Defending The TV Show That Some Theatre Professionals Love To Hate.
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman
Okay. I feel like we’re far enough along in season one of Smash for me to make a critical assessment of the new musical TV drama rather than just commenting on the locations where they film. Something I’ve noticed thus far is that my peers in the theatre industry have strong and differing feelings about the show. I’ve noticed on Monday nights when the show airs (I prefer to watch the show the following day at the gym) my Facebook feed lights up with commentary, both negative and positive. When negative, the feedback is downright vehement and violent, denouncing the show as awful, vile crap. When positive, it’s usually along the lines of “I like Smash. There, I said it” or: “Okay Smash, you got me.” Only on occasion do I see rave reviews. The peculiar thing I’ve noticed thus far, however, is the role of the theatre artist who has a positive or negative reaction. In general, I’ve noticed that actors seem to lean towards disliking the show, and writers seem to lean towards enjoying the show, and I think I know why. (This is a broad generalization – I know writers who hate the show and actors who love it as well, they just happen to be fewer and further between.)
Let’s be clear: there is much about Smash that we all can criticize when comparing it to what actually happens in the rehearsal halls of New York City. If Karen walked into an audition for “Marilyn the Musical” and sang Christina Aguilera in real life, she would’ve been laughed out of the room. The actors seem to need no time to memorize new lyrics when handed to them. Who the hell has that extensive of an amount of rehearsals before a callback audition? Personally, I’m willing to forgive the show for these transgressions because, well, it’s fiction – one of my friends said to me “This must be what it feels like to be a lawyer watching The Good Wife,” and I’m certain there are all kinds of discrepancies on that show when it comes to the law. One of the best television shows ever written, The West Wing, was constantly criticized for being overly optimistic. Accuracy is something everyone wants to achieve but often flies in the face of good drama. Still, I think there’s something inherent in Smash that appeals to writers of musicals more than actors.
Frankly, as a writer, I’m getting somewhat tired of my fellow show business professionals shitting all over the show for not being an “accurate” portrayal of how theatre in New York is made. No scripted show on television has ever been a completely “accurate” portrayal of anything. Good writing takes liberties to enhance the drama. As a writer you want above all else to be telling a good and compelling story. That’s the goal. You’re not a documentarian; you’re a storyteller. You create a world where a major producer would actually pick up a new musical after seeing a single YouTube clip because it’s not about reality; it’s about high stakes and exciting (and in the case of television, expedient) storytelling. You place the star of the show and the writer having lunch in Times Square even though if they were real people they would never do that because of the magic that is the backdrop of Times Square. Who cares about where they would really dine? It’s an exciting and iconic setting. After all, these are characters who break into song, and not just in a diegetic setting. It's heightened reality. Sometimes scripted drama requires a little gloss over the cold, hard facts of real life.
I once had a friend defend the show Glee (which I cannot stand – I find the writing so awful I can’t get through it) to me with the following argument: “The show isn’t for you, it’s for people in the middle of the country. It’s good for them to see something like this.” Putting aside the brazen superiority of such a statement, I put it to you that Smash is not necessarily only for those of us who live and work in the theatre industry – those of us who would pick it apart because we know better, because we have the inside scoop. Yes, they wedge in references to producers and venues and situations that only we will understand (in one instance they include a brilliant half-minute of the actors trying to figure out which pages were replacing which in their scripts), but the larger point is to have a national audience looking at a network show about how theatre is made – a show that attempts to treat its subject matter in a somewhat serious manner. I for one think that’s a good thing.
Now, back to my writer vs. actor hypothesis. I first put my finger on it in the episode “Chemistry,” when they rehearse the new lyrics to the song “History Is Made At Night” towards the end of the episode. As the actors run through the number, Julia (Deborah Messing’s character and bookwriter-lyricist of "Marilyn the Musical") smiles. There’s a sparkle of something special in her eye. For me, it read not just that **SPOILER ALERT** she had fucked the leading man on the rehearsal sofa the night before, but rather that said fucking led her to write these lyrics, and she was watching them come to life in front of her for the first time. I felt it not so much as "oh yeah, we totally had sexytime last night," but rather "Yes, I really wrote this song about you and me. But you know what, it's great. And it fucking works."
As a writer of musicals, I’ve felt that sparkle before. It’s difficult to describe the sensation that a writer feels when he or she watches something that before had just been words and notes on a page – words and notes that exist where nothing existed before (cue the ostinato from "Finishing The Hat") – become something real and alive in front of you, moving through space and time. If successful, it’s nothing short of orgasmic. The hairs on your head and forearm stand on end. You feel a tingling in the joints of your fingers. It’s like falling deeply in love. You think to yourself: “my God, this is real. It’s happening. And I made this.” It’s something I think that I and my fellow lyricists, librettists, and composers connect with in Smash.
Actors, on the other hand, have a legit gripe with the show. To begin with, the characters that make up the cast of “Marilyn the Musical” are quite petty and self-absorbed. I have a hard time believing they’d be so mean to each other just because there’s a little healthy competition. Every actor I know is welcoming to someone who is new to New York and the biz. That’s not to say actors can’t be bitchy – hell, we ALL can be bitches at times – myself being a repeat and sometimes flagrant offender, but I see how such outward bile can be off-putting. That said, as a writer I see why it’s there. In writing, always go for the jugular. Keep the stakes high. One of my favorite pieces of advice a writing instructor ever gave to me was: “be mean to your characters.”
So I like Smash. There, I said it. I don't love it, but I do find it to be an enjoyable 42 minutes of television every week (I download it and watch on my iPad sans commercials). Does it have flaws? Abso-fucking-lutely. Is one of the best parts about watching it getting to read Rachel Shukert’s hilarious recaps on vulture.com the next day? Um, duh! Is the writing perfect? Hell, no! (There's no such thing as "perfect" writing – though in my opinion there's a Stephen Sondheim musical or two that comes pretty close...) A couple of times per episode there's bound to be some dialogue or moment that makes me wince. But it isn’t trying to insult us as viewers by writing for the lowest common denominator (which is something I think Glee does in every episode I've seen). It is attempting to raise the quality of musical storytelling on television to the level of a legitimate hour-long drama. And I for one think that it has been somewhat successful thus far. But then again, who knows? I may be back on here a few weeks from now totally recanting everything I've just laid out about the show's qualities. But for now, I'm enjoying it very much.
That said, if some bitch came in to audition for me and sang “Beautiful” for a Marilyn musical I wrote, girl would not get a callback.
GREGORY JACOBS-ROSEMAN is a composer/lyricist and theatrical sound designer currently developing Save The Date: A New Musical Comedy. www.gregjr.com
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