You ain't gettin' 88 cents from me, 'Smash'On paper, it's like all my prayers have been answered: Smash, the theoretical show of my dreams.
A show about Broadway musicals, produced by Steven Spielberg, stuffed with Broadway-isms and theatre industry in-jokes, with actual, honest-to-god musical comedy songs, as opposed to something like Glee, with its Idol-ized Streisand numbers and its 16-year-olds singing Rose's Turn while I rage, rage against the dying of the... oh, excuse me:
Yes, it has all the ingredients for the sort of show that should, by rights, be right up my alley.
And yet, and yet... I CAN'T STAND IT.
I stuck with it for a few weeks. At first, I thought, give it a chance to get past the pilot episode; things always get better after the pilot.
It's not so much the story, which is the stuff of just about every other theatre-related TV show or film in Christendom: starry-eyed newcomer might just get that big break after all, slimy director sleeps his way through the chorus, blah blah (hey, we've all seen 42nd Street).
No, I think the problem is one Katharine McPhee.
When I read about her casting as Karen Cartwright, the plucky dreamer from Iowa, I was right behind it. Like many people, I fell in love with McPhee on American Idol, and still have fond, squirm-inducing memories of this moment of extreme stage parenting:
She had a charming presence in The House Bunny and so I thought, why not? She can act, she can sing, surely this is a good idea.
Weeellll as it turns out, it wasn't such a good idea. In fact, it was such a bad idea that I find myself punching pillows and writhing about with rage whenever I watch Smash. To break it down for you, I just cannot believe that anyone, anywhere, would get so much as a call-back for unleashing this sort of Top 40 dross in a Broadway audition:
NO, NO, NO.
The trouble with McPhee's performance in Smash is that it jolts me out of my suspension of disbelief; perhaps someone less obsessively marinated in musical theatre from a young age wouldn't notice or care (and the ratings, and NBC's renewal of the show, suggests as much, and I'm sure there'll be an inevitable actual Broadway run of Marilyn), but whenever Karen/Katharine opens her mouth, the fourth wall comes crashing down around me. Her voice is thin, her performance mannered, she acts with her chin like a young Gwyneth Paltrow, and self-consciously holds her mouth in such a way to suggest a very pretty female version of Jack Nicholson's Joker. Honey, ya gotta have a gimmick, but preferably not a rictus grin.
Is McPhee's voice a howlingly pedantic reason not to like a show? Of course it is, but then what did they expect? It's a show about SINGING. Musical theatre types are, on the international Pedantic-O-Meter, second only to comic book nerds.
There is some cold comfort in Smash's not-quite-right-isms, and that's Rachel Shukert's searingly amazing recaps for NY Mag's Vulture: "And I had a revelation of my own — with the exception of “Over the Rainbow” (which technically doesn’t count), we have never seen Karen sing an actual show tune on this show about shows. Not one. Not even “Defying Gravity” (which also technically doesn’t count). Karen, when you start singing “The Miller’s Son” at karaoke like a normal fucking human being (or at least getting really upset when they don’t have it and singing “I Dreamed a Dream” instead), maybe I’ll start taking you seriously as a Broadway contender. Until then, I guess we’ll be seeing you, I hope [not] sporadically."
Listen, my memory is hazy enough these days that I can't recall, during her tenure on the show, whether or not McPhee copped the dreaded Idol judges' criticism, "too musical theatre"/"too cabaret", but I'm reasonably certain that if an aspiring chorine turned up to an audition in Noo Yawk and unleashed a bit of Xtina, the panel would bark "Thanks, that's all we need from you today", and send her packing in the direction of the nearest Idol cattle call.
She might not have been "too musical theatre" for Idol, but she's certainly too Idol for musical theatre.
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