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'Smash' recap: Let's have a Broadway intervention!

February 28, 2012 |  7:40 am

Smash episode 4 recap hilty mcphee
Well, that is more like it! And by that I mean, this episode was the very smashiest of “Smash” episodes that we’ve gotten so far, in that it delivered on all of the glitzy promises that the promos running for six months before the show aired dangled before our faces.

We got two original songs (OK, one and a half), we got a celebrity guest star (who also happens to be on Broadway! Revel in the cross-promotion, Nick Jonas’ agent!), we got the inevitable Adele cover out of the way, we got Anjelica Huston staring at Degas in a room by herself, and most importantly, we got the return of the very thing this whole shebang was sold on, the battle for the Marilyn crown.

Sure, Ivy has the mantle now, but if she keeps doing that thing she loves to do involving pointing out all of her shortcomings in front of everyone who matters, then belty-blatty Karen will surely get a shot at top billing. Don’t you just love seeing two deeply insecure women clawing at each other? Which is to say, congratulations, “Smash,” you have returned to form, or whatever it’s called when a show that has only been on for four episodes and took a huge nosedive early on slowly starts to make a comeback. The bitchy froth is what people signed on for -- bitchy froth with a soundtrack. And Steven Spielberg gives the people what they want.

What Spielberg & Co. are not delivering is an accurate picture of what the development of a Broadway show is really like -- let’s be clear about this. “Smash” takes place in a fantasy world where actresses who have no credits are seriously considered for principal roles and cater waiters suddenly know the lyrics and dance moves of shows in secret development.

To be fair, “Smash” is more of a workplace drama than, say, "Once Upon a Time," but any aspects of the craft of musical theater that wouldn’t make for good TV are conveniently left off-screen. Julia is always just about to head off somewhere to “finish the book” (showpeople translator: the book is the script in a musical), but we never actually get to see her try to scribble down dialogue in her flowy pants. The dancers all know their routines in a flash, and the song rehearsal is only a flimsy backdrop for Ivy’s desperate power play. For a show that seems to be so outwardly concerned with “process,” we see barely any of it.

The early promotional materials for the show are all making sense to me now. Spielberg spouted quotes about how he made “Smash” because he knows everything there is to know about making movies and television, but nothing about theater. And he backed Teresa Rebeck and her concept because he wanted to learn. Seemed logical. But it turns out that the best way to learn about making a Broadway show if you are Spielberg is probably to just go ahead and make an actual Broadway show. This way is a cop-out. He’s just doing something he knows all about again, and let’s face it, he knows enough to not put in the boring (but realistic) aspects of making the sausage.

As far as we are concerned, "Marilyn: The Musical" will be something of a virgin birth when it finally debuts (and who know when that will be). We won’t really know where it came from. We will know, however, all of the borderline-psychopathic behavior of the people singing the songs. We will know that the lyricist has a fiery affair in one hand and a guilty Chinese adoption plan in the other. And we will know that the composer’s assistant might be the new Unabomber. But the story behind the step-ball-changes will remain a mystery. To us and to Spielberg.

That said, the razzle-dazzle was tip-top this episode. We finally got some original numbers that feel exciting; “The Wolf Song” is pure bouncy fizz, a nice antidote to that snoozer of a number from last week. Even the harmonies on the slower song were a bit surprising, in a good way. And then there was the Nick Jonas appearance, which was much less awkward than it could have been. Yes, he warbled Buble. And yes, he flirted with a woman twice his age, and again with Huston, which should be illegal. And OK, he may have jumped into a song he’d never heard before with perfect lyrics and a guitar solo. But all of those impossibilities aside, I bought the idea of a Jonas brother as a former child star who is now a millionaire. Because it was a stretch.

Karen’s “intervention” was a cheap excuse to flesh out some of the minor characters, and they still feel like tokens to me (we’ve now filled our sassy white friend, sassy black friend, and sassy gay Yoda quotas), but I am glad that Kat McPhee has some New York friends now. Of course, they are not going to be her friends when they find out that during their "Chorus Line" routines she has out-of-body experiences in which she shoves them all aside like so many featherweight challengers so that she can dominate a room with her best pseudo-Adele. They are not going to like that Karen at all.

And that Karen is coming. Oh, she is coming. There will be a moment, and it won’t be long from now, when Karen emerges from her mousy Iowa-shell like Gypsy Rose Lee in the last act, a “Let Me Entertain You” fan dance that ends in her being finally and forever the "star" she dreams of being when she is not serving lattes. And there will be no going back.

This diva-morphosis will be made all the more possible by the clearly-inevitable complete meltdown of Ivy Lynn, which is all the writers’ fault. Megan Hilty is as talented as they come, but man, is she being set up here. While Karen gets an entire backstory -- a family, a boyfriend, a history, token friends -- Ivy’s development remains stuck on the fact that she is sleeping with the director and doesn’t feel like she deserves her part. Any other interaction with a human being is just confirming that identity for her.

A real grand dame of the stage wouldn’t bother with the Karen Cartwrights of the world (or have them removed in a much more Gambino-family way outside of rehearsal), and she certainly wouldn’t ask any director to make her “feel safe” in a role. Ivy is as much of an amateur as Karen is, emotions-wise. She’s good at what she does, but she can’t hide the fact that she doesn’t trust herself. A weak actress is easy prey; no amount of thrift-store Zac Posen can hide the cracks in her confidence. Spoiler alert: Someone will exploit them.

Also, Tom went on a not-terrible date and Eileen spent a lot of time talking about China and gold bullion. See you next week, in flesh-colored tights.

The songs!

“Howl”: 4 out of 5 Jazz Hands: I’m just guessing at the rousing USO number’s title here, but the point is, it’s catchy. I’m going to be howling all over town for a week. Tom lost his song half a point by asking the band to “read his mind” to play it...and then they did. No party-band-for-hire is that good.

 “Let Your Heart Be the Teacher”: 3.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands: We only got a little snippet of this one, but when Karen isn’t drowning everyone else out, for the love of God, someone get that girl out of here before I lose it; it sounds very nice.

“Rumor Has It": 2.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands: This song is so played that the kids are using it for their dance class warmups, but Katharine McPhee squeezed whatever life she could out of it at the end, drawing vampiric life force from her betrayal of the chorus line. She will not be put in a corner.


How I got a job on "Smash"

"Smash" recap episode 2: They cast Marilyn?


"Smash" recap episode 3: A Bruno Mars musical

-- Rachel Syme

Photo: From left, Savannah Wise, Megan Hilty, Jenny Laroche, Katharine McPhee and Leslie Odom Jr. Credit: Patrick Harbron / NBC.