The Marilyn musical finally staged its workshop last night and it was neither a huge success with its small audience nor a dismal failure. We were left with the sense that something needs fixing, which is exactly the kind of realism I love about this show. It was the perfect way to shake up the production—songs will be added, songs will be cut, and I think we can assume the starring role will once again be up for grabs.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Lets start with Karen's demo. Her staccato opening phrases were perilously close to scat singing. Also: Did the show hire a master Jack Davenport impersonator to play the sound engineer/Big Bad Producer? They are look-alikesies big time. This could lead to a very funny showdown later on, when Derek wants Karen for his Marilyn and the Big Bad Producer needs her in the studio and Derek goes running into the studio and is like "But... Me??" and the sound engineer/Big Bad Producer is like, "How is my face on your face?" and then they both pull out one half of an amulet, they are twins who were separated at birth and they are destined to make the greatest musical of all time starring Karen.
Part of Ivy's pre-show meltdown was complaining that Karen has had everything handed to her. And frankly YES. Karen's continuing lack of adversity is sort of a problem. I know her buttery voice is supposed to justify her lucky breaks, but her smug air of entitlement kind of kills it. ("I know what I bring to the party" = face palm.) Adversity makes characters interesting, so right now Karen is an un-conflicted bowl of oatmeal that keeps covering top 40 Billboard hits. Gross.
Also, why isn't Ivy getting MORE things handed to her? I can kind of believe a lady with pipes like Megan Hilty might get passed over due to hard luck, but if her mom is Bernadette Peters (well, Leigh Conroy) and a room full of investors breaks into applause when she so much as enters a room, wouldn't Ivy have gotten a little bit more of an assist in her last ten years of working in the chorus? Wouldn't Leigh have known some director or producer from her glory days and helped her daughter out? Is that the real issue between mother and daughter, not just "Why don't you ever say anything nice and support me?" but more like "Freaking dust off your Rolodex, mom, and get me an audition, I'm living in an effing closet."?
I loved seeing Bernadette Peters and getting to have her sing "EVERAAAYTHING'S CAAAHHHHMING UP ROOOOSES!!!" which I'm going to assume is the proper way to write out the title to that song. Debra Messing was doing her best joyful smile-frown about it, a grimace of intense aesthetic appreciation, like, "I have the best job in the world. Ten minutes ago I was standing in the corner with my leg wrapped around a hottie, now I am getting to have Bernadette Peter's voice wash over me like the cleansing stream of a fire hose."
Enjoy it while you can, Jules! The show is going to make sure you stop doing interesting things. I liked her reaction to Michael's son—like running out of the room trying not to barf with sadness, that's a level of remorse that saves Julia from being a big ol' ho in a cashmere Snuggie. However, in no way do I want Michael to be fired or Julia to stop having sex with Michael. Especially not if it's just to please her weirdo son. How old is this kid again? I couldn't believe the episode ended with him bursting into tears of relief because his mom was firing her lover. Like is Smash's B plot ultimately a gritty sketch of what life is like raising a son who has a serious brain-chemistry disorder? Is the show that brave, or is the kid written as being 16 and they just couldn't resist casting a guy who looks all of 28?
I did like Michael singing, tears streaming down his cheek, to Julia. I ADORE their love story, it brings much-needed conflict and it's ultra tragic because they both know better. If the writers kill it off, what reason will I have to be interested in the Houstons' uber-boring home life? It was super tacky of him to keep chasing her around on the day of the workshop like "WE NEED TO SETTLE THIS NOW." No you don't. Grown adults, particularly grown adults who are navigating sneaky adulterous affairs, know when to give their partner a couple days to chill. Although at this point, I'm not sure how sneaky the affair is. Her son knows, her boss knows, her partner knows, Ellis knows... the only one who doesn't know is Frank, and he's got a hunch.
How hilarious was the mirror reveal of Ellis? I was getting big Glenn Close-in-Fatal Attraction vibes off that creeper. One day Tom is going to come home and a pet rabbit will be boiling away on his stove. It was a fist-pump moment when Eileen shut him down and told him that if he snitches on Julia again he'll never "work in this town again." I also like that Eileen might finally escape her office. After spending the entire season fretting behind her desk and splashing expensive drinks into people's eyeballs, Eileen may have a storyline that involves a hunky bartender (or starting a guerrilla plumbing business).
I do want to say that I absolutely loved the little hiccups in the workshop itself. (Even Karen managing to fall over when all she had to do was stand upright.) And I especially loved Ivy's impromptu nervous joke when the fan came on right at the end of the performance, which hit just the right note of, "This is a casual atmosphere/I am scared out of my mind/I know I need to be charming to succeed in this 'business of show' as we say." It's the little naturalistic strokes like that that make it easy to forgive when Smash glosses over the larger and improbable feats of production.
So Ivy had some points to make about Marilyn being a drug-addicted mess of a woman because of her mother, which made both my eyebrows shoot up. Marilyn Monroe's childhood adversities were a result of her unstable mother. I'll co-sign Ivy's statements that Marilyn Monroe's mother was a mess (Marilyn often said her earliest childhood memory was her mother trying to smother her with a pillow). But I think part of the tragedy of Marilyn's death is that she was far from a total mess when she died. She had sleeked down, just completed a film, and was actively pursuing more work. The story of Marilyn isn't one long spiral down, and that kind of perspective is reductive. Marilyn was a buoyant person who, given every possible abuse and adversity, kept going until she simply couldn't. She had moments of profound despondency, and one of them claimed her, but to call her a drug-addicted train wreck is to deny the natural joy for life that continues to sustain her as a cultural figure. Maybe if they investigated that concept more they'd understand why Karen needs some opposition in her effortless upwards climb.
Also reductive: Is Marilyn the musical honestly just about the DiMaggio years? Like, the workshop ends with Joe leaving Marilyn? Are you kidding me?
All in all, while the musical clearly needs a lot of work, Smash is continuing to get things right in a lot of ways, and the show has now set itself up in the interesting position of being able explore all the opportunities it's missed so far this season. The writers can ramp up the bitchiness between Ivy and Karen, or make Karen the star and flip the dynamic, or decide to make Ivy and Karen split the part and change the tone of the musical—the possibilities are seemingly endless. "The Workshop" may have left potential producers undecided, but it made me want to invest more in this show.
– What steps do you think the gang will take to "correct" the show?
– Was Karen crazy to skip an important meeting for a workshop?
– Sound engineer: Derek's long-lost twin?
– Do you think the main problems of the show are its hastily-written, Joe DiMaggio heavy book?
– Will Julia end things with Michael for realsies?
P.S. Well done, 007intraining, for getting last week's Marilyn trivia question right! This week's question: What scene did Marilyn perform for her first "workshop" at the Lee Strasberg Actor's studio?