Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
I say this as someone who loves television: There is nothing quite like the magic of theater.
Of the many cultural losses this pandemic has wrought, perhaps the most heartbreaking is the decimation of live theater. The lights everywhere—from your local 20-seat theater to Broadway—have been dark for nearly seven months. Right now the Broadway League has optimistically stated that they hope shows can begin to reopen starting January 3, 2021. But who really knows what the future holds?
That’s why now is the perfect time to revisit Smash, a musical drama that ran for two glorious seasons on NBC. For those of you who somehow missed this love letter to musical theater, please allow me to give you a front row seat.
From producer Steven Spielberg (!), the drama followed two ingenues—vivacious blonde Ivy (Megan Hilty) and mousy brunette Karen (Katherine McPhee)—vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe in the new Broadway musical Bombshell, from songwriter Julia (Debra Messing) and composer Tom (Christian Borle). Ivy and (the now unfortunately named) Karen have a classic rivalry: the seasoned Broadway chorus veteran not afraid of using her sex appeal versus the often blank-stared, clueless Karen. Spicy versus sweet. Damaged versus innocent. Both of them wanting to be our star.
To paraphrase Stefon, this show had everything: big musical numbers, tons of actual Broadway stars (Hi Jeremy Jordan and Leslie Odom, Jr.!), smarmy directors, even smarmier producers, Angelica Huston, Angelica Huston flinging cocktails!, catty in-fighting, dull family drama, evil assistants and Debra Messing’s ridiculous scarves (trust me, you’ve never seen anything like them). For theater geeks like me it’s a delightful behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to launch a Broadway show—or at least the TV version of what it takes to launch a Broadway show. For those who like a little camp in their television, Smash has tons. You can love to hate it, hate to love it, love to love it, or just plain hate watch it. There’s something for every viewer.
There was also drama behind the scenes. Theresa Rebeck, the playwright who created the series, departed after the first season amid reports that she was difficult to work with, and ran the show without running a writer’s room. Josh Safran, of Gossip Girl fame, stepped in as showrunner for the show’s second and ultimately final season. The chaos behind the scenes was evident in the show’s plots (which meandered and were often repetitive), and in the characters who often not only changed from episode to episode but sometimes scene to scene. For example: Julia and Tom are coming off the success of their long-running hit Heaven on Earth, and Julia has promised her husband Frank (Brian James D’Arcy) that she will take a break from work to focus on their adoption of a baby girl from China. But then Frank goes from being the driving force in the couple’s adoption of a baby from China to suddenly not wanting to go through with it by Episode 2. Tom’s nefarious assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) did the same thing every episode—there was never a door or a corner he wasn’t silently lurking behind. His over-the-top, cartoonish character stopped just short of twirling his mustache and evilly cackling.
Smash also gave us a sense of life imitating art. Broadway star Will Chase also played Broadway star Michael Swift, who is cast as Joe DiMaggio in Bombshell (follow all of that?). Michael ends up rekindling a romance with Julia, taking a page from the Grey’s Anatomy playbook as the pair have steamy makeout sessions all over the work place. Some, as the saying goes, like it hot. But while the writing surrounding their affair was clunky, Messing and Chase became a couple in real life after meeting on the show.
The series was also full of famous names. Midway through Season 1, Uma Thurman shows up as a big movie star ready to take the stage as Marilyn Monroe. By Season 2, the show is all over the place plot-wise and Julia’s scarves and over-sized sweaters reached new heights. (Seriously Julia’s scarves were the window to the very soul of Smash). Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus join the cast as a partners launching a musical called Hit List. The show’s biggest sin may have been making Jordan’s Jimmy Collins such an annoying, bratty, petulant character. (Seriously go watch Newsies on Disney+ after you finish Smash as a palate cleanser.) Jennifer Hudson guests as Broadway star Veronica Moore and graces us all with the powerhouse ballad “I Can’t Let Go.” Every moment of Smash leads to this superb moment and makes it all worth it.
Now, given what I’ve told you so far you can probably guess exactly who played Ivy’s mother … I’ll give you a minute.
That’s right: Bernadette Peters guested for six fabulous episodes as Ivy’s famous mother Leigh Conroy, who is jealous of not only her daughter’s talent but the fact that she’s at the beginning of her career and not the end. She undermines her daughter’s confidence every chance she get—plus she gets to sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy. Honestly what more could you want?
So much of television success is about the right time, right place and a little bit of pixie dust. I’m convinced that if Smash had premiered on Netflix or Hulu or Disney+ now instead of NBC in 2012 it would have been a hit. Network TV just didn’t know what to make of it.
But the show never faltered in the quality of its musical numbers. The songs were glorious and catchy. The choreography electrifying. In May of this year, it was announced that the fans dreams had come true and that producers Steven Spielberg, Robert Greenblatt and Neil Meron were bringing Smash: A New Musical to Broadway. The cast previously got together in 2015 to do a one-night only revue of Bombshell. Everyone wants to hear the songs again. Talk to any fan of the show and they can immediately name their favorite song and start singing it. (My personal favorite is “History is Made at Night.”)
It’s be a seven-year itch (sorry I couldn’t resist) since the show’s series finale and people are still debating #TeamIvy vs #TeamKaren. (I mean it’s obviously #TeamIvy but let people have their fun.). Truly now is the time to let Smash be your star.
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Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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