After last week’s reshufflings and consolidations, we’ve essentially been left with two Smashes—at least for now. In “The Bells & Whistles,” one of those Smashes is excruciating at first, and then gets better. And the other? Actually pretty entertaining, all the way through.
As Smash has done a few times this season, the goings-on at Bombshell and Hit List mirror each other in “The Bells & Whistles,” with each show enduring creative differences between director and cast. The way those differences are pitched goes a long way toward demonstrating why the Hit List storyline has been so frequently unbearable while the Bombshell storyline has stabilized into the actual behind-the-scenes-of-Broadway drama that Smash was always meant to be.
Consider the way that Derek and Jimmy go at each other this week over their differing visions for Hit List. They’ve each got legitimate beefs. Derek believes he’s come on board to do “a Broadway show with an off-Broadway budget,” and so he’s called in favors to get LED screens to provide some flash to the small, bare stage; and he’s looking at big-name stars to play the role of “The Diva,” to sell some of those subscriptions that Scott badly needs. But Jimmy, who sees himself as the final arbiter of what Hit List is (and isn’t), doesn’t think the show needs to be “opened up,” and definitely doesn’t need anyone in the cast but unknowns. Jimmy’s not wrong when he says he doesn’t want to spend every performance of Hit List worrying that the computer-programmed video-screens will fail; and it makes for good conflict for him to go behind Derek’s back to Scott to complain the artistic integrity of the theater is being compromised. But from the opening scene—in which Jimmy and Derek express their divergent interpretations of a Hit List beat—neither believes that the other has anything worthwhile to offer, and both are way too high-strung about it. The hostility level is too intense, given that Smash wants us to believe that these two once wanted to work together.
Contrast that to Bombshell, where Tom is striving to be the anti-Derek, inviting everyone to give their input on the show. Even when Julia worries that Tom is going to let too many bright ideas kick the musical off-course, she assumes good faith on his part, and tries to steer him back in the right direction more gently. As a result, the Bombshell scenes in “The Bells & Whistles” are, by and large, not actively irritating—which, for Smash, feels like a huge victory.
It helps of course that Bombshell has Ivy, who proves her mettle even in her rehearsal of “Let Me Be Your Star.” This week also brings the return of Sam, who brought so much energy to the second half of season one, before he was sent away at the start of this season to be in the touring company of The Book Of Mormon. Tom is happy to have Sam back—who wouldn’t be?—and immediately starts making promises to get him into the show, even convincing him to quit his touring gig. Tom’s bright idea is to add a new number to Bombshell, set at a JFK benefit, where Sam as Nat “King” Cole will sing a song from an abandoned Houston-Levitt musical about Vegas. I can understand Tom’s excitement. The new song, “Let’s Start Tomorrow Tonight,” is the most boffo bit of old-school Broadway that Smash has given us in weeks, and Leslie Odom Jr. lights up the screen singing it.
But the addition of “Let’s Start Tomorrow Tonight” makes Eileen furious, and in a more believable, justifiable way than the cartoony Jimmy/Derek feuding. It ticks her off for creative reasons, because the new song’ll make for two JFK-related numbers in Bombshell, taking too much focus away from Marilyn. It also annoys her because she’s been working with her publicist Agnes (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, another Rent refugee) to land a story in the theater section of The New York Times, and when the reporter Richard Francis (Jamey Sheridan) shows up to see how Ivy’s doing back in her old role, Eileen finds out that Tom’s given Ivy the morning off so that he can work with Sam. I know I say this every week, but it’s remarkable how much better Smash is when the dramatic conflicts are as grounded and believable as the ones between Eilieen, Tom, and Julia this week.
(The cartoonishness returns however when Sam storms out of Tom’s life again, claiming that Tom always puts work first. Why does nobody on Smash—all of whom work in the theater, mind you—ever seem to grasp that mounting a multi-million-dollar Broadway show might suck up a lot of their loved ones’ free time?)
I can’t say as much for the stray subplot running through this episode, about Julia’s past betrayal of her old college buddy Scott, which occurred when she got the chance to mount one of her shows at Lincoln Center, directed by Mike Nichols, and shoved a planned collaboration with Scott aside to do it. It’s a more reality-based subplot than Julia’s inexplicable affair with Michael Swift last season, but it still feels tacked-on. The big Julia/Scott airing of grievances mainly just shadows the theme of “The Bells & Whistles,” about the ambition and arrogance of young artists. The way Julia was three decades ago is the way that Jimmy is now, and—according to Tom—the way that Derek was when he first blew into town.
The best scene in “The Bells & Whistles”—aside from Sam’s song—comes when Julia drags Tom to see Derek for advice about how to be the boss of a show, and the two old nemeses share a real rapport. It’s a sweet—and refreshingly quiet—moment. And it changes the tone of the Hit List material that follows, making that storyline feel less shrill, as Derek and Jimmy start listening to each other more.
The end result is a restaged Hit List number—no video-screens, just open space, and people—that struck me as a little too slick, largely because Jeremy Jordan’s awkward leaping about clashes with his studio-sweetened vocals. But at least the number and the tone of the whole Hit List half of Smash becomes less off-putting by the end. And if nothing else, it provokes one of the (intentionally) funniest moments in Smash history, as Jimmy stands on one side of the stage, Karen stands on another, and Derek calls for the chorus to come between them, shouting, “Obstacles!”
- Lea Michele! Lea Michele! Say it a third time and she magically appears.
- The other big number in this episode is Ana singing Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” to Derek, to prove that she can be The Diva. It struck me as fine on the whole, but like the big Hit List number, it was a bit too slick, both in the way it sounded and the way it was performed. Overall though, I was pleased to see that all the songs in “The Bells & Whistles” stayed relatively down-to-earth this week, with the only real Dream Theatre material coming at the start, in that dramatic scene between Jimmy and Karen that Derek tries to restage.
- I liked Tom’s key direction to his cast: “I just paid $134.50 twice, and a babysitter.” A good reminder of who’s paying all of their salaries, ultimately.
- One of the reasons I was glad to see Sam back in the picture is that I felt that by the end of the first season, Smash was showing a more fully realized gay male relationship on television than what we usually get—with actual sexual contact and everything. If Sam’s really leaving again, then perhaps Kyle’s love affair with the theater manager (or whatever he is) will fill that void. Because Smash has been distressingly under-gay this season.
- Only one more Tuesday before Smash moves to Saturday, which means there’s only one more Smash review to come, at least under my byline. It’s still up in the air whether someone else will step in to cover the show on Saturdays. At the least there are only two more chances for me to catch you up on Garson Kanin’s Smash: A Novel. In where I am in the book—about 300 pages in, 200 pages from the end—Kanin’s actually gotten to a compelling bit of backstage drama, as one of the numbers from the musical Shine On Harvest Moon has become a legitimate showstopper, and the star of the show complains because she’s not in it. The song’s evolution—as the star demands to be part of the number, then over-sings it, then has it cut—is fascinating, and reminiscent of the “Let’s Start Tomorrow Tonight” controversy in “The Bells & Whistles.” Anyway, it’s better than yet another Kanin-flattering sex scene between the pretty narrator and her over-the-hill writer beau. (As in: “I came in late one afternoon. He was working. As a rule, he never even looks up until he is ready—but this time he did and smiled and held his look, and I went to him and knelt before him and unzipped him and took him.” Or, “There we were, lying in the leaves, firmly and joyously joined. The scent of the earth around us was overwhelmingly erotic. Love.”)