“Smash” Series Premiere: “Let Me Be Your Star!”

Fade in. Against a black background, the name of the series is spelled out in lights: SMASH.

OK, hold on, before we begin can I just say one thing? Despite every lazy critic in the country writing that Smash is “Glee for adults” Smash is not Glee for adults. Glee is Glee for adults and there’s no reason to insult adult Glee fans by saying otherwise. That said, comparisons of the two series are probably inevitable. Just, try to be nice about it, OK?

The title card fades out and we fade in on a woman in a sparkly dress standing on a bare stage in front of a sparkly background. The music swells and she begins to sing “Over the Rainbow”. The first verse is lovely but as she heads into verse two a ringing cell phone interrupts her. Transition to an audition room where the director (a cameo by lesbian comedy icon Kate Clinton) answers it. She looks up from her call just long enough to dismiss the auditioning performer. The performer, Karen Cartwright (American Idol contender Katharine McPhee), exits. The next auditioner, Ivy Lynn (Broadway’s Megan Hilty), breezes in and cheekily asks the casting team, “Do you want the ballad or the up-tempo first?”

Cut to a Manhattan apartment where Broadway composer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) is wondering why he has so little mail after a week out of town. His totes adorbs new assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) explains that he’s sorted out the junk mail and the magazines. Also, he’s rearranged the kitchen to create a “tea drawer” and has macaroni and cheese and a meat loaf in the oven. As Ellis bustles off to unpack Tom’s suitcase, a clearly smitten Tom gloats to best friend and librettist partner Julia Houston (Debra Messing) about his new mail-sorting, comfort-food making, cute assistant. Julia thinks he’s straight but I find Tom’s “he made a tea drawer” argument fairly persuasive.

Tom dishes up some mac and cheese and he and Julia dish an announcement in a trade paper of a planned revival of My Fair Lady. Julia channels our own Ed Kennedy, grumbling about the preponderance of remakes from Broadway and Hollywood. They move to the living room and Ellis puts away a coffee table book on Marilyn Monroe he’d been reading while house-sitting. Tom adds “he likes Marilyn” to the “he’s totally gay” column and also blatantly checks out Ellis’ perky backside as he re-shelves the book.

They chat about Marilyn for a minute and Ellis opines that she’d be a great subject for a musical. Tom and Julia inform him it’s been done (1983’s Marilyn: An American Fable which ran for 17 performances) and that there’s also a glut of Marilyn-related material at the moment. But as they talk, Tom becomes more intrigued with the possibilities, including her marriage to Joe DiMaggio serving as the basis for a baseball number.

At a cafe, a terribly handsome man with a terribly sexy nose whom we will learn is Karen’s live-in boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffery) is texting as Karen arrives to refill his coffee and inform him she didn’t get the part. They told her agent she wasn’t sexy enough. She’s tired of having to try to be sexy all the time and of always being hungry and being told she’s “light”. Dev commiserates in a terribly sexy accent while feeding her bites of his dessert until she’s called back to her waitressing duties.

Later that evening Julia arrives home to be greeted by husband Frank (Brian D’arcy James) and son Leo (Emory Cohen). First “Karen” and now “Leo”? Have we stumbled into a lost episode of Will & Grace? Frank tells her that the adoption agency called to schedule a social worker visit.

Julia mentions Ellis’ big idea and asks her son what comes to mind when she says “Marilyn”. He first replies “Baltimore” but changes his answer to “Manson”. She corrects him to “Monroe” who he’s never heard of. Frank challenges Julia about trying to come up with ideas for new shows since she and Tom are supposed to be taking a break while they go through the adoption. She prevaricates that she’s only talking in the abstract but still asks him how such a musical could be done. He tosses out the idea of doing numbers related to her films and a big Group Theatre number. “You could do a baseball number.” Julia’s eye twitches as she relates that Tom said the same thing. She’s in, whether she realizes it yet or not.

As she and Dev market, Karen ends a phone call with her mother. Her parents are visiting next weekend and she’s stressed that they’ll try to talk her into moving back home to Iowa, the state to which every TV writer turns to establish “small town girl in the big city.”

Frank and Julia are in bed and Julia wakes Frank up laughing at Marilyn in Some Like It Hot. I know it’s blasphemy but I never cared for her in that part. The performance that most perfectly captures Monroe’s persona is Elsie Marina in The Prince and the Showgirl. Plus I cannot stand Tony Curtis doing his Cary Grant impression. Frank tells her not to stay up all night.

While she’s doing that, Tom checks out a performance of his and Julia’s current hit show, Heaven on Earth, from the wings. Besides learning that they have no flair for titles, we also find out that Ivy is a friend and in the chorus and that Tom has had a dalliance with one of the very cute chorus boys, Dennis (Phillip Spaeth), and forgotten his name.

In the dressing room, a random chorine asks Ivy if she got the part she auditioned for and Ivy responds by ripping a wig like Eve Harrington after an incomplete forward pass. Tom pops in and upon learning of her failed audition offers her the proverbial shoulder to cry on.

Some indeterminate time later Frank comes downstairs with some paperwork while Julia chats on the phone with Tom. Frank realizes she’s talking about cutting a demo, which Julia admits is for a song for Marilyn: The Musical. He questions her commitment to adoption, noting that when she’s in production she disappears for days at a time in rehearsals and this won’t go over with the agency. She counters with a story about how in Marilyn’s last interview she begged not to be made into a joke and how she was all full of fire and music and how no one can write her like she can. None of which addresses even remotely Frank’s concerns about her adoption commitment.

Leo wanders in and Julia wonders why he isn’t at Jazz Band. Frank shouts that he’s home for the social worker’s visit which Julia has obviously forgotten. The doorbell rings as she brushes off his concerns again and lets the social worker in. Turns out the social worker is a big fan. So much for the home study.

The next day Julia arrives late to the demo session and is for some reason not thrilled to see Ellis there. After determining how much belt to give it Ivy sings the number, which I’m assuming is called “Never Give All the Heart”. Ellis records the session on his phone and the video soon appears on “YouLenz”. He emailed the video to his mother and his mother uploaded it. He is so fired.

Karen’s parents (real-life marrieds Dylan and Becky Ann Baker) are in town so the two couples go out to dinner. After a token inquiry about Dev’s City Hall job the parents start in on Karen. She gamely holds her own for a few rounds but Dad’s reality check seems to shut her down, so Dev steps in to praise her courage and call her a star. Mom mouths “marry him” at Karen and girl, if you don’t I will.

Back at home Julia’s freaking out about the video, railing in particular about how The New York Post’s Michael Riedel will react, pre-emptively calling him an idiot and a creep. Of course Riedel ends up blogging pure love for it so of course Julia retracts her hating on him. Karen watches the video at her apartment and sings along.

An indeterminate time later in an anonymous conference room, Broadway producer Eileen Rand (Angelica Huston) stares out the window and declares the revised divorce settlement “a joke”. Husband and producing partner Jerry (Michael Cristofer) accuses her of being vindictive. She turns and stares holes through him. I love Huston’s glorious hatchet face, looking like she should be nailed to the prow of an 18th Century sailing ship. He retreats to “unrealistic”.

They wrangle back and forth and the upshot is if they don’t reach an agreement everything goes into escrow. Eileen tells Jerry that she’s been working on the My Fair Lady revival for three years (and it’s just now being announced in the trades?) and asks if he really wants, in light of the good years they had together, to “put a bullet in it”. He makes the fatal reply, “Is this your version of begging, Eileen?” She ices over and tells him she’ll see him in court.

Probably that same day, Julia and Tom disembark from a cab to find Ellis sitting on Tom’s front step. He offers a fumbling apology and a bag of croissants. He tells them that he worked props for his high school production of their first hit, Three on a Match (man, they really are bad at titles, aren’t they?) and that while he was doing that, he felt “whole”. Tom softens and accepts Ellis’ buttery bribe over Julia’s resistance, telling Ellis he’d be interested on getting his input on Marilyn: The Musical, since it was Ellis’ idea. Tom, sweetie, that is not the sort of thing you say in front of witnesses! You know that when the show’s a hit Ellis is going to come sniffing around for a slice of the pie.

Upstairs Tom tells Ellis they have an outline and three songs, including the baseball number (which I’m guessing is entitled “The National Pastime”). Julia demands Ellis hand over his cell phone.

Some indeterminate time in the future, Tom and Julia meet with Eileen, who wants to produce Marilyn. They protest it’s too early but she presses on, suggesting Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) to direct. Julia’s open to the idea but there’s bad blood between Tom and Derek from a previous project. Eileen suggests showing him the material and having him stage one number. Tom’s intrigued at the idea of making Derek crawl for a job but the duo delicately broach the subject of Eileen’s wherewithal to produce a new show in light of her divorce. She brushes aside their concerns but clearly she’s feeling some desperation to shore up her reputation by getting attached to a high-profile project.

Later she meets Derek for drinks and he’s skeptical. Also, he wants to do My Fair Lady. Eileen tells him that Marilyn was “the American Eliza Doolittle,” which is an intriguing notion, and passes him the material and asks him to put something together.

He flatly refuses to audition, but a quick cut to some indeterminate future date finds him rehearsing Ivy and a bevy of lovely chorus boys. Eileen, Julia, Tom and Ellis arrive and the company launches into “The National Pastime”. It’s a cute, saucy call-and-response number and it establishes what I’m assuming will be a recurring motif as the number shifts back and forth from the rehearsal room to the stage with the performers in full costume. Including in this instance some quite sexy baseball uniforms that do the chorus boys all kinds of favors. The lyric “A baseball diamond is a girl’s best friend” is a bit clunky and the use of bats as boner substitutes is obvious (which isn’t to say it’s not hot) but it’s a solid number, much better in my opinion than “Never Give All the Heart”.

Amidst the general congratulations Tom perceives that Derek has snubbed Ivy. He concedes that Derek’s work is brilliant but despises the idea of putting anything in Derek’s hands, because of their history and because “He’s a terrible human being!” Who, um, is still in the room and can hear you.

Sometime later that night Derek expresses equal reluctance to work with Tom to Eileen. She promises to get Tom on board by the weekend but Derek tells her that her soon-to-be-ex Jerry has a film project for him. He also questions her need to prove she’s “still in the game” but she ripostes that she doesn’t need to prove it. Oh honey, yes you do.

After another indeterminate time-shift forward, a hallway full of Marilyn clones are waiting to audition. Karen arrives in non-Monroe garb with Dev and she frets that she can’t do sex. He tells her Marilyn wasn’t about sex; she was about love. A hopeful dressed as Lorelei Lee launches into “I Wanna Be Loved By You” for about eight seconds before Derek gongs her. As she departs the casting panel bandies about names, including Scarlett Johansson (who in real life is attached to a Judy Garland project), Kristen Chenoweth and Tom’s choice, Ivy.

Derek remains dismissive of Ivy, who as they speak is in the ladies, shall we say, lounge, being violently ill to her tummy. With her momentarily indisposed it’s Karen’s turn and Derek compliments her for not donning Marilyn drag. She sings the cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” which has been out for the past while.

She absolutely nails it. The casting people all exchange knowing nods and smiles and looks of general wonderment, as they are required to by the script, but all of their reactions mean nothing if McPhee doesn’t put the song over and she totally does. In Karen’s mind’s eye she’s singing to Dev: singing the love. Unfortunately the track is over-produced, including a completely unnecessary echo effect over much of the second half of the vocal which mars an otherwise sensational performance.

We don’t see Ivy’s audition but both she and Karen get callbacks. Karen is told that for this round she needs to “play the sex” so she and Dev scour her wardrobe for sexy clothes and watch that damn Some Like It Hot. Which leads to lovemaking and an overhead shirtless shot of Dev. Ivy calls home to share her good news with her mother. Mom obviously isn’t too impressed and Ivy visibly deflates when the conversation turns to a relative back home attending night school. Unsupportive parents apparently being another series motif.

As Karen and Dev bask in the afterglow Karen gets a text. It’s Derek, summoning her to a private rehearsal session. Yeah, rehearsal session, that’s it. She arrives at his apartment and they have a rapid back-and-forth about her resume (which she finally twigs is what’s “light”), her experience and her expectations. McPhee does a terrific job playing the naif who’s playing at being the sophisticate. Finally Derek wants to start “rehearsing” and Karen retreats to the bathroom to regroup. She spots one of Derek’s shirts. Changing into it, she purrs “Happy Birthday to You” a la Marilyn to JFK. Or for those of you of more recent vintage, a la Jennifer Marlowe to Herb Tarlek. She leans in as if to kiss him, then pulls away. She tosses him a “not gonna happen” and walks out.

As she leaves, the notes of tonight’s final number begin: “Let Me Be Your Star”. Karen and Ivy trade verses as they and the casting panel converge for the callback, finally forming an ersatz duet as they meet outside the building where the callback is being held. This number is genius, blending an amazing cocktail of determination and confidence with need and desire. It puts me in mind musically and thematically of “The Music and the Mirror” from A Chorus Line and the inexorable movement toward the audition room by the many characters is strongly reminiscent of the quintet performing “Tonight” from West Side Story (or, for those who haven’t seen West Side Story, “Walk Through the Fire” from the musical Buffy episode “Once More, With Feeling”). The song builds to its climax, Karen and Ivy belting a final “let me be your star!” and then a quick cut to black.

You guys, this show is brilliant. The writing is strong, the characters are vibrant and engaging, the music is for the most part great, the choreography and editing are terrific. I cannot say enough good things about it (obviously). I downloaded the pilot back in January and have watched it at least a half-dozen times and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched or listened to “Let Me Be Your Star”. Our sister site AfterEllen expressed some pretty strong trepidation about McPhee’s casting, but I believe she’s shown the nay-sayers that she can more than acquit herself as an actress. My only real critique is the lack of any sense of time from one scene to the next. We go from thinking up the idea to recording a demo to having several songs to having a number staged within the course of a single episode, and there’s no clue how much time all of this has taken.

Who’s your choice to play Marilyn?