Monday, March 19, 2012

Yes, yes you can be my star.

In a way, writing about Smash violates my "no blogging about work" policy, since it's not just a TV show about theatre, it's shot in New York and filled with actual theatre people both in front of and behind the camera, some of whom I have worked with and may work with again. So the reasons I have for not talking much here about my job or plays in general totally apply. But I'm going to do it anyway, because I'm starting to get pretty defensive.

See, in the circles I travel in (and especially the circles my Twitter feed travels in) Smash has become pretty unpopular, in a way that makes me wonder why all these theatre people who i thought were pretty generally steeped in pop culture are pretending that they've never watched TV before. It's so soapy! Um, yes. It's a prime time soap. That's actually its job. It's not realistic! Did you actually think it was going to be? I'm pretty sure real doctors don't all sleep with each other like they do on Grey's Anatomy either. And my favorite: I'd stop watching it but I feel like I have to. You know, for work. Look, I've been in abusive relationships with plenty of shows, sometimes for years. I'm not saying you shouldn't hate-watch it. Just stop making excuses for it.

Even more en vogue than hating on the show among theatre peeps? Hating on Katharine McPhee. And I'm sorry, I'm just not having it. You know she and Megan Hilty aren't actually in competition, right? Yes, Megan is fantastic, and a real live Broadway semi-star. And yes, Katharine/Karen is entirely wrong for Marilyn and it would never really be considered. But I, who didn't watch her season of American Idol and so had no frame of reference for her at all (they really did introduce her to me!) was completely and totally into her from moment one.

Karen is annoying. Well, yes, she's new. You can't slam the show for being unrealistic on the one hand and then slam this pretty perfect characterization of the girl who was the star in all her high school plays suddenly being the smallest fish in the ocean. You know this girl. You've been this girl! (Though, I do agree: would she really be this green? She has an agent, and presumably an Equity card. I would assume she's worked regionally — contrary to what the show would have you believe, there is excellent professional theatre in Kansas Iowa whatever.) Watching her get smacked down a little and taught a valuable lesson by her new friends in episode 4 was completely satisfying. Watching her get used to heartbreak and learn to suck it up and do her job is about as real as the show gets. I'm actually much more annoyed with Ivy's constant whining about being in the chorus...of a giant Broadway hit. Fuck you, do you know how many people would kill for that job? And now you're going to act like a diva in your first big lead a workshop? I mean, that's the show, that's the drama, and I enjoy the drama. But it seems weird to hate on Karen while not reserving some for Ivy too, if we're going to go there.

Also, sidebar, can we stop using "autotuned" as a synonym for "processed?" Yes, "Let Me Be Your Star" was recorded in a studio and mixed within an inch of its life (and PS, most Broadway musicals nowadays are also mixed within inches of their lives) but that doesn't mean those girls aren't belting the fuck out of it and hitting the notes on their own. I've listened to McPhee's recording of "Beautiful" a lot (shut up) and she definitely has a lot of vocal fry on the low notes but I'm really not hearing the autotune blip there. Creating a pop sound doesn't equal not being able to sing. (That said, maybe a scene that's actually about how someone in the ensemble is too loud shouldn't be perfectly mixed?)

Episode three was pretty bad. I grant that. (It also featured the only bit of unreality that's really bugged me so far in the entire series: This workshop is not a $200 a week job. A reading, where everyone just stands at music stands with scripts for no more than 29 hours for just one week, pays $200. This is clearly a full Broadway workshop; they're working full days, dancing full out, with props and costumes and no scripts to be seen. They're making good money. (And especially given the contrast in the episode to "the Bruno Mars musical at La Mama," a bit that bothered a lot of people but that I thought was delivered tongue in cheek as knowingly absurd (and maybe a knock on Glee), but that would be a $200 a week job, if not less.) What kills me about this is that I think the reality is actually a far more interesting story to tell. The "starving artist doing it for love" trope is easy. The truth is more complicated. "I got this amazing job! It's a great opportunity and it pays $1,000 a week! ...and it lasts for a month. ...and when it's over I'll be unemployed again. ...and I'll have to go audition and do this all over again for god knows how long, god knows how many times." Let that be what the bitter waitress tells Karen to burst her bubble.)

But I digress. Episode three was also the soapiest so far (last week's is a contender), It's a soap. Even the undisputed great works of fiction about theatre get things wrong, or make things up for dramatic effect, or cut corners because those corners are boring. And I sort of love that we've reached a point (and this show is set in a world) where a charatcer's heterosexuality is a big dramatic reveal.

I'm not saying the show is perfect, but I find its flaws interesting. Maybe I'm just in the tank for it because it depicts something I care about and know intimately, but I also really believe its one of the most interesting shows I've seen in years. I appreciate that they're trying something daring within what's ultimately a very traditional TV structure. The pilot grabbed me completely (I may have watched it three times) and that affection hasn't worn off. The show is ambitious, which is rare enough. It's also a musical? I want to see where this goes. These first few episodes were finished before any had aired. Theatre people need feedback, and these episodes are like previews.

Plus, it's a musical. Musicals are manipulative in the best possible ways, and I'm a total sucker for them. As Joe said in his excellent recap of the pilot: "But this closing number, tying up all the aspirations and insecurities of its two protagonists in the same rousing belter is something no other show on TV is equipped to handle (sorry, Glee, you need actual characters first). By the time both Ivy and Karen stride into that Army/Navy surplus store, I've been totally sold." Joe and I are both less sold than we were then but every week Smash has the chance to do the equivalent of a great first act finale that sends you out into intermission wanting more.

Look, I'm not saying there's not stuff to snark about, and I've been enjoying some wonderful, bitchy recaps. But I love this thing, I really do. I find the entire cast charming and likable even when they're doing dumb things and the songs are mostly catchy and uniformly well-sung. It's bold and over-dramatic and sometimes silly and gee, what/who does that sound like? I can't wait to see where it goes.

1 comment:

mcm said...

I had a better written response to this, but I somehow failed to post it. D'oh! But it mostly boiled down to two things - first, I know lawyers who can't watch law shows and doctors who can't watch medical shows, so I'm not surprised that there are theater people who can't abide the inaccuracies in theater shows. Second, that I think it's not necessarily made for theater people - or rather, maybe, they're not the ones who are going to benefit most. I was thinking about all the folks who've never been anywhere near Broadway who didn't know who Bernadette Peters was until they saw last week's episode, and that made me happy for them. And maybe a couple of them will seek out more about her now. Honestly, I see it like Andrew Lloyd Webber - okay, maybe it's not great, but anything that brings new audiences to musical theater is okay by me.