fact that he asks her to sing “Happy Birthday, Mister President,” which Karen had sung for him the night he tried to seduce her. He even says, “I’ve heard you do it, go ahead,” or words to that effect, implying to everyone in the room that something personal had taken place between them in the past. Why does he not think this would undermine the ensemble’s respect for him?

The writers make sure we know that there are union-mandated breaks in rehearsals by creating a character who is basically just  there for that purpose. Do they really expect us to believe that Actors’ Equity is concerned about the timing of rehearsal breaks but not about harassment – in particular, pretty obvious sexual harassment?

I’ve worked with many, many musicians, students and adults, amateur and professional. It doesn’t matter what group you work with. All artists deserve to be treated with respect. Derek’s behavior would get him fired in most of the situations I’ve been in, no matter how talented he might be.

This is why I couldn’t write tv drama. I couldn’t force my own suspension of disbelief enough to set up the dramatic tension in this way. I’ll keep watching, not expecting it to be real life. The musical performances are just too much fun for me to abandon the show now. In fact, I haven’t heard a musical number in the show yet that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. But…I can hope for a little reality thrown in, though, can’t I?

Maybe not. I realize that since this a “musical about the making of a musical,” there’s not much more chance that the plot line will be realistic than that the intercuts from the rehearsals to full performances of the musical numbers really happen that way…

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“Smash,” episode 4 – “The Cost of Art”

February 29, 2012

Cattiness abounds as Karen is tested by the members of the ensemble, and by Ivy’s pressure to get her removed from the show. The character of Ivy is developing nicely as someone with very limited self-confidence. I don’t know if New York professionals really play these kinds of games…I hope not, but I expect some do, just like immature people everywhere.

(Spoilers!) The turnaround of three of the ensemble members to befriend Karen was a bit swift, but nicely played. I felt I had to suspend my disbelief somewhat. I don’t know that three performers loyal to Ivy – or at least seeming so – would change their minds so quickly. Of course, maybe they know it doesn’t have to be an “us or them” situation, if they are mature enough!  They are all young 20-somethings, apparently, and all of them need to be validated themselves by the director (and anyone else they look up to). Please don’t let it degenerate into soap opera.

Dev is shaping up as the obligatory outsider. Often in storytelling it helps the audience if there is a sort of a narrator, and if done subtly, the audience doesn’t notice! If somebody has to explain things to Dev it can help us understand things as well.

The staging of the song in Derek’s apartment was particularly cute. I found myself smiling when Tom told the band, “It’s in G, they’re easy changes, just…read my mind.” Heh. And of course, suddenly, there is a fully-orchestrated accompaniment behind them! It was done smoothly enough that we could suspend our disbelief. It helps that we were set up in the previous episodes to follow the slide in and out of the dream world of the fully-produced show.

We’ll see if Karen’s intervention helps her deal with Derek and Ivy.

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“Smash,” episode 3

February 22, 2012

The third episode of “Smash” mainly continued plot lines set in motion in the first two episodes. It gave more backstory to the characters, helping to make them less one-dimensional stereotypes. The title of this episode could have been “Affairs and Revelations,” since that theme was played out with several of the characters. Current and past affairs are revealed and discussed, and they add levels of tension not only for those involved but for those around them as well. I’ll not provide too many spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet.

Musical moments include a song from the show of all Bruno Mars tunes that was supposedly playing in New York, sung by Michael Swift (played by Will Chase). It was fully produced – music, choreography, lighting, sets – all put together for one tune in one episode. Chase is a fine singer and did a creditable job in a duet with Megan Hilty that is intended for the Marilyn show. They did it as they did the previous tunes from the show, intercutting the full staging with the rehearsal shots.

I’m still impressed with the level of musical performances on the show, including the covers. The variety of tunes used so far is impressive, The extended versions available on iTunes are well-produced and very enjoyable on their own.

What’s not to like? I really don’t like Tom’s scheming assistant, Ellis. So far he hasn’t any redeeming qualities at all!

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“Smash” episode 2 – “The Callback”

February 15, 2012
Katherine McPhee as Marilyn Monroe

Katherine McPhee as Marilyn Monroe

Caution – spoilers ahead!

I stand by my previous statements about “Smash” now that I’ve seen the second episode. I didn’t know the name Megan Hilty before, but I did my Wikipedia research since, and discovered that art sort of imitates life. (Yes, I know there are other sources of information. Some are even more reliable, I hear.) Hilty played Glinda in “Wicked” on Broadway and later for a while in the touring show. She has pretty darned good stage credentials. Katherine McPhee, on the other hand, has more experience in the pop music and recording world. Either McPhee is an extremely fine physical actress – and that could be the case, I suppose – or she really is a bit less comfortable with dancing. She really looked much less confident than Hilty, even in the dance segment where she should have it solidly rehearsed. I don’t have a problem with that, but I found it interesting.

The B story about Julia and Frank’s attempt to adopt a baby from China felt a bit flawed to me. First, the resolution of the conflict between the two resulting in Frank’s acceptance was awfully quick. It had that rushed feeling I get at the end of some CSI episodes, when the DNA match comes in and the killer is unmasked two minutes before the end of the episode. I did like the involvement of their son, however. Often teenagers are portrayed as selfish and emotional, and Leo seemed to have a better head on his shoulders than either of his parents.

As I said in my last post, I enjoyed the chemistry between Julia and Tom in the first episode, and I thought that relationship is developing nicely. They have differences of opinion, but they have demonstrated the kind of closeness and mutual respect that you hope to see in two professionals who have worked together for so long. I hope more of the interaction between Julia and Tom takes place on screen. I think a window into the creative process between a lyricist and a composer might be interesting to a general audience, especially if it can be done without being over the top. So far, the show is very subtle and kind of understated. I don’t know if the audience in general will appreciate that, but I sure do!

The scene where Dev expresses his upset with Karen because she didn’t make the dinner with the assistant mayor seemed forced, too. But then, both of them are young and driven. Again, Dev’s sudden change of heart was too abrupt for me. I found her reason for not calling him much more believable. She’s a young, inexperienced girl in the big city, being considered for a starring role in a Broadway musical by a womanizing, temperamental director. No pressure there!

I was so impressed with the pacing of the pilot that those little things bothered me. Many TV dramas today are written with condensed plotline timeframes, so many viewers probably didn’t even notice it. Reading what I just wrote, I feel like I’m writing a soap opera column. The show didn’t have that kind of feel at all. In my view they got it 95% right, and that’s far more than most any other new television drama I’ve seen in years. Theresa Rebeck, who created the series and wrote the scripts for the whole 15 episodes, is to be congratulated. Skillfully done. Kudos to director Michael Mayer as well.

No comment on the reveal as to who was selected to play Marilyn – I think that’s a feint; the star on opening night doesn’t have to be the one selected today.

I wasn’t able to watch the episode when it was broadcast. I was willing to pay the three bucks to get it from iTunes. The sound is great in the HD version, also, even on the iPad!

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“Smash” – I think I’m going to like this!

February 13, 2012

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.

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President Reagan’s address to the nation follow the loss of the Challenger shuttle

January 29, 2012

This is what I meant in my previous post. After 26 years – has it really been that long? – this speech still moves me to tears. This man was a leader and he kept us from losing the vision after such a terrible calamity was broadcast on national television.

And I can only close  with the verse penned by Robert A. Heinlein as an additional stanza to the hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong To Save,” which was long ago adopted as the US Navy’s Hymn.

Almighty ruler of the all
Whose power extends to great and small,
Who guides the stars with steadfast law,
Whose least creation fills with awe –
Oh grant Thy mercy and Thy grace
To those who venture into space.