Curtain up on ‘Smash’ v2.0

Almost exactly a year ago, NBC gave Smash a hype-and-hallelujah-packed launch promising that the high-profile show would take viewers inside the creative process of a Broadway-bound musical, as viewed by the creative team of a (fictional) show about Marilyn Monroe. The cast included Academy Award winner Angelica Huston as the show’s producer and Emmy winner Debra Messing (Will & Grace) as the musical’s lyricist and book writer, with Broadway veteran Megan Hilty (Wicked) and former American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee co-starring as the two actresses vying for the role of Marilyn.
Buoyed by catchy original tunes by the Hairspray musical team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Smash pulled off a widely praised pilot, but as season one unfolded, those of us who tuned in hoping for A Chorus Line: The TV Show started to realize we were getting Carrie: The Musical instead. Some insiders reported there were too many cooks behind the scenes, leading to an artistic muddle, but I suspect the larger problem was that one of those cooks was Typhoid Mary, aka Theresa Rebeck, the well-regarded playwright entrusted with running Smash.
Instead of focusing tightly on the musical at the show’s center, Rebeck bafflingly threw in extraneous and uninspired soap opera elements like an adoption, an extramarital affair and parenting crises. McPhee’s character, theatrical newcomer Karen Cartwright, was a stereotypically naïve Midwesterner that even Nellie Forbush would have found clueless, and she too often seemed passive and unengaged. Since Rebeck’s vision dictated that Karen had to wind up cast as Marilyn, we were expected to take at face value repeated assertions by other characters that Karen had star quality that was nowhere in evidence, while the scripts stacked the deck against Hilty’s far more vivacious Ivy Lynn, turning her into a neurotic bitch.
Meanwhile, Messing’s beauty and comic flair were suffocated under schlumpy costumes and plot lines that were relentlessly downbeat, as her character – based in some measure on Rebeck herself – struggled with a failing marriage and a sullen teenage son while cranking out what looked like fairly random scenes from Monroe’s life.
The near-fatal blow, however, was Rebeck’s penchant for dragging in ill-conceived if not irrelevant characters, including a villain that couldn’t have attracted more fan hostility if he had been played by Jar Jar Binks: Ellis Boyd, a scheming would-be producer played by a hopelessly miscast and diminutive young actor who summoned all the natural menace of a first-grader who has skipped his nap.
As fans became outnumbered by hate-watchers, Smash limped its way to an improbably satisfying season one finale that culminated with Bombshell, the Marilyn musical, opening out of town in Boston. Behind the scenes of the TV series, meanwhile, the executive suits let it be known that Rebeck had been disinvited from taking a direct part in season two, which premieres tonight with a special two-hour episode.
Now overseen by former Gossip Girl executive producer Joshua Safran, Smash has gotten a striking makeover. Time-wasting characters such as Karen’s boyfriend, Julia’s husband and son and, of course, Ellis, have either been written out entirely or relegated to the sidelines to be used sparingly. Messing has been allowed to shed all her character’s much-joked-about scarves and rediscover her inner comedienne, at least to some degree, and new cast additions include Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) in a three-episode arc as a reigning Broadway diva who takes Karen under her wing and recent Tony Award nominee Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) as a hot-headed young songwriter.
Meanwhile, Hilty’s Ivy has been chastened and softened by her season one bad behavior, while McPhee’s character has developed a backbone and some edge, finally giving the actress some dramatic scenes she can sink her teeth into (which means it’s time for McPhee to step it up).
The real question, however, is whether all these very welcome changes amount to too little, too late. Smash is said to be a pet project of NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, and the creative team also includes such heavy hitters as mega-producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, plus one Steven Spielberg, so there’s a good chance the network will give the re-energized show every chance. On the basis of the three hours I’ve seen, these new episodes look a lot like the Smash I originally expected and looked forward to. I just hope it somehow manages to turn around viewers for whom season one too often turned into a big, sloppy drinking game.

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