I have been watching and enjoying Smash, the TV drama about putting on a Broadway show.

It’s part of a venerable tradition, of course. Backstage musicals are a staple of the musical genre as a whole, especially on screen, where you can overcome the weirdness of people bursting into song by using the fact that they’re in a show as a framing narrative. (This show also uses dream sequences, karaoke nights, and parties to explain the singing.) If you’re into musicals, as I am, you don’t mind that people suddenly burst into song to express complex emotions. If you don’t like it, you won’t like this show. And you’ve probably already stopped reading this post.

One of the things that’s sort of charming about Smash is the way that everyone in it behaves  like they’re in a musical (and not a dark, modern musical either – a chirpy, first-half-of-the-20th-century  kind of musical). There are wisecracks and one-liners, and characters speak  the subtext at one another (briskly, pithily, dewily) so we can all move onto the next sequence without wasting time. The characters are bright and simple and all on the surface, and are not too far from stock characters: the director is English and a love-rat; the producer has just been left by her husband, also a producer, for a younger woman; the ingenue is from Idaho (or is it Ohio?). The writers are not afraid of cliched situations either; I’m just dying for the moment when Ivy breaks her leg hours before opening night and the director turns to Karen and says ‘You’re going out a rookie, but you gotta come back a star.’

The singing is spine-tinglingly good, and the songs themselves – a mix of new songs from the show supplemented with some karaoke favourites – are fun (I particularly like “Let me be your star”). All the musical numbers are well-staged, but it’s one of the oddities of the show that everything looks fresher and more interesting in the rehearsal room than in the (imaginary) fully-staged versions. Many of the cast are charming, especially Jack Davenport as director Derek, Katharine McPhee as ingenue Karen, and Christian Borle as composer Tom.

So the show is a lot of fun. But it’s not a show that brings much complexity to anything that’s going on: particularly the interpersonal relations between characters, which are soapie and predictable, and also the representation of the creative process. To me this is a missed opportunity, because what goes on in creating and then staging a show, that collaborative process, is fascinating.

Smash is a fairly conventional TV drama in which people happen to sing. I guess I want to see a show that says something more about the creative process. Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park With George does this. A musical loosely based on the life of Georges Seurat, it’s a show that explores the competing demands of art and life.  I know, I know – interesting for artists, not so interesting to the rest of the world. But if you’re dealing with actors and writers and musicians coming together, making a show, putting it on and then parting again, you’re dealing with a strange, enclosed, emotionally intense world. There are so many relationships that are interesting in this situation: firstly, there’s the relationship of the composer and the lyricist (if they’re two people, as they are in Smash); their relationship with the director who must bring the show to life, the producer who must find ways to pay for the show, and then the cast. If you’ve ever been in a show, you know what a strange and intense emotional environment it is:  you’re placed into situations where you have to be open, to explore emotions, to expose yourself in a variety of ways in front of complete strangers, and not mind. It’s emotionally risky, and it asks you to inhabit an emotional world which isn’t real, but which you have to make real, at least as long as the show lasts. It’s really no wonder so many actors fall for each other while they’re rehearsing a show or shooting a film. Pretend to feel something intensely enough for long enough, and you may well start feeling it.

All of which is to say, there’s a lot of complexity and intensity and strangeness and ambiguity in the world of show-making, but  we don’t get much of that in Smash. Yes, we get casting couch, and lyricist getting off with leading man. We get the producer selling her Degas to raise funds. And we get ingenue struggling to win over bitchy diva and her supporters, until the supporters are won over by ingenue’s good heart.  But there is no sense of struggle or complication in the relationship between the lyricist and the composer, for example, who are gay man/fag hag besties. The composer doesn’t much like the director, because the composer is nice and the director is mean. But we rarely get a sense that there might be any conflict between the director’s vision and the original creators’ vision. Everyone is smoothly in accord on the stuff that really matters – if only those writers would just get their pages written!

There is another Sondheim show, the troubled but wonderful Merrily We Roll Along, which has at its heart a show-writing team, and the complexity of that relationship generates some of that show’s best songs. Sondheim is great on murky emotions and ambiguity, but also the joy that comes from creating.  I think I’m bummed at Smash for not being Merrily We Roll Along.

It isn’t fair to criticise a show for not doing something it never set out to do in the first place, and I know that’s what I’m doing here. The thing about Smash is, it makes me wonder whether you can, in fact, represent the creative process  in a convincing way in a drama. A show like Mad Men, which is excellent on ambiguity and murky emotions, and also on the complex tensions of the workplace, is at its least convincing when it tries to show Don Draper having his creative inspirations. (After Season 1 they haven’t really gone there much.)

I’m not convinced that it can’t be done.  But I don’t feel like I’ve seen it yet.

 

 

 

 

 

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