YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 18, 2012

“Smash” and the demonic

Theresa Rebeck and Jess LynnI will get to Smash in a minute. I watch a lot of television, and have previously blogged about some of the ‘classier’ series, noting how the same intertwined themes are reiterated that have occupied culture in the West since the invention of the printing press:

  1. The authority of science and empiricism versus the claims and ordering of religious belief.
  2. Worldliness versus other-worldliness, sometimes expressed as the conflict between the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Nouveaux riches, like advertising men, are the devil’s disciples. Bruno Heller’s The Mentalist plays with this theme constantly, see http://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)
  3. With Promethean romanticism, the lure of fame and hyper-individualism as a threat to “traditional family values”.
  4. And flitting and in and out of all of the above, the thrill of the “demonic” as allied to “the  mob.”
  5. The role of the Broadway stage, movies, and television, now the internet in star-making or  conversely, dethroning or debunking “authority” and/or religion. The health-conferring country versus the crazy-making city, that unleashes  illicit ambition and Faustian bargains.
  6. How the social movements that accelerated in the 1960s have plunged American culture into heightened conflict regarding all of the above.
  7. Fat people versus thin people, and the health effects therein.

On to the super-expensive NBC-produced backstage musical, Smash. Theresa Rebeck, artistic creator, has left the show, for reasons that are not publicly stated. Rebeck is illustrated above, with a colleague, Sam Gold.

I have watched every episode twice. The actors and writers who have attempted to describe it have been mostly vague in their public pronouncements regarding their own characters, nor do they pretend to see deeply into the admitted complexities of Marilyn Monroe and/or her obvious predecessor the fabulous and similarly self-destructive Marilyn Miller, for whom she (no longer Norma Jean) was named. Rather, the series is organized around the conflicts I listed above: for instance, Marilyn, though a “bombshell” in the sex appeal department, has an underlying innocence, wholesomeness, and sweetness that the Jack Davenport character, director “Derek” (like JFK before him), sees in the Katherine McPhee character (Karen), in the series, a corn-fed Iowan with ordinary middle class parents, unlike her competition, the treacherous Megan Hilty (“Ivy,” the daughter of an aging Broadway star played by Bernadette Peters, who may expect too much of her daughter).  The country (as represented by “Iowa” Karen) wins the coveted starring role, partly because Derek has a hallucination in which she appears (more than once) in an entirely modest dress, of lavender with white trim; moreover she is not zoftig, unlike her rival Ivy (let alone size 14 MM), the easy urban girl, who, in her crushing defeat in the last episode is seen taking a full bottle of tranquilizers, rhyming with the death of MM from barbiturates and chloral hydrate.

The fact that Karen is living “in sin” with her (Asian) Indian boyfriend, does not detract from her purity, for she resists the temptation to sleep with Derek, unlike Ivy. Indeed, Karen is loyal to the play (still in workshop or previews) over temptations from a record producer who could make her famous without the slog through ensemble singing and dancing. In one of the funnier moments, Karen indignantly rebukes her lover in his proposal of marriage, for she exclaims that the show is “in tech!” and how dare he expect her to focus on anything outside the theater, though at that moment, she is only in the chorus.

On the fat versus thin battlefield, it is worth noting that tall and slender Katherine McPhee battled an eating disorder at one time, and that neither Marilyn Miller nor Marilyn Monroe was skinny. They were plump and shapely bottle blondes, and MM succumbed to a Hollywood makeover.

Marilyn Miller as brunette

One more item: the pilot for the show begins with McPhee singing Midwesterner Judy Garland’s signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Of course the romantic yearning these days is for stardom, which is not necessarily the same as fame. McPhee has a big voice, and I wonder if she is being promoted as another Judy Garland, whom she slightly resembles and perhaps imitates in her body movements. Is it only a coincidence that Judy Garland played Marilyn Miller in the 1946 MGM film, Till The Clouds Roll By, a movie whose chief theme is the supremacy of the “theater” over the whims of any individual, surely the ideology promoted by Smash. A nice collectivist touch that follows progressive ideology, such as the hopeful  “Look For The  Silver Lining,” Marilyn Miller’s most famous number.

There is really not much more to say about this musical, which I found compelling and well-acted despite the annoyingly weak book; anyone can see the conflict between traditional attachments and the bohemian lives of actors; Goethe laid it out in his contrasting Wilhelm Meister novels long ago. But anyone who expects music and lyrics of the quality of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim, Lerner and Loewe, or their antecedents in opera, operetta, or Gilbert and Sullivan, will be disappointed, for the music is at best, mediocre, signifying the general degeneration of middle class culture since the 1960s, and perhaps the decline of the singing actress with a large vocal range. (Though I must admit that I like McPhee’s singing and dancing. She does remind me of Judy Garland in a favorable way, and both were indebted to female black singers.)

Have we become a country of characters, over-identifying with fictional or fictionalized movie and television stars, whom we worship, neglecting our responsibilities to ourselves as striving, creative beings? Are we living our unique lives or are we hypnotized by the lives of others, fixated on “stars” and happily regressed so as to be ever more manipulated by celebrities who do not share our needs and interests? [Added 6-13-12: Everything I have written above can be applied to the better-written My Week With Marilyn. Michelle Williams, though slender, does a more convincing rendition of suffering Marilyn and she has the singing skills to be plausible.]

[Added Season two, as of 3-19-13]: The focus has shifted from rivalry over who is to play Marilyn Monroe to the ongoing debate in popular culture: “commercial theater” vs. “fringe”-type romantically defiant off-broadway theater. It is too soon to determine how the story will resolve the various triangles, but Katherine McPhee has returned with larger breasts, and there is a new love interest, indeed, a triangle between her, the director played by Jack Davenport (who so far has gone over to the Romantics), and the angst-ridden young offbeat genius played by Jeremy Jordan. The bad writing has not been amended, notwithstanding the addition of various guest stars designed to boost ratings. To one who grew up loving the musicals of the 20th century, with lyricists of the quality of Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Oscar  Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Yip  Harburg, and a slew of other artists, the deterioration in middle-class entertainment can only come as a shock and disappointment.

Internet sources consulted for this blog:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Miller. http://web.usi.edu/boneyard/miller.htm

http://www.squidoo.com/MarilynMiller?utm_source=google&utm_medium=imgres&utm_campaign=framebuster#module19718002

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresa_Rebeck

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe. (the latter quotes JFK “sweet and wholesome” public characterization of Marilyn’s notorious Happy Birthday song)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smash_(TV_series)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Shaiman, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Wittman  (life partners, previous hit Hairspray)

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4 Comments »

  1. […] SMASH had its “season finale” on March 26, 2013, but it has been cancelled. This blog tries to do two things: 1. To compare its optimism with some musical predecessors written from the Left (CABARET and CHICAGO) both of which stressed decadence and civic corruption; and 2. To note how SMASH catered to its liberal audience (feminists, gays) replicating the usual double binds that social democrats cannot escape. In this case, competition and compassion co-exist without strain; moreover it left unresolved the more controversial feminist and gay activist claims—on abortion, and whether or not all men are really gay, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary. (For a prior blog on SMASH see ttp://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/.) […]

    Pingback by SMASH: the perfect liberal backstage musical | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 27, 2013 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

  2. [...] It is important to remember that “mass culture” was considered to be a mobbish urban phenomenon that explained Hitler’s support and rise to power (the Frankfurt School story, see http://clarespark.com/2011/10/21/did-frankfurters-kill-the-white-christian-west/), but it was also the explanation for all manner of mental illnesses, particularly narcissism (vainglory), deranged relations between the genders, and constant back-stabbing. For an example, see the NBC series Smash, which although it appears to sympathetically portray the New York theater world from a feminist, pro-gay perspective, Smash also calls into question the values it apparently celebrates, for instance contrasting the loneliness of stardom with the mutual solidarity offered by chorus members to the Katherine McPhee character. (In the last installment, nothing “works” in NYC, including the plumbing and heating. I have watched all seven episodes again, and wonder if the contrast drawn between country and city life will now evolve into the corruption of the innocent Karen, who will, like Marilyn, be ruined by the mercenary, anti-art values of show business.) (For more on Smash, see http://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/.) [...]

    Pingback by Big Cities and the Mob « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 7, 2012 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  3. We are merely a society of bread and circuses now. However, you and your more enlightened readers are aware of human frailty and will realise that.

    There has always been a perfect body which has been much more important than a near-perfect intellect.

    I give you full props for watching a show such as this not only once, but twice — much longer than my household could endure. ;)

    No, there is no high culture here or even a ‘medium’ culture. This is the void. Nevertheless, it’s instructive on an atavistic level.

    Comment by churchmouse — July 5, 2012 @ 11:09 pm | Reply


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