the Hollywood musical
This roundtable, focusing on the season 2 premiere of NBC’s Smash (which aired on February 5th), arose in response to a recent article “How “Smash” Became TV’s Biggest Train Wreck” by Kate Arthur. Though the article accurately addresses many of the problems in Smash’s first season (Emory Cohen’s dead performance as marijuana addict, Leo, Ellis’ unexplained and over-the-top villainy, Debra Messing’s scarves), it also pins most of the series’ failures onto the Season 1 showrunner, Theresa Rebeck (who apparently also likes scarves). So one goal of this roundtable was to identify what changes, if any, have been made to season 2 with its new showrunner, Josh Safran (of Gossip Girl fame).
Another question that was raised by those of us who read this article was: was Smash’s first season really “TV’s Biggest Trainwreck” or are the people who watch (or rather who “hate watch”) Smash simply unaccustomed to rhythms of the musical? The six academics participating in this roundtable are all fans of the musical genre and therefore, never saw Smash’s narrative as a failure since we were never watching the show for its narrative in the first place. But are great numbers enough to keep viewers around for season 2? Let’s find out…
The roundtable started off discussing what was great about the season 2 premiere:
Overall Narrative Structure
Alfred Martin: I do like that they’ve seemed to cut out all the extraneous plot and really focused in on the show and aren’t dinking around with Julia’s (Debra Messing) marriage. And thank GOD they seem to have gotten rid of her HORRIBLE son (Emery Cohen).
Kyra Hunting: I understand that many people feel that the show didn’t work because of the narrative or that the show worked despite the narrative on the strength of the musical numbers, cast, etc. But here is the thing: I LOVE the narrative – and so do many of my colleagues who are big fans of classical Hollywood musical. I feel like the disconnect for many is that a musical narrative logic is being imposed on a television environment. At its core I feel like Smash is a sexed up, knives out version of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical – New York is a pretty big barn – but hey lets put on a show!
No More Scarves
Amanda Ann Klein: I wasn’t all that bothered by Julia’s (Debra Messing) scarf-wearing in season 1 but now that her scarves are gone I like Julia more. Coincidence? I think not.
Jennifer Lynn Jones: I honestly never noticed the scarves either, although I feel that I subconsciously registered that the costume designers were signifying that Julia was approaching “a certain age.” Thinking back on it now, that and some other Julia plot points are bugging me, like too many offstage domestic dramas being heaped on her plate. And why can’t Julia be reaching “a certain age” and still be fabulous? Maybe scarfless Julia will be. Maybe that’s something to look forward to.
Alfred: I never noticed the scarves either. I find it interesting that (and I can’t remember from last season if) Debra Messing got top billing last season.
Amanda: Her scarves got top billing.
Amanda: The best number of the night was definitely Jennifer Hudson’s first number, “Mama Makes Three,” in the musical within a musical, Beautiful (though I thought it was hilarious that Karen [Katherine McPhee] described Hudson’s character in the show as “this sweet 1950s Aretha/Etta James type but she has this really overbearing mother.”). I personally love musical numbers that are set on an actual stage and this one was really fun: costumes, dancers, etc. This is what I want from my musicals! All I wrote in my notebook during this number was “WOMAN CAN SING.” On a related note, Katherine McPhee must never ever, ever sing another duet with Jennifer Hudson (“On Broadway”). Never.
Jennifer: I agree! Just hearing J.Hud in the previews for the next episode gave me chills.
Alfred: Why does the black lady have to be connected to Aretha Franklin and Etta James? But Jennifer Hudson looks and sounds AMAZING (I’ve loved her since her days on American Idol). The first scene shown seems to suggest that she is starring in a “black” musical, which I think is really interesting given this show. Really? She’s getting ready to star in a revival of The Wiz? This role seems to be trading on clichés big time, particularly with this character. The song “On Broadway” should just simply be barred from anyone singing it ever. It’s a horrible song that is locked in its specific temporal moment (and I always see the opening of All That Jazz in my head whenever I hear it). Also, her character doesn’t seem to be integral to the story. I’ll be really interested to see how (and if) they integrate her more deeply into the story.
Sad Julia & Sad Derek
Amanda: I’m glad Julia is getting a divorce and I’m glad that Derek (Jack Davenport) is realizing that maybe women only sleep with him because their jobs depend on it.
Alfred: For me, it’s less about getting rid of the scarves and more about them having gotten rid of her husband, Frank (Brian D’arcy James). As much as I liked Brian D’arcy James in Next to Normal on Broadway, he was underutilized and annoying as hell in Smash. I’m not sure about them going down this Will & Grace retread with Julia and Tom (Christian Borle) planning to live together.
Kelli Marshall: I kinda like that Derek is realizing this too, but that “Robert Palmer” number was just…too much.
Jennifer: No, the Palmer-style Eurythmics song did not work for me either, but can we really imagine a kinder, gentler Derek? And would we really want one? Dickishness is half his charm, the rest obviously being accent and scruffy hair. I think he does a good job with that bad boy charmer role. As director, he rides the line between leader and villain well.
Kyra: Derek without Dickishness and arrogance hardly seems like Derek at all. It seem odd to me that this never occurred to him before and while I really like him having to deal with the consequences of his actions, I don’t want him to become a saint.
Amanda: I agree the “Would I Lie to You?” number was odd. But I believe it was the only “fantasy” number in the first two episodes of season 2 and so for that reason, I was glad to see it. I read somewhere that the show is trying to get away from these numbers, as they are the ones most likely to turn off audiences who don’t like musicals. I think that if you view a spontaneous Bollywood number ( “A Thousand and One Nights”) as odd simply because it was inspired by the eating of Indian food (to name one example of a fantasy number that was skewered by fans last season), then you probably don’t like musicals all that much. So why are you watching this show then, haters? Musicals need the flimsiest of excuses to launch into a number. This is the point of a musical, no? I really enjoyed Karen’s Bollywood fantasy number from Season 1. If you can get past the ethnocentrism of the piece, it had all the elements of a great number: beautiful costumes and make up, fun choreography, and loads and loads of performers. I thought it was aware of its own campiness and embraced it. I loved it. Click here to watch.
Kelli: I like the way you think, Klein! I’ve repressed my love for and enjoyment of the Bollywood number on The Twitter Machine (and the like) so I would not be reamed in public. I did, however, show it to my Cinema History course last spring when we discussed America’s appropriation of Bollywood. Also showed a Zumba workout video, if you’re interested. ;-)
Amanda: Hilty’s last number, “They Just Keep Moving the Line,” performed at the Generic Theater Association Event (you know, the one filled with “Broadway Bigwigs”) was amazing. I will sit through 90 minutes of bullshit narrative to hear this woman sing.
Kelli: Indeed, girl. Indeed. Hilty ain’t messin’ around.
Jennifer: Yep. I wasn’t always on Ivy’s team, but this and all the sorrow they’re heaping on her now are definitely getting me there.
Kyra: I never disliked Karen the way many did, but I do think the best possible thing about the stupid Hipster musical is Karen could move on to that, the sort of Songs For A New World thing her voice might work for, and Ivy could finally go back to being Marilyn. Derek splitting these two projects might be interesting to and would take Karen/Ivy’s rivalry in a novel direction.
Alfred: I really disliked Ivy until two things happened: One, it was revealed that her TV mother is Bernadette Peters; Two, she became one of the more complexly-written characters on the show. And she is really acting the crap out of that character. And indeed, this episode started when she SLAYED that song. That voice?!?!?!?
Amanda: I loved McPhee during her season of American Idol, maybe because she performed mostly pop music? But on Smash, which is mostly focused on broadway music, her voice just never sounds as strong as it needs to be. It’s almost impossible to believe that she would be cast in the lead role of Bombshell, over Megan Hilty. I don’t buy the excuse that she is Derek’s “muse.” Or does “muse” just mean “someone I want to screw”? If so, she is totally Derek’s “muse.” That plot, which was so central to season 1, was always the most problematic one for me. But it seems like that will be less of an issue for this season, which is a plus.
Jennifer: I’ve had several conversations with different people about McPhee’s character Karen, though, especially comparing her to Ivy. Most people I’ve spoken to about the contrast between Karen and Ivy don’t seem to get why Karen would even be in the running against Ivy, something that Rachel Shukert brought up during Julie Klausne’s special Smash-themed podcast episode “How Was Your Smash.” Ivy seems to look so much more like Marilyn Monroe, and has those great Broadway pipes to boot. However, there’s a certain vulnerability in Karen that I think really resonates with Monroe and often gets overlooked, so for that reason, I’ve pretty much been pulling for Karen all along. However, I found her whinier and more cloying in these first two episodes, so we’ll see how it goes for the second season.
Kyra: Jennifer, I really really share some of your feelings about Karen and her vulnerability. I saw below that she is Norma Jean, and Norma Jean after all was the core that made Marilyn so appealing. I also think the assumption that her voice couldn’t be a broadway one depends on a pretty narrow understanding of a broadway voice. Ivy definitely has the more traditional belt but I’ve certainly seen modern musicals with the quieter/poppier sound that Karen has. Nonetheless, I think this has been such a flashpoint for people, and so often used to deny realism, that breaking the Ivy/Karen Marilyn competition might be necessary.
Amanda: Well said, Jennifer and Kyra. I understand this reasoning but for me, broadway numbers are about being BIG! BIG! BIG! I want big emotion, big drama and big pipes. This is why I was so disappointed with Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables ( 2012, Tom Hooper). [http://vimeo.com/57307781] Her voice sounded pretty and her acting was moving but I don’t care about all of those things when I’m listening to that song. When Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream” I want it to bore into my soul: I want her pain and rage over her lover’s betrayal and consequences of that betrayal to crescendo into a big, full throated burst of song. I don’t want quiet in my musicals. One exception: Once (2006, John Carney)
Alfred: I’m just happy that the other characters have stopped calling McPhee “Iowa.” I kind of think she makes sense as Marilyn because she has a kind of lightweight, breathy voice that I think is more suited for what the role is in my head and seems to be more “realistically” (as if that word even makes sense in the world of Smash) rooted in the person she is supposed to be portraying. All that having been said, I just don’t think McPhee is ready for the role she’s been thrust into. For me, she just doesn’t have the chops to carry a show (or the show within the show).
Karen’s Hipster Love Interest
Amanda: What singer/songwriter living in New York City and working on composing a musical doesn’t want people to hear his work, especially when those people are in a position to help him? Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) tells Karen “I write for myself” and “I don’t need other people to tell me I’m good.” Ridiculous. I declare shenanigans on this hipster character.
Jennifer: This guy? Too much. The fact that they namecheck The Strokes, even just to mock Karen, gives the tell that these writers don’t know from hipsters. And how many hipsters are writing musical theater anyway? Nonetheless, I do like the idea of having more than one musical being staged for the show, and I love the idea of these shows competing against each other. That seems fitting for Broadway in a sense: competing for space, competing for talent, competing for attention and audiences. And if the new musical brings in more songs, ALL THE BETTER.
Alfred: More importantly, what an awkward way to let the viewer know that he is “fair game” for Karen as a love interest than to have his gay pal declare his heterosexuality. Is it too soon to ask for this dude to be written out? His whole “too cool for school” act is old already and we’re only two hours in. It would seem, as y’all have said before, that someone writing a musical would really be a lot more open to people who could drum up opportunities for him rather than being an asshole hipster.
Amanda: [raises fist in anger] HIPSTERS!!!
Too Much Talky, Not Enough Singy
Amanda: In an effort to mend the narrative and character issues from season 1, I think Josh Safran decided to frontload all the narrative changes and focus less on the musical performances (and just giving a few solo/duet performances at that, very few group numbers with dancing). At least I’m hoping this was the case. Because if it’s not, I am not sure I’ll continue to watch. The narrative in this show isn’t strong enough to keep me around–there are better melodramas out there.
Jennifer: I’m a little worried that the remaining staff have taken too many of the criticisms to heart and gone to what might seem like safer zones. That might mean fewer numbers, or numbers more motivated by the musical. That might also mean going in a more familiar direction with Debra Messing’s character, Julia. I got antsy when I noticed how many “Grace” (of Will and Grace) moments there seemed to be in the second episode: moving in with her gay best friend after the end of a failed relationship, taking to the bed with her misery and not bathing enough, even doing Grace’s little “d’oh” sound at one point. Having looked back over the first season a bit and re-read a lot of the recent commentaries, I will agree that Julia was probably given too many of the plot points and paring some back may have been a wise choice, but I don’t think taking Debra Messing back to Grace will make the show any better.
Alfred: One of the things that made Smash so great in the first season is that it did not rely so heavly on covers (a la Glee) and instead produced some really top notch Broadway songs (“History is Made at Night” is an AMAZING song). It seems like the notes (from these first two episodes) have been to try to make it more like Glee because the theory (I think) might be that by doing cover songs, it gives viewers a point of entry. Instead, it’s just sucked all the air out of the room and as we saw from the overnights, the ratings were no bueno. And someone breaking into song at a party wouldn’t be told to shut the hell up?
Kelli: I’ll admit it: the premiere was not good. I’m not sure if this shift is a result of all the backlash from Season 1, i.e., setting up new storylines to compensate for those we’re losing (Ellis, Frank and Leo), introducing new characters such as the douchebag bartender/lyricist and his amiable friend/co-worker, generally fixing what the creators assumed (or TV critics and social media kept telling them?) was “broken.” Whatever the reason, the episode didn’t work for me overall.
On the Shift from Season 1 to Season 2:
Karen Petruska: I’m not sure how helpful I’ll be–I didn’t watch all of last season, and I had a strongly negative reaction to the first hour of the new season premiere. So, I used to work in theatre. And I hate these people on Smash. I hate their petty problems, I hate their fakeness, I hate their sham stakes. I hate them all. I would never hate watch this show because I don’t enjoy hating.
How is it that they completely miss the allure of theatre? The work in the rehearsal room? Best part. Television seems to have transformed the theatre into these big production numbers–all flash, no substance. It is the work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses–that’s what is interesting. Oh, and all those chorus people in the background? They matter. They make up the heart of the show. Focusing on the stars in theatre is dumb–it makes zero sense. Sure, in film it makes sense. Even in television, it may make sense. But in theatre? Nope. You are only as good as the person across from you. If their energy saps, your energy saps. If they can’t look at you with a genuine reaction, you can’t be in the moment.
Amanda: Karen, I think it’s really interesting having you in this conversation since you didn’t watch the first season. I will say that we did see a bit more of the “work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses” of putting on a show in season 1. We see Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia composing songs and trying them out. We watch Karen learning how to become a better dancer. We see the cast workshopping the numbers and trying out different routines. One thing we do not see much of though, is what life is like for the members of the chorus. Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) gets a bit of a spotlight at the end of season 1, but only because he is dating Tom (and once he started to get more screen time we knew he was going to be Tom’s next love interest). All of this is to say that I think the season 2 premiere was highly focused on critics’ problems with the show and, consequently, not very interested in pulling in new viewers like yourself.
Kelli: Yes, one of my favorite things about season 1 is the repetition of the numbers during rehearsals, workshopping, etc. The viewer gets to learn the numbers alongside the cast members–and the duplication of them from episode to episode makes it feel as though the toil, practice, etc. is legit.
Amanda: Yes! By the end of season 1 I felt like I was getting to know the numbers and starting to fall in love with them (like listening to an album a few times before you really start to love it), and I got excited when I started to recognize the numbers. That’s quite a feat for original music. I’ve said this a few times on Twitter: I would pay to see Bombshell. Even without Megan Hilty and the others in it.
Kyra: Agreed, and the struggles the show is having would be the perfect opportunity to go back to that. Workshopping scenes that didn’t work, changing numbers, trying to sell themselves to new investors…it would have fit this new narrative so easily, but no sign in sight. The best moment in the two new episodes was the one moment Ivy did a number from the show.
Karen: And I will never, ever, ever buy Katherine McPhee. Her character (based on the few episodes I have seen) is timid, weak, and way too “aw, shucks.” She’s like the person on reality TV who kills it every week yet still pretends to be surprised by their praise–and that has been blown up to be her entire character trait. I’m from the midwest. Have these writers ever met anyone from the midwest? So I hate this show because nothing in it seems real. Or sincere.
On Switching Showrunners
Karen: In terms of journalism, it is more of a gossip piece than anything else, but I think there are interesting things to read between the lines. This is a clash of culture, in some ways. But I am intrigued that everyone resisted Rebeck’s seeming authority as a writer. As if a writer should not want to protect their work–that seems an awfully cruel treatment of a writer. But in television we praise showrunners and ignore all other writers in the room. So showrunners get blamed, too. Why the show sucked in the ratings could be a lot of things, but who wants to watch a show that has the stink of an old, smelly sock? They needed a radical shift–like, for example, firing McPhee. It wouldn’t have been her fault, necessarily, but it would have been news. And it could have prompted curiosity–more than firing a relatively unknown showrunner.
Jennifer: Smash had everything going for it: It had the famous director. It had the best producers for adapting stage to screen. It had the Tony-award winning songwriting team. It had great–even some legendary–Broadway performers. It had the network’s full backing. And at the beginning it had the critics’ love. And then over the course of the first season, it failed to deliver because of one megalomaniacal old crone who couldn’t see that all her ideas were shit.
That may be the legend, but I’m not buying it. Not that there weren’t problems in the first season. However, laying the blame for all those misses at the feet of one person, the only woman in a team of nine executive producers, is fallacious, even if her name is the one under the marquee in the opening credits. From the initial promos alone, we know that her name wasn’t the one being used to sell the program anyway; her name wasn’t being dragged out until there needed to be a scapegoat. The plight of the female showrunner has been an ongoing story over the past few years, as there are so few in the industry but of late so many of those have been raked over the coals and thrown under the bus.
Kyra: The two biggest potential pitfalls of the show that I see for many viewers is the pacing and the stakes and both work for me if you accept some musical logics. I feel like the stakes and therefore the narrative are high enough for me because in my world who gets the part, or what number makes it into the show really does feel like life or death stakes.
The season two reboot, however, worried me. Certainly I’m not sad to see Ellis (Jaime Cepero) go, and I can only hope that ditching the romantic partners means ditching some of the excess narrative that distracts from the shows larger focus. But I totally agree with Karen that we need much more time in the studio, at the piano, rehearsal, etc. It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage. I can see the eventual value of the Hipster guy’s musical in bringing in a different musical theater style, one better suited to Katherine McPhee’s voice, but right now it seems a weird detour. Most worrying to me, as Amanda points out, there is a lack of well-integrated musical numbers. There aren’t enough numbers and very very few pull their narrative and emotional weight. Josh Safran seems to want to stick with largely diegetic realistic musical moments (with limited exceptions) and they often feel small (not in the good intimate way). Ivy at the end of the second episode gives a hint of the possibility of the magic. But I fear Safran is going to make this a show about a musical and not a musical television show, clearly a risky proposition for the critical mass but one that I had come to love.
Kelli: “It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage.” I like this point very much, Kyra. It’s not necessarily narrative coherence or complex characterization I’m seeking when I watch Smash (or Glee, Top Hat, Grease, or *gasp* Singin’ in the Rain for that matter). Rather, I need spectacle. And I’d appreciate it if a few of said numbers were integrated (not sung onstage or in a dream state). See, for example, the pilot’s “Let Me Be Your Star,” which--in spite of its (and the show’s) clichéd contrasting of blonde girl/brunette girl–is just about as perfect a closing number as one could hope for. Through montage, crosscutting, and the pairing of McPhee and Hilty (at home, on the street, onstage), it so nicely sets up the stories and, more importantly, the caliber of numbers to come.
Last night’s episode, however, didn’t leave me feeling this hopeful…or impressed. Thus, if 2.1 is what we’re going to get after the infamous showrunner-swap and “the most involved reboot of the TV season” to quote EW (Jan. 11), I think I’d rather stick with Season 1, Julia’s scarves included.
Kyra: Kelli, I completely agree with the above. “Let Me Be Your Star” was exactly the number I was thinking of missing in the first two episodes. It was just the right amount of diegetic and fantasy, did tons of narrative and emotional work, and was just a great number. There was nothing like that last night.
In Denise Martin’s “How Smash Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hate-Watchers” she writes:
“Numbers will either be grounded in reality… or entirely in the clouds. Safran likes fantasy sequences so long as they make sense in the context of the characters…. But no more sudden singing and dancing in the bowling alley. ‘I am against bursting out into song,’ Safran said.”
I cite Safran’s “rules” because I just don’t think that he gets it, and I’m not sure that any of these kinds of changes are going to make much of a difference in the critical reception of the show. Like Kelli wrote above, musicals aren’t about narrative coherence, and they’re not about rules either. Even when music and dancing are “motivated” by a performance storyline, so much of the pleasure is in the opportunities for the extraordinary in the everyday from the unexpected performance Did that guy not even see Fame? Musicals aren’t about fantasy that makes “sense.” They’re about the fantastic and the impossible, the hoping against hope that all will work out, that you’ll get the part, that you’ll be the star, even when all the odds are stacked against you. Putting parameters on the performances sounds a bit like taking the musical out of the musical. I’m not yet willing to claim that that’s the intent or the result, but it does put a damper on the proceedings, and I think we’ve seen some of that in these first two episodes.
So, what did you think of the second season premiere of Smash? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.
About the Roundtable:
Kyra Hunting is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she is completing a dissertation entitled: “Genre Trouble: Cultural Difference and Contemporary Genre TV.” Her work has appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture, Transformative Works and Culture and Communication Review she blogs at and co-edits the media blog Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture. You can find me at: http://wisc.academia.edu/KHunting.
Jennifer Lynn Jones is a doctoral candidate in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University’s Communication and Culture program, writing a dissertation on celebrity, convergence, and corpulence (in short, “fat stars”).
Amanda Ann Klein is an Assistant Professor of film studies at East Carolina University. She recently published her first book, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (University of Texas Press, 2011). You can follow her on Twitter: @AmandaAnnKlein or read her blog: Judgmental Observer.
Kelli Marshall is a lecturer of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University. When she’s not teaching or live-tweeting Smash, Kelli researches two rather disparate fields: Shakespeare in film and popular culture, and the film musical, specifically the star image and work of Hollywood song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. Follow Kelli on Twitter at @kellimarshall and/or read more about her take on TV/film (and her adventures in higher ed) on her blog, MediAcademia.
Alfred L. Martin. Jr. is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Texas -Austin where he studies race and sexuality on television. He currently serves as Co-Managing Editor for Flow, the Department of Radio-Television-Film’s online media journal.
Karen Petruska received her PhD in moving image studies from Georgia State University in 2012. She is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate at Northeastern University. Her scholarly interests include television studies, media industry studies, new media, and feminist studies.