As a fan of musical theater, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the premiere of SMASH, the new NBC drama about the behind-the-scenes adventures of a group of people attempting to open a new musical on Broadway. Though the show is set to premiere after the Super Bowl, NBC has already released the pilot for free on iTunes, allowing curious viewers like myself to take a sneak peek. After watching the episode with admittedly high hopes, however, I found myself bitterly disappointed.
From the setup of the pilot episode, SMASH purports to be centered on a narrative trope I personally love – the rivalry between someone who has worked hard and followed all the rules, but never quite rises above mediocrity, and a newcomer who bursts out of nowhere, refuses to fit the mold, and sparkles with natural talent. I’ve written about this trope before, regarding comic book miniseries Mystic, noting its presence in celebrity media narratives (Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera, Evan Lysacek vs. Johnny Weir) and in fictional narratives like – appropriately enough – the musical Wicked.
The problem, however, is that Ms. Hard-Working But Mediocre is played by Broadway veteran Megan Hilty, and Ms. Natural Talent is played by American Idol alumnus Katharine McPhee. And while there’s no denying McPhee’s vocal talent, her voice simply can’t compare in power, vibrancy, and fullness with Hilty’s – a fact which becomes abundantly clear in the duet that closes out the pilot. McPhee is a pop singer, but Hilty is a Broadway star, and whatever the narrative setup, the competition (for the lead role of Marilyn Monroe in the new musical) in execution winds up being between someone who is hard-working and talented and someone with no experience and a weak voice. Given that reality, how is the viewer supposed to believe that McPhee (as a character who is definitively not a former American Idol contestant) would even be in consideration for the role?
This narrative problem could be chalked up to the perils (so familiar on the Broadway stage itself) of celebrity stunt casting. But I believe the issue goes deeper than that. This pilot implicitly urges us to believe that fresh-faced McPhee and her small, breathy voice are actually superior to Hilty’s singing-to-the-back-row style – not just for the sake of the narrative conflict, but for the sake of the show’s overall style. From High School Musical to Glee, musical theater in contemporary media has become a punchline, its songs and traditions reworked into airy pop confections that disdain their origins. The pop style itself is not inherently a problem, but the concomitant dismissal of classical musical theater styles creates a frustrating status quo for fans of the genre. And though the original musical numbers in the pilot (created by Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) are by far the best parts of the episode, even the very idea of a “Marilyn Monroe musical” seems weak and uninspired – in an early scene, Messing’s character bemoans the popularity of revivals and movie-based musicals currently on the Broadway stage, but is a musical based on the life of a well-known public figure any more original than one based on a film?
Beyond this glaring problem inherent in the premise lies another, more insidious issue: despite the fact that most of the show’s main characters are women and gay men, the narrative relies on a number of tired sexist tropes for its forward momentum. When the egocentric director played by Jack Davenport calls McPhee’s character to his apartment late at night and demands she “do Marilyn” for him – implicitly by having sex with him – she’s horrified and runs to his bathroom in shock. But a moment later, she pulls herself together and decides to swap her clothing for a men’s dress shirt hanging in the bathroom and perform the infamous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” for her potential director, complete with a seductive crawl into his lap. When Davenport leans in to kiss her, she turns away, telling him the dance is all he’s going to get, and we’re presumably supposed to applaud her show of backbone. But the real message comes through clearly: McPhee’s character is admirable because she gives into sexual harassment just enough, accepting this as “part of the process” but not slipping into promiscuity. This scene comes on top of Messing’s unfortunate storyline, which involves her husband (Brian D’Arcy James) repeatedly berating her for focusing on her musical-writing career instead of their attempts to adopt a baby. Casting couches and work-family balance are certainly topics that could be thoughtfully explored in feminist narratives, and I hope the series improves on both past the pilot, following in the vein of the much stronger subplot about the show’s producer (Anjelica Huston) and her contentious divorce. My expectations, however, are not very high.
Whatever the merits of the show, I’m happy to see Broadway stars (particularly Hilty and Christian Borle, who plays Messing’s writing partner) getting the chance to gain mainstream exposure. And as a scholar, I’ll certainly continue to watch Smash, if only to see where the series goes and what it does to influence the popular perception of musical theater (and musical theater television) in a post-Glee world. But after such a frustrating pilot episode, riddled as it was with narrative disconnects and troubling sexism, I find it doubtful that I’ll enjoy the experience.