SMASH pilot doesn’t get the show off the ground – yet

Michael Mayer, the director of the pilot of NBC’s SMASH, a show about the backstage intrigue of a Broadway show. certainly knows of which he directs.

Mayer is not a Broadway director who succeeded by being safe.  His Broadway successes include the sexually-charged Spring Awakening (which ironically brought us Glee‘s Lea Michelle), the Stock/Bikenhead original musical Triumph of Love, and the unlikely translation to the stoic Broadway stage of the a musical based on the music of Green Day, American Idiot.

When NBC then handed the pilot, and future episodes, of Steven Speilberg’s Broadway homage over to Mayer, it would seem that they understood he would bring a fresh and edgy look at the traditional Broadway musical.  That Mayer had previously worked with the show’s lead writer, innovative Off-Broadway playwright  Teresa Rebeck, could only mean that this would be a different and unique look behind the scenes.

It is that much more disappointing, then, that both Rebeck and Mayer chose to be so safe with the pilot of SMASH. This is not absurdist playwright Eric Overmyer breaking new ground the way he did with St. Elsewhere the first few years.  It’s not even Aaron Sorkin’s keep-up-with-me-if you-can The West Wing premiere seasons (though Sorkin’s attempt to take us backstage at a fictional ESPN, Sports Night, was critically-acclaimed but sadly overlooked.)

Mayer and Rebeck instead choose to cover safe ground, clinging to some cliches that might have been cool twenty years ago (the gay male songwriter, the horny and cruel British theater director), but that don’t even register on the seismic intellectual-challenge scale.

In taking us to the origins of a Broadway musical about the iconic Marilyn Monroe, they hang some well-worn – see tired – pieces of wardrobe in our closet.  The two women competing to play Marilyn are the busty and obvious Megan Hilty, and the good girl (did she really have to be from Iowa?) with pure talent played by Katheryn McFee.  There is even a painfully-predictable scene where Karen Cartwright (McFee) has an uncomfortable dinner with her Midwest parents, who are worried that their little girl’s dreams will just break her heart.

How often have we seen this scene?

All of this just leads us to be more frustrated by the safe approach to a show brimming over with talent.  McFee proves herself more than an “American Idol,” Hilty more than a sex-bomb. and that doesn’t even address the talents of actors like Angelica Huston. as a clever producer who may not be as tough as she seems, and Debra Messing (“Will and Grace”) and Christian Borle as the songwriting team.

SMASH  was both blessed and cursed in the run-up to the pilot by the simplistic comparison to Glee.  They both bring music, and sometimes the Broadway songbook, to television, as well as the aspirations of people in love with theater.  The comparisons should stop there.  Glee is a musical comedy, SMASH a dramatic musical.  Glee deals with teens who want to get to Broadway, SMASH with professionals who are already there and still struggling either professionally or emotionally.

It’s that much more disconcerting, then, that Mayer uses a technique that is now old-hat on Glee – starting in the rehearsal and then showing us what the final product looks like.  Unless Mayer has been backstage in a sound-proof booth, he must have seen this done on Glee.   Why invite the comparisons?

There is way too much talent in front of and behind the camera to give up on this series.  I, for one, will be rapt in front of my television each week, fingers crossed that it emerges from this dusty cocoon to become the beautiful butterfly that we know is in there somewhere.

Just don’t keep me wishing too long.

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JB Bruno

John J Bruno – Producer, Line Producer, Writer John J Bruno (JB) brings almost thirty years of working in the entertainment industry: in theater as a producer, director, designer and acting teacher; in independent films as producer, line producer, production manager, writer and assistant director. Among his featured credits as line producer is Man of the Century, featuring Frank Gorshin, Anne Jackson and Tony-winner Anthony Rapp. Produced on a modest budget, Man of the Century won the Audience Award at Slamdance, and was then released by Fine Line. He was more recently line producer on the Tamil-US production of Achamundu, Achamundu. Directed by Arun Vaidyanathan, Achamundu,Achamundu featuring Tamil film stars Prasanna, Sneha and Emmy Award-winning American film actor John Shea earned Best Feature Film Award at the Chennai International Film Festival and, here at home, won the Best Homegrown Feature Film Award at the Garden State Film Festival. In the summer of 2000, he ...Read Full