I need some help from my Broadway historians out there. In Smash: A Novel, the musical the characters are mounting is called Shine On Harvest Moon and is about the life of Nora Bayes, the vaudeville star who co-wrote the title song. One of the novel’s big dramatic conflicts has to do with whether the score should include some of Bayes’ songs (to make it stronger as a piece of history) or consist of nothing but originals (to make more money for the songwriter). Much of this debate hinges on the insistence by all concerned that the score should contain a handful of potential Top 10 pop hits. Now, Smash: A Novel was released in 1980, and as I’ve tried to recall the big Broadway shows of that era, I can’t remember too many that were as pervasive in the broader popular culture as the producers of Shine On Harvest Moon expect their musical to be. Maybe A Chorus Line. But did that generate many singles? With, like, radio airplay and all? Anyone?
What’s that you say? You want to know why I’m killing time up top asking questions about Smash: A Novel rather than writing about this week’s episode of Smash: A TV Show? Because this is a rough one, folks. A hard Smash to face. Whenever the most exciting scene in a television episode is a lengthy discussion about which regions of India serve peanuts with their curry… well, let’s just say we’ve got trouble.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. “Publicity” was cruising along in the “D+” range—the “+” due largely to that peanut scene, which is just weird enough to be entertaining—until Smash did what it so often does, uncorking a few arresting moments in its last act, and thus keeping an ember of hope alive that this show can one day live up to its potential. In this case, the spark is ignited by Ivy, who gets Ellis to send Karen a text saying that rehearsal’s been canceled, so that Ivy can take over Karen’s big, potentially star-making number, “Second-Hand White Baby Grand.” It’s a honey of a song, too, sung from the vantage point of one of the “shadow Marilyns” while the Rebecca version of Marilyn lounges on Lee Strasberg’s couch and tries to have a sense-memory. As sung by Ivy, the song is really about Ivy, who recaptures the hearts of the ensemble as she sings, “I still have something beautiful to give.”
The only problem is that while Ivy is singing, the episode is cutting between the other characters in their respective homes, looking to put a capper on the tangled mess of storylines threading throughout “Publicity.” So while we’re trying to concentrate on how amazing Megan Hilty is, writer Theresa Rebeck and director Michael Mayer are reminding us that Eileen and her bartender boyfriend Nick shared a thoroughly uninteresting date to BAM in tonight’s episode, where Nick was bored by all the artiness, and Eileen was humiliated by the sight of Jerry with his sexy young ladyfriend.
And, naturally, we’re reminded of Leo. Terrible, terrible Leo.
What is it with this show and the Leo storylines? Does Rebeck not realize that this boy is Dev-like in his tediousness? This week, Leo runs away from home, which panics Julia and Frank, because as a helpful cop assures them, “Running away is about the most dangerous thing a kid can do in New York.” (Translation: “Your kid’s either dead in an alley or peddling his ass for crank. Have a nice day.”) But just when all hope seems lost, Julia’s Leo-sense starts tingling, and she stakes out his school in order to confront Leo’s stoner pal and to get him to admit that Leo’s actually been crashing on his bedroom floor. There follows a hilariously pathetic moment where Leo’s friend puts Julia in her place, saying. “You screwed up your life so bad you have to run around threatening loser teenagers,” and then letting her know that none of this is Leo’s fault. (Except that it is Leo’s fault. It so is. The kid’s an AP student, theoretically. He shouldn’t be freaking out so hard because his mommy and daddy aren’t getting along.) Eventually, given enough “space,” Leo comes home, where Julia says, “Dinner will make us all feel better,” and Leo says, “Will it?”—both line-readings so wooden that you should watch out for splinters.
The other big action in “Publicity” involves the difficulty Miss Rebecca Duvall is having getting into the swing of the Broadway life. Unlike last week, where Rebecca’s complaints about all the “singin’ and dancin’”—and the climactic come-to-Jesus moment where she acknowledges her limitations—were both fun to watch and ultimately purposeful, Rebecca in this episode is mostly just irritating, as she shows up late and distracts the crew by asking them to make her disgusting kale smoothies. Worse, when she hears that Karen is being groomed to take over for her should she stumble, Rebecca pulls a reverse-All About Eve, and begins sucking up to the ingenue, taking her out clubbing, and encouraging her to sing Snow Patrol songs on stage with the hot young band Cooper. (I know Cooper is a hot young band because Karen says they’re “fantastic,” and when has anybody on Smash ever lied to us?) Ivy is rightfully appalled by all of this, scoffing to Ellis that, “It’s like some demented fairy tale. Kiss a movie star and become one.”
This all culminates in what is easily the weirdest scene of the episode, and one of Smash’s weirdest since the steroid-fueled Ivy-in-the-mirror number earlier this season. At the aforementioned Indian restaurant—where Rebecca’s peanut allergy provokes the long conversation about whether Indian food is chock-full-o-nuts or not—Dev is in the middle of doing his standard thing of trying to sabotage Karen’s career by telling the people she works with how much he resents them, when suddenly, Karen fogs out and imagines Dev breaking into a Bollywood number. I honestly don’t know what to say about this song-and-dance—a Smash original called “A Thousand And One Nights”—because while it’s just about nutty enough to send Rebecca into anaphylactic shock, it ends with an awkward series of tableaux of the other major characters, which is like foreshadowing for the dreary montage that will end “Publicity.” I’m fine when Smash gets crazy. I prefer it even. I don’t like it so much when the craziness asks to be taken seriously.
The other good news from “Publicity” besides Ivy’s bit of cunning is that Derek’s finally woken up again. At the start of the episode, we have to suffer through Derek mooning softly over Karen, but as Rebecca begins making demands, first Tom and then Ivy begin telling Derek that he’s losing control of the production. (“You’re the director, why don’t you—what’s the word—direct?” Tom says, in yet another glittering gem of Theresa Rebeck dialogue.) Finally, Derek rouses, and begins yelling at Rebecca to get rid of the paparazzi, to stop going on 15-minute potato-chip breaks, and to start showing up on time. It’s in Derek’s fit of pique that he replaces the absent Karen with Ivy, and all seems to be going well, until “Baby Grand” ends and Rebecca says, “I think Marilyn should sing that song.”
So, Rebecca versus Ivy, huh? We’ve finally got a fair fight.
- By the way, David Bowie showed up. He’s totally nice.
- I love how people on TV always know the price of clothes just by eyeballing them. “This is a $2000 jacket,” Karen says to Rebecca about one of the scraps the movie star offers, even though one of Karen’s character traits earlier in the season was that she was clueless about fashion, and needed the other chorines to make her over.
- In the meta-version of Smash that sometimes plays in my head—all about the difficulties involved in mounting a backstage musical for television—I’m imagining the awkward conversations between Uma Thurman and Katharine McPhee during the downtime between their big “hanging out” scenes.
- Not a lot of Tom and Sam this week, sad to say, though in Tom’s few scenes, he seemed to show more genuine concern for the ultimate fate of Leo than anyone else. (But then he doesn’t have to live with the kid.)
- Did anyone else assume that Ivy was going to coerce Ellis into sprinkling some peanut dust into Rebecca’s smoothie? Now that would’ve been villainous. Or it would’ve revealed that Rebecca is faking her allergy. Either way, I hope the writers keep that in their back pocket for later in the season. (Chekhov’s legume?)
- You didn’t think I was going to confine my Smash: A Novel material to the opening paragraph, did you? There’s some choice Garson Kanin smut this week, as the aforementioned internal politicking over the score leads the producers to pay one of the cast members to seduce the composer, for blackmail purposes. The novel’s narrator watches the whole sordid scene go down on the stage, as the seductress warms up in front of the seductee:
Near the piano, she began her bends and stretches. On the forward bends, her emanating breasts came into full view. Now she was on the floor, spreading her legs and closing them. Open, close, open close. Hy hit a few clinkers—rare for him—but no one heard. Patti was moving her legs back over her body in the half-lotus position. As she came down, slowly, just a few delicate wisps of her pubes could be discerned—proving that she was truly a blonde, or else a mighty thorough girl, indeed. She sat up now and turned her back to Hy, who was still trying to keep his attention on his work. I saw his hand go to his lap and his body shift. He was, doubtless, having some difficulty with his equipment. … Patti, seemingly oblivious, actually calculating, began to mop her armpits, which were not cleanly shaven and so revealed a touch of golden down. She moved the towel up under her blouse and dried the skin between her breasts.
- The next day, the producers invite Hy to a coffee shop and play him the recording they made of him and Patti in her room, having kinky sex. (Patti: “How’d you know I was going to let you go up in my ass?” Hy: “I could tell. It’s that kind of ass.”)