Just before the last episode of the first season of “Smash” aired, show runner Theresa Rebeck announced that she would not be returning for Season 2. Instead, Josh Safran, a "Gossip Girl” producer, is coming in to, in the words of Tom (nee Christian Borle), “reboot” the entire show.
Though this type of personnel change isn’t unheard of, it is rare for a major show to lose its captain this way, and one can only guess that Rebeck, a creature of the theater, decided that some of the magic that she was hoping to translate onto the screen was irretrievably lost and that she was better equipped to work on a smaller scale with the strong stuff, rather than the diluted version writ large. Or perhaps she just realized that the show, as it stands now, is massively flawed and that the energy it would take to right the ship wasn’t something she was willing to waste on Katharine McPhee’s mealy-mouthed line readings anymore. Or perhaps she was asked to gracefully exit to make room for a helmer who understands how to take the show’s potential and deliver something worthy.
Because this show does have potential! When I watched the pilot back in January (doesn’t it feel like years ago?), I knew that this was a show that would live or die on the score. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman came out of the gate blazing, with numbers like “Let Me Be Your Star” and “The National Pasttime” that have held up throughout a season of listening to them -- at least as well as any Broadway soundtrack holds up. And with the exception of a miscalculated Ryan Tedder number and that bizarre turn to Bollywood, the show’s best element has always been its original music.
Take the closing number from Monday night, “Don’t Forget Me,” a final energetic ballad that led into a “Let Me Be Your Star” reprise. Even though I was furious that it was McPhee singing it and not Megan Hilty -- but more on that in a bit -- the song moved me, and I thought it was a fitting way to end a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. She pleads for the audience to remember her good qualities, how hard she strived, and not how hard she suffered. She wants to be a legend. A tall order, but as Marilyn is the textbook definition of legend in our culture, it doesn’t feel stretched, and even the fade-in of a large projection of her face comes at just the right moment. It’s sappy and overstated, sure, but so is much of the best work on Broadway, and I know I would have applauded like mad for that finale had I been in the audience.
So what we’re left with at the end of the first season -- and they haven’t even made it to Broadway yet, oy -- is that the show within a show works on some basic level. The thing that doesn’t work is the outer shell, the NBC show, and I think Rebeck saw the writing on the wall about that. But because NBC is pressing toward Broadway with this thing, they will have to figure out a way to make it better. And I think we all know that means not just handing over the reins to Karen.
Here’s the thing: I see what they’re doing here. Karen is the more moldable, malleable, Norma-Jeanable option for the role; she is the pre-Marilyn Marilyn, prone to fits of shyness and doubt and occasional reveries of intense talent. But she’s also boring and stiff, and those are two things that Norma Jean never was.
I understand why Derek is seeing her strange ghost wander around the halls like a specter from his own personal version of “Scrooge.” His vision of Marilyn is that of an innocent, a child, a ball of beautiful clay that men shape. And while it's problematic that the director of “Bombshell” has a misogynistic skew on the whole story, it does fit right into Derek’s persona. He likes his women to be little girls, delicate flowers, requiring his attention. It’s worth noting that when he was the sweetest to Ivy, she was at her lowest point, abusing drugs and getting kicked off stages. He wants to be the big daddy in the room, and Karen is a canvas on which he can paint that fantasy, down to her backstage melt-down. He has to coax the performance out of her as if she’s a baby bird, rubbing her curves and telling her that she’s a star, that he loves her. There were many men that treated Marilyn this way, and it possibly killed her. Which is to say, Derek has chosen Karen for now, so that he can treat her and mold her however he likes. I’m just not sure that it won’t kill her in Season 2. Just wait until she sleeps with him and he loses interest (and he will).
It wouldn’t be such a problem that Derek went with Karen as the big choice if the show didn’t have such a captivating starlet in Hilty. McPhee did a serviceable job on that last number, but I kept thinking that Ivy would have brought something else to the song entirely. Karen’s “Don’t Forget Me” felt like a pleading, a wish. I bet Ivy’s would have felt like a command. The show is so miscast, in that Hilty is clearly a Broadway performer with the chops for that kind of theater, and McPhee is more of a pop star who somehow keeps beating out the Broadway performer -- it doesn’t make logical sense. We are all supposed to suspend our logic and go with the idea that Karen’s the raw talent who is secretly a genius, but I don’t know why they keep pushing that narrative when clearly it isn’t true.
Hilty is the real genius in the Marilyn role -- even Anjelica Huston knows that, even if she couldn’t sway Derek -- and if I were here, I would be contemplating the fistful of pills as well. The show wants us to care about Karen and to despise Ivy, who sleeps with other people’s boyfriends and tries to sabotage everything. But the best person in real life is not always the best person for the job, especially when it comes to show business. I hope that next season they let Ivy redeem herself and take her place. Bernadette Peters needs something else to do besides look devastated.
Borle told the L.A. Times that next season will focus more on the nuts and bolts aspects of putting on a Broadway show, and less on the soapy drama, to which I say (like Sam) hallelujah! My favorite little bits of this episode were Julia and Tom trying to hammer out orchestrations and the stage manager trying to keep everyone happy during a crash run-through. I’d gladly take more of the technical behind-the-scenes sausage, which the pilot was so good at portraying with auditions rather than plot lines involving Dev or Michael Swift. I can’t even get up the energy to worry about the fate of Karen and Dev. She’s a star now, so I’m assuming that relationship is going to fizzle under her spotlight. As for Michael Swift, he may have impregnated Jules, but that doesn’t make him less creepy or predatory. All he has done is thwart their Chinese baby plans.
The only side character who remains compelling at the end is Ellis, who threatens to enact revenge on “Bombshell” while wearing a red devil suit. His little speech to Eileen about doing what needed to be done (a.k.a. nearly murdering a movie star) and how near-murderers never get coffee for anyone was preposterous, and he deserved to be fired. But part of me thinks that in 15 years, Ellis is going to be one of Broadway’s most successful producers. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty with peanut shavings or possibly blood, and showbiz tends to reward insane ruthlessness. I hope the second season explores this dark patch instead of just making him the villain. Ambition does have its place on Broadway, and I’m interested to see where Ellis lands once he learns to harness his.
And that’s all she wrote, folks. See you next year, when we hit the Broadway stage. Will Karen even do a hip thrust that doesn’t make her look like a fembot? Will Ivy channel Marilyn even more than she already does with an overdose? Will Nick Jonas give back the Degas? Will Ellis burn down a theater while he stands there cackling? Will Anjelica Huston ever sing again? And how long can Julia hide her belly beneath her flowy Eileen Fisher garb? All will be revealed soon. Until then, don’t forget Marilyn, or she will haunt you.
“Mr and Mrs Smith” 2 out of 5 Jazz Hands. Karen has about as much chemistry with Michael Swift as Julia has with her own husband. Not a great start to her star turn.
“Howl” 3 out of 5 Jazz Hands. I really love this song and the jingoistic USO choreography, but I don’t love Karen in it. Ivy standing backstage imagining her own rendition (P.S. “Smash,” please stop with all the flashbacks in Season 2 -- it’s like shaking your own hand) doesn’t help Karen any, as she was so clearly better, effortless and charming at it. Karen gets through the number, but I am not seeing this extra spark that Derek tells Ivy about. She looks mechanical and scared.
“Don’t Forget Me” 4.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands. And then she brings it home, and it’s magical. This is one of Tom and Julia’s best songs yet. Maybe they should always cram in a new ending on the day of the show to keep things fresh. I wasn’t feeling Karen’s tragic sexuality in her suicide scene, but her begging not to be forgotten in this number made me forget how much better Ivy would have been and just focus on McPhee in the role. Because we are stuck with Karen as Marilyn going into Season 2 -- at least for a little while -- any number that makes her more likable is a good thing.
Christian Borle: Expect a 'Smash' reboot
'Smash' recap: And now it is time to pray
Complete 'Smash' coverage and episode recaps
-- Rachel Syme
Photo: Megan Hilty and Jaime Cepero. Credit: Will Hart /NBC