2012 is senior year at McKinley High for several members of the Glee Club. Rachel and Kurt are both bent toward the bright lights of Broadway. It will be hard to see them go, but there’s a natural limit to how long adult actors—some of whom will see 30 not long after graduation—can play teenagers. The question is whether they take “Glee” with them. For all its welcome, creative brilliance, the show may have run its arc. Like “High School Musical” before it, it is high school students singing, though with far greater élan and talent. “Glee” doesn’t offer its viewers fleshed-out characters, only types, students on the outside of social acceptance.
This is not to undermine the moral accomplishment of “Glee.” It brought such young people to cultural consciousness, making the case for their essential dignity, their need for respect, and—in these times of Tyler Clementi—even protection, but “Glee’s” characters nonetheless came to us as types, not real people.
"Glee” is produced by Fox. These days, all creativity seems to come from one of the non-traditional broadcast networks. The three old stalwarts seem content to play the same role that Detroit now does in auto-making. Let someone else be creative; then repeat the same in the most cost-effective manner. So when NBC offers us Smash, about the production of a Broadway musical, replete with musical numbers, is there any reason not to expect a corporate knock-off of “Glee?”
Yes! In every way that matters, a resounding yes. When the musical numbers stop, any similarity ends. To begin, “Smash” has a season-long plot. It doesn’t simply put the kids into a weekly situation, one often organized around an homage to this week’s pop celebrity. “Smash” asks what it takes—in the lives of those who do it—to produce a Broadway musical. Whose dreams will come true, and at what price?
This show to be produced is based upon the life of Marilyn Monroe, a young woman America made into an icon but at the cost of her own personhood. The plot of “Smash” revolves around which of two young women, Ivy Lynn or Karen Cartwright, will play the role. Both are aspiring actresses, hoping for their first big break. Each is loaded with talent and looks. Either of them is, or can be made into, a Marilyn Monroe type. The question is, which of them can be more than a type, can truly channel the woman America never really knew? In that regard, the Broadway musical at the center of “Smash” is an act of moral retribution. We may have made Marilyn into a type, but the woman now being chosen to play her is supposed to be more. She is to be someone who worthily inherits the adulation that smothered Marilyn.
Ivy Lynn, played by Megan Hilty, looks a lot like Marilyn. She’s blond and busty, and she has paid ten years of Broadway chorus dues. In preparation for the role, she has already begun to imitate Marilyn’s enunciation. The trick, she says, is keeping the upper, ever-so-full, lip still. Ivy reminds everyone of Marilyn Monroe.
So why look further? What gives this plot its pressure? Everyone who sees, and hears, Katherine McPhee, playing Iowa ingénue Karen Cartwright, knows the answer. She is a brunette and far from buxom, but absolutely irresistible. Fine, Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), one of the show’s authors, can resist her, but he is gay and Ivy’s friend. And yes, so can the director of the musical, Derek Wills, but he is sleeping with Ivy. Like the sing-offs of “Glee,” there are reasons to prefer Ivy or Karen, but the camera itself adores Katherine McPhee. She does not look like Marilyn, but, as the director himself admits, “This girl feels like Marilyn.” She has that irreducible, irresistible star quality. In the second episode, when she emerges from a waddle of dancers, born aloft in their arms, costumed and made-up as Marilyn, we definitely have diva rediviva.
I’d like linger with images of Katherine McPhee, but “Smash” is a character-driven engine. Leading the ensemble is the redoubtable Anjelica Huston, playing Eileen Rand, a woman trying to produce her first musical without the financial expertise of her former partner and husband. The show’s previews show her throwing a cocktail in her ex-husband’s face. One tunes in order to see what he does to deserve the splash, but Huston’s stature, and that of the writers, comes through most clearly when her ex introduces an ambitious blond bombshell to her in a restaurant. The insouciant, scheming young woman attempts to coddle Eileen as well.
All happy-teeth, she proffers, “Wow, you’re Eileen Rand.” Without hesitation Eileen counters, “We’ve met.” Undeterred, the blond chirps, “I don’t think so.” “I do,” says Eileen, imitating the annoying tonal slide of adolescence. Yet when Derek Wills discusses leaving her project for the coveted opportunity to direct “My Fair Lady,” one sees Eileen’s vulnerability as Houston’s face and shoulders slump. When the situation suddenly reverses, the little girl inflection of her happy response is worth every penny NBC must be shelling out for this fine actress.
Jaime Cepero plays Ellis, an assistant to the writer, Tom Levitt. There was something about him I immediately didn’t trust, or like. With each episode, his Iago-like character becomes clearer, especially when he taunts Julia Houston, Tom’s writing partner, played by Debra Messing, who is suspicious of him.
And then there’s Messing herself. I tried watching “The Starter Wife.” I wanted it to succeed. Maybe it was too soon after “Will and Grace,” or maybe I couldn’t accept Brooklyn-born Debra Messing minus Manhattan. “Smash” is filmed on location in New York City. There is a scene of Debra Messing crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, her red hair caught by the wind. Dante must have seen something similar on the Ponte Santa Trinita when he swore his undying love to Beatrice. Clearly Messing can do so much more than comedy. There’s a moment in episode three when, watching a perhaps-not-completely former lover croon to an actress, her mouth contorts, ever so quickly, with a small rictus that assaults the viewer’s heart.
And finally there’s the flawless Jack Davenport, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. As Director Derek Wills, he determines the fate of these two competing actresses and of the musical that will make one of them a star. He has made a play at both and been successful with one. Like the women, I keep thinking that I know what this particular expression of his, or this tone of his voice, means. And ever so consistently, the plot twists when his grimace turns to a grin or when he thinks with his head rather than his nether regions.
Not knowing what is going to happen to these characters during the course of the season, and yet having already thrown in my lot with them—despising some, devoted to others—I can’t help but tune-in. If this is “Glee,” it’s all grown up and glorious.