I 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:
- The authority of science and empiricism versus the claims and ordering of religious belief.
- 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 https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)
- With Promethean romanticism, the lure of fame and hyper-individualism as a threat to “traditional family values”.
- And flitting and in and out of all of the above, the thrill of the “demonic” as allied to “the mob.”
- 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.
- How the social movements that accelerated in the 1960s have plunged American culture into heightened conflict regarding all of the above.
- 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.
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_Monroe. (the latter quotes JFK “sweet and wholesome” public characterization of Marilyn’s notorious Happy Birthday song)