What SMASH Isn’t Doing For Theatre

by Ayla Harrison

Can a show about musical theatre misrepresent the musical?

I am fond of musicals. (Okay, I freakin’ love them.) My adulation stems from a soft spot for classics like West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain. I’m a sucker for Technicolor dance numbers with intricate, effortless Gene Kelly pizazz and songs that bend your brain towards the Sondheimian fantastic.

I was excited for NBC’s Smash, about the making of a Broadway show. But I quickly realized, for a show about theatre there’s very little theatricality happening. Katherine McPhee (of American Idol) autonomously belts out tired pop numbers; while Megan Hilty offers up an occasional honest song, and Debra Messing even gets a few theatrically creative moments amidst a sea of catty backstabbing and plot hooks. But, the show feels only vaguely reminiscent of a musical, too afraid to leave the rehearsal room and hit the streets.

My question is: why can’t Smash simulate a real musical theatre thrill? Perhaps, NBC should take hints from Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse instead of Justin Beiber, because they managed to translate musicals onto screen seamlessly. In a musical universe, characters burst into song because words alone aren’t enough. Songs inform character. And any audience, in any theatre, eats it up.

We buy in-the-moment musical numbers when we see them live. Why can’t we buy it in our living rooms every week? Are we really unable to suspend our imaginations beyond a karaoke bar or Bar Mitzvah for McPhee to feel her singing is justified? Wouldn’t we invest in McPhee’s character if we saw something softer? More private? Perhaps an eleven o’clock number on a fire escape outside of her “modest” NYC apartment might help? (Hey, it worked for Cole Porter.) You see, in many musicals, the audience is engaged in a fantasy of their own during a burst of song and dance, we are right there with Tony or Maria or Don Lockwood. Because we want to invest in a world where people can sing and dance right in the middle of the street. No karaoke bar or rollicking bar mitzvah’s necessary.

The guilty-pleasure ridden Smash got renewed for a second season, despite unflattering ratings. But I wonder if the show will ever invest in “the thing” that makes musicals so sublime. (The “thing” all the characters in the show seem to love: the theatre.) When it’s a show about a show, sometimes watching a bunch of talented people in their leotards really, truly singing and dancing their asses off in a world without auto-tune is enough of an “inside” look. A Chorus Line proved that theory without pandering or clichés.

Theatre (and entertainment for that matter), in its best form, is about raw, palpable, honesty. It’s a fairly unglamorous notion: people are in the theatre because they love it.

And that’s about it.

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7 responses to “What SMASH Isn’t Doing For Theatre

  1. Apparently, you didn’t watch Monday’s episode of Smash when Katharine McPhee sang the original ‘Never Give All the Heart’. And I might add, she did an AMAZING, INCREDIBLE, FANTABULOUS, AWESOME job!!!!!!!!!!!
    And this song so far, has sold the most on iTunes!!!!!!!!!!

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  2. Also, when she sang ‘Shake It Out’ at the Bar Mitzvah, people loved it! And she isn’t autotuned, she doesn’t need to be.

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  3. I did see that episode. And she does do a nice job. McPhee sings that song (originally sung in the pilot), and the show plays the song over several scenes and then finally ends up with a close up on McPhee in the rehearsal room. For me, I might want to see McPhee singing this song on a street corner, or some location outside of the rehearsal room. It’s an organic, lovely little song. 🙂

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  4. And we only actually see McPhee singing the last few bars of the song. It almost feels like a “soundtrack” moment rather than a moment of breaking into song.

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  5. I think the show walks a clunky line between really being a musical and being a show about musicals, and if the writers make the decision and commit to it, it would flow a little better. I’m all for people breaking into song but I want a constant narrative. When Debra Messing’s affair partner broke into song outside her apartment, I was annoyed because it’s the only time they acted as though they are truly in a musical, and didn’t rely on the construct of karaoke or a radio playing the background music etc.

    I really loved the feeling of the pilot. As an ex-New Yorker and a musical theatre performer, those audition scenes felt really familiar. I think the show has great potential and I’ll keep watching, but I’m with you Ayla. They’ve got a lot of work to do.

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  6. Evan Lorenzetti

    I have so many problems with the show–but I’m still watching it. I think they are still finding their way and some of the recent episodes have been much better than the earlier ones. Perhaps the shows problems stem from aiming for too broad of an audience, fearful that it will only appeal to “theater” people?
    I’ve thought about that Chorus Line doc too while watching Smash, and also Slings and Arrows. Both are superior to Smash. But I’ll be tuning in Monday night anyway.

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  7. It’s a fine, fine line indeed. Let’s see where they take season two…

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