When I heard that NBC wouldn’t be renewing the TV musical SMASH for a third season, I was disappointed – but not entirely surprised. Before 2009, it would have seemed unlikely that a series like it could be aired at all: based in the world of musical theatre, it follows the creation and development of Bombshell, a Broadway musical inspired by the life of Marilyn Monroe. Embracing the aesthetic, and making often obscure reference to the genre, SMASH appeals to a fairly narrow demographic.
But with the explosion of Glee into the popular consciousness, and the renewed popularity of reality-singing competitions à la American Idol, an opportunity was created for a show catering to – and created, written and composed by – the musical theatre community.
If the writing was often frustrating and the quality inconsistent, what kept me watching were the show’s original musical numbers: the titular ‘Smash!’, ‘Don’t Forget Me’, ‘History Is Made At Night’, and even trash-pop ‘Touch Me’, demonstrated the sheer talent of their composers. But these instances of brilliance were few and far between, and there’s only so many times you can watch Karen and/or Ivy rehearse ‘Let Me Be Your Star’
But in an unexpected twist, the second season of SMASH becomes an intriguing, self aware and beautifully postmodern show. Its opening number, ‘Cut, Print… Moving On’ incorporates and responds to the criticism of the series’ first incarnation, and acts as an announcement of a new trajectory. In the final Boston performance of Bombshell, Marilyn (Karen) sings ‘if a duckling never swims, she’ll never become a swan – yes, I’m diving in so cut, print… moving on.’
Season Two presents a narrative centred around the realities of achieving success in a creative industry, an aspect often underplayed in contemporary pop culture. Where Glee promotes an untenable faith in the power of individuality and self-belief, SMASH favours the importance of continual improvement through creative mentorship and the nature of the professional community.
Removed from a culture of entitlement and instant gratification – as demonstrated to an extreme on The Voice, in which industry success begins with inane celebrity judges begging contestants to pick their team, and ‘mentorship’ amounts to an appraisal of your inner sense of self-worth; drawing focus from the social conflicts surrounding the process, SMASH reinforces the importance of creative work, and challenges the nature of its presentation in the mainstream.
The message is encapsulated in ‘The Song’, with a scene of conflict between director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) and bad boy wunderkind, Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan), composer and lyricist of Bombshell’s rival Hit List. When Derek announces he no longer needs the song Jimmy writes at the last minute, the kid demands ‘I gave it everything I got, give me five minutes – I deserve that.’ To which Derek explodes: ‘No, no one deserves anything in this business! You wait your turn, and you earn it. You are not there yet.’
Derek acts as a mentor to Jimmy, attributing their personal conflict to a clash with a younger version of himself, and a recognition of his own flaws. In ‘The Bells and Whistles,’ Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) points to their similarity, reminding Derek of his behaviour at that age, ‘arrogant, stubborn, full of huge ideas that nobody believed in but you.’ As the man and his protégé learn to work together, they begin to produce some of the best numbers on the show, including ‘I Can’t Let Go’, ‘The Goodbye Song’, and ‘Don’t Let Me Know’ (the staging of the latter cleverly mimicking the cinematography of the series itself.)
Most interesting is Julia’s creative development. In ‘The Dramaturg,’ Peter Gilman (Julian Ovenden) forces the writer of Bombshell (a character based on the series’ own ousted creator, Theresa Rebeck) to reassess her script. His notes on the book play a double role, critiquing both the fictional work and the television show containing it; calling it two-dimensional, and commenting that ‘there’s no character development outside of the songs, which are, admittedly, the best part of the show.’ While she resists the dramaturge’s script doctoring at first, Julia’s narrative sees her embrace the opportunity to collaborate with another artist, allowing her work to evolve.
In turn, she goes on to play dramaturge to Kyle Bishop (Andy Mientus), developing the book for Hit List. Kyle acts as a foil to his partner Jimmy, remaining open to the advice of his elders, and eager to grow into his full potential. The ongoing relationship between the creative team of Bombshell and Hit List demonstrates the importance of collaboration within the healthy competition of the creative community.
While SMASH may have been short-lived, its second season contained a message appealing directly to audiences grown out of the idealism of Glee, facing the obstacles of life in the real world. SMASH reminds us that ‘this life is a marathon,’ and presents characters who come to recognise that success does not rest on talent alone.
Christopher Fieldus is Editorial Assistant at Kill Your Darlings, and Editor of Mary journal. He’s not great with bio lines, but his commentary and reviews have been published in Farrago, on Same Same and Killings.