Between the commercials, the promotional posters and Superbowl spots, it’s safe to say anyone with a passing familiarity with jazz hands saw NBC’s Smash last night. What did we get? A fast-paced entr’acte, with a few show tunes, a lot of belt, and enough camp to have us tuning in next week.
We open with Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee) in an ice dancer’s version of Dorothy’s gingham dress, singing a very pop rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” (“There’s uhhhhhhhhhh land that I heard uhhhhhhv...”). Turns out this stagelight setting is a fantasy, she’s in an audition, and is summarily dismissed when the director answers her cell. Embarrassed, Karen storms out and Ivy Lynne (Megan Hilty) waltzes in looking cool and confident. Prepare to see these two competing for the rest of the season.
We’re next treated to the return of Debra Messing, playing composer Julia Houston, with her inevitable gay sidekick, lyricist Tom (Christian Borle). Is there a surer thing on television than Debra Messing and a gay man?
We’re also introduced to Tom’s new assistant, Ellis. Tom thinks he’s cute, while Julia thinks he’s “Straight. So straight.” Impeccable gaydar as usual, Debra. The assistant has some insight: he suggests Marilyn Monroe would make a great musical. Jaded theater people that they are, Tom and Julia shake their heads. But wait! “There could be a baseball number....” Tom says.
Julia’s caterpillar-browed husband says the same thing when she gets home that night: “There could be a baseball scene.” It’s like all the woman ever did was screw Joe Dimaggio. Despite this, husband Frank doesn’t want Julia getting any ideas - she’s promised not to work for a year so they can adopt a baby. Later that night, while Frank sleeps, Julia is curled up in bed with her MacBook, her headphones and an old Marilyn movie. I do this almost every night, and I wish Messing would explain how she woke up the next morning without looking like a haggard insomniac.
Standing at a very NYC sidewalk produce stand, Karen and her gorgeous, ethnic, British boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) anxiously discuss the arrival of her parents from Ohio. You know how those small-town people get in New York City - snapping pictures of Times Square, falling down on the subway, giving quarters to the homeless. Obviously Karen’s not thrilled at the idea.
Rightly so! The four of them share a miserable dinner where her father constantly undermines her: “You can’t pay for this. You’re waitress,” he explains. “She’s not a waitress, she’s an actress,” the boyfriend says. And we all swoon. Later, daddy dearest warns her: “sometimes dreams don’t fit in with reality,” and I swear I saw her lip quiver. Dev swoops in again though, calling her courageous. “I think she’s a star.” When do we get to see Dev’s TV show about a sexy, supportive policymaker? It’s probably short on musical numbers but heavy on winning smiles and votes of confidence.
Back on the Great White Way, Tom drops by to catch the closing act of his latest musical. Backstage, Ivy learns she didn’t get a callback for that opening scene audition, and starts tearing at her wig like she’s seen All About Eve one too many times. When Tom comes in and sees her tears, we learn HER issue: always a chorusgirl, never a lead.
Luckily, Tom and Julia conscript Ivy to sing a demo song for the Marilyn musical. No one notices the meddling assistant recording the demo on his iPhone, so when it shows up on video sharing site “YouLenz,” Tom and Julia are livid. The assistant is fired. Julia paces around her bedroom, fearing the song will be cut to shreds by bitter blogs. “I hate bitter blogs,” she says. [Debra, you can’t have the blog without the bitter.]
She changes her mind immediately when she learns the city’s big theater critic thinks “the number online is a smash.” (Did you hear that? That’s the name of the show.)
Meanwhile, in a skyscraper - read: place where there’s money - Eileen (Anjelica Huston) is trying to divorce her philandering husband, and get a good settlement out of it, to boot. Because she is a fierce dragon lady, and refuses to submit to his bullying, she goes “Fine. Put all our money in escrow.” This leaves them both in the lurch, and her production of My Fair Lady on hold. But Eileen has her eye on another prize – Marilyn: The Musical.
In a meeting with Julia and Tom, Eileen expresses interest in producing the show, with the help of hot-shot director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport). Tom isn’t having this. From the looks of things, the last time they worked together Derek slept with his mother, his boyfriend, his assistant and his star, then rewrote all his lyrics. Julia convinces him to let Derek audition anyway.
And what an audition. They bring in Ivy to play Marilyn for a song called “National Pasttime.” The baseball number! See, this is totally a show for straight dudes. Ivy plays Monroe like a seasoned drag queen: there are shimmies, shakes, air kisses, winks, the works. Throughout the audition we see cuts to a fantasy production where Ivy twirls in a red dress and the baseball team wears sequined uniforms. I was a little surprised at all the innuendo here. Can you even call it innuendo when one of the players thrusts while another holds a baseball bat over his crotch and strokes it?
Everyone loves Derek’s work, even Tom, who is loathe to admit it. The next step is auditions for the Monroe part, and Karen shows up in a baseball jacket and jeans while every single of one her competitors is swathed in something pink, satin and strapless. She auditions with “Beautiful,” (because this show hasn’t catered to the gay demographic yet). When the song enters fantasy mode, it turns out she’s singing to her boyfriend Dev. Given all the shit she’s taken from her parents, “We are beautiful, no matter what they say,” has real meaning for her - i.e. forget the haters.
This translates into a bang-up performance (she’s no Christina, but still) and Karen scores a callback - only this time, they want sexy. Because she’s from Ohio, where they’re still learning about the birds and the bees, she asks for Dev’s help. They curl up to watch Some Like It Hot so she can practice Marilyn’s moves, and I guess I blinked because I missed the sex scene I was waiting for. Soon after, Karen gets a call from the director and rushes to his swanky apartment - we’re talking floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the Empire State building. What has this guy directed? Avatar?
Turns out, when Derek wanted “sexy,” he really just wanted sex. He intimates as much, Karen gets the shakes, grabs her coat, then veers into the bathroom instead of out the front door. Since she arrived at the apartment looking like an extra from Flashdance, she lets her hair down, strips to her bra and panties, and throws on one of Derek’s white Oxfords. Slinking out of the bathroom and toward Derek, she delivers a (really pitchy) rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” and straddles him, but refrains from locking lips. “Not gonna happen,” she says, before hopping off the couch and heading home. We assume she put her pants back on first, though.
The episode concludes with the callbacks, as Karen and Ivy primp in their respective apartments. If the ingenue/diva dichotomy wasn’t clear yet, Karen puts on a wrap dress with a cherry print and a cardigan, while Ivy goes for a halter and a fabulous white fur. Headphones on, they both head to the audition (as do Julia, Tom, Derek, and Eileen, though not singing) and in the final moments of the show the camera cuts between both ladies as they sing the same song “Let Me Be Your Star.” And scene.
I’m a sucker for musical theater (what else do gay boys do in high school?) and this is already looking like a slightly more credible, adult alternative to Glee. There’s a cast I can get behind, plenty of Monroe idol-worship (that will only increase as the season progresses, I’ll bet), original numbers, and Karen’s boyfriend. Plus, the trailer for the rest of the season includes Anjelica Huston tossing a martini in her husband’s face. Done and done.
Photo and video courtesy of NBC. Watch the full pilot here.