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Seven ways Smash can improve – Open Letters

Dear ‘Smash’ producers, you’ve reduced the most unique premise and talented actors to cardboard constructs. But, I’ve assembled seven suggestions that you can use to improve. No need to thank me. You’re welcome.

1. Drop the unrealistic clichés.

The show needs fewer one-dimensional characters like Mean Girl Ivy, fresh off the farm Karen and first-time producer Eileen. We’ve seen them a million times. I’d rather see each character exhibit realistic knowledge of her profession.

Make Karen a self-aware professional dancer/singer who is new to Broadway as opposed to the naïve, doe-eyed construct you’ve already written. A dancer/actress who is terrible at dancing and new to professional productions yet doesn’t realize she should take lessons and does not attempt to learn the names of key music producers in her town/genre is inconceivable. Show Karen visiting local shows to learn more without prodding from her “friends.”

Also, stop pushing Ivy as the mean girl diva. A woman with a decade of musical theatre experience yet isn’t familiar with an understudy, expects the production staff to run their hiring decisions by her, and suddenly doesn’t want the best singers in chorus is stupid. Any theatre performer worth their salt wants as much talent behind them as possible. And, people who are almost good enough to make lead, producers will probably want in the ensemble or a secondary speaking role. Ivy should know that. Why claim otherwise?

You, writers, have fallen into the habit of pretending Karen and Ivy are the only stand-out talents in the cast. But, the chorus is full of people with raw talent who either have star quality but haven’t found the role, have star quality but still need smoothing, or have no ambitions for stardom (which is rare). So, having only Karen chomping at the stardom bit makes no sense. Her frustration at not making the lead character of a potential Broadway play, fresh off the bus, just seems entitled and ungrateful. As a character with raw talent but no experience, she’s exactly where she should be, so pretending she isn’t seems unrealistic.

Finally, I’d like more theatre knowledge worked in. I remember throwing a hissy fit when reviewing local casting calls and seeing an $800 month salary posted for the female co-lead in one of the larger productions. Also, most shows tend to have more age diversity in the leads. Come on writers, these are bits of reality that you could spend more time incorporating. Don’t throw them away.

2. Spray it. Don’t say it.

Correction: SHOW it. Don’t describe it. This isn’t a novel. It’s a TV show. We don’t need character A to tell us how talented character B is, if character B just sang. We should get it from her/his performance without the signposting. If you want us to believe Katherine McPhee is the greatest singer ever, do that. But, I don’t need characters C, D and E telling me that, I should hear it with my own ears. I’m always suspicious when I see overt signposting which typically indicates a lack of confidence.

I won’t lie. I’m not a fan of McPhee’s singing style. Most contemporary pop singers adopt a whispery, faux-sexy, baby-styled voice with overt stylizations and fake vibrattos. By contrast, Broadway is all about clear vocal articulation and natural amplification where the last person in the last balcony row can hear you, sans microphone. McPhee clearly hails from a contemporary pop background, while Hilty comes from the latter. When the two sing side by side, Hilty’s Broadway vocal training overpowers McPhee. So, when Ivy complained about Karen’s loud singing it didn’t make sense, because I couldn’t hear McPhee’s voice at all. When the production staff imagined both women singing Marilyn, Hilty kept outsinging McPhee, so the staff declaring an impasse seemed odd.

However, in “Let’s be bad,” you writers (and directors) believably SHOWED us Karen’s talent without overt signposting. Karen’s a cappella Marilyn vibrato, showcasing McPhee’s talent (without contrasting it against Hilty), worked. Even better, we didn’t have a character saying afterwards, “Wow! That was great!” So, writers, continue to find ways to showcase your lead character’s talent believably.

3. Play to your actor’s strengths.

Smash’s best feature is its cast. Debra Messing (Will and Grace), Angelica Houston (any Wes Anderson flick) and Jack Davenport (Couplings) are comic geniuses. Megan Hilty (9 to 5, Wicked); Christian Borle (Legally Blonde); Jaime Cepero (Porgie and Bess),  and Brian d’Arcy James (Shrek) all have Broadway backgrounds. And Angelica Houston can play an uber-witch like no man or woman. However, until two weeks ago, you guys didn’t play to their strengths. Only Jack Davenport’s character seemed completely natural.

Luckily, you’re improving.  I love that you scrapped Angelica Houston’s naïve flower child character. I prefer seeing a capable producer cracking the whip and showcasing her inner-bitch. I also loved when Debra Messing’s character dropped quick, quippy asides defending her Trader Joe’s cooking style. Although Megan Hilty has settled into the mean girl role more comfortably, it’s nice that you’ve started showing Ivy’s warmth.

So, please continue to do that. The show already takes advantage of the natural chemistry between Angelica Houston and Jack Davenport as well as Will Chase and Debra Messing. Plus, Houston and Davenport look so damn comfortable together, that I just want the two to have a relationship. Keep playing to your actors’ strengths.

P.S. If you could stop writing Karen as a helpless, deer in headlights, I would triply jump for joy.

4. Inject more humor.

As I said earlier, Smash features an amazing cast, all with a strong comedic acting background including Jack Davenport (Coupling), Debra Messing (Will and Grace, The Starter Wife), Angelica Houston (50/50, Darjeeling Limited, or any Wes Anderson movie) and Megan Hilty (Melissa & Joey).

Right now, the dialogue sounds too one note and soap opera-ish. Considering this is a show about Broadway actors and their writers, we should have more snappiness and pop culture references. Theatre is all about improvisation. Get a bunch of theatre actors in the same room. And, you’ll see they can’t stop riffing off of each other or playing up their own talent (and that of their friends).

I loved Messing’s aside about Trader Joe‘s dinners, but I’d like to see even more. Smash producers, you don’t need to turn the show into a farce, but stop pretending these characters aren’t brilliantly witty. Feel free to show it.

5. Show more happiness.

I need to see happier characters. And, I don’t mean forced, saccharine sweet happiness. I mean real joy. Right now, these people look miserable and they’re whining, moping sops. If you’re in a business that isn’t known for paying large salaries (*cough* blogging *cough*), you’re doing it for the love of the event, not for stardom, money or prestige (although equity Broadway performers pull in stable incomes).

Instead, you do it for the love of getting on stage and sharing your talents with an adoring audience. I’m tired of watching Ivy and Karen vapidly tear at each other for the star role. It isn’t healthy. While the show slowly humanizes Ivy outside of her diva tyranny and letting Eileen work successfully, I’d love to see more quiet unassuming (or overt, non-forced) moments that help us connect to the characters.

6. Interject more personality.

This is character writing 101. What distinguishes character A from character B? What is Karen’s favorite food? What is Julia’s favorite activity to de-stress? What do the background dancers want to do five years from now? Right now, I don’t know who these people are and I don’t care.

The characters feel one-dimensional because they only talk about the production to people in the production. But, that isn’t reality. What are their lives outside the theatre when they AREN’T discussing the play?

7. Drop the soap opera aspects.

Stop making non-issues issues. Making the characters bed-hoppers does not replace actual personalities.

Pretending the most talented and experienced person received the lead because of her relationship was foolish. Dating between two consensual people happens. Dating between cast members and directors happens. Get over it.

Dev’s arm candy neediness is another non-issue. Don’t pretend it’s the 1950s all over again. Seriously? The guy needs his girlfriend to dress sexy for the boss EVERY week? Um, no. My former firms held formal events immediately after/during work, BECAUSE family members prevented us from discussing work-related issues.

I don’t want to see Karen snag the lead and cheat on Dev with Derek (or see Dev cheat on Karen with his co-worker, who ALSO has huge Disney-heroine eyes).  It’s too clichéd for words.

While I love Julia and Michael’s chemistry, it isn’t realistic. The woman with a stressful home situation would probably chase after the abtastic actor with the adorable baby and beautiful supportive wife (who assumedly finances their amazing Manhattan apartment), more than vice-versa. I love Michael as the pursuer, but I don’t understand it. He has so much to lose in breaking up two cohesive family units.

You writers spent more time defining the characters through their sex lives, than their actual lives. It’s time to undo that premise.

If you think the people watching need the sexual incentive to feel invested, you’re wrong. The people watching your show are people already invested in the premise: theatre geeks, performers or regular theatre goers.

So, stop neutralizing your unique voice or fitting it into the soap opera construct. You have a talented cast and talented writers, experienced in theatre. So, stop playing to the weakest constructs of TV history. Instead, play to the strongest traits of theatre history.

We’ll thank you for it.

Photo Credit: NBC

Categories: | Features | General | News | Open Letters | Smash | TV Shows |

9 Responses to “Seven ways Smash can improve – Open Letters”

March 19, 2012 at 3:29 PM

1. “… terrible at dancing.”

OK, I am not one who could properly critique anyone’s dancing, so if that statement is based on something “seen” on screen, then I’ve got nothing. But the way the story worked, at least as I remember it, was that Karen was dancing too “big” for the ensamble, something that makes perfect sense for someone who is “fresh-off-the-bus” and never had to dance behind anyone in Ohio. Nor have I ever gotten the feeling that Karen felt frustrated about not getting the role. I specifically remember Dev being frustrated, and her defense of only being offered a role in the ensamble seemed genuine.

And also, I can’t speak from experience, but I’d think, at the Workshop stage, Ivy’s insecurity towards Karen still being around also makes good, logical sense.

2. Do you think most of the audience has a talented enough ear to determine between Karen and Ivy (and their “signposted” talent level)? I mean, I agree that after Idol, and the Voice, and Country Star, and and and … that most of America might THINK they’d be able to tell the difference, but they can’t. I can’t. For me to be able to understand via “showing” it, they’d have to make one comically worse than the other, which would kill the realism of these two being Broadway caliber stars in the first place.

5. “For the love of the event.” Sure, many performers do so for the sake of their art. I’d think, though, that most people on this level are trying to be “stars” … hell, the whole premise of the bit is the making of a star, right?

6. We’re what, six episodes in? I don’t to know what Karen’s favorite food is, nor what Ivy does to blow off steam. Neither of those things adds to the character as is being defined. But knowing that Sam is a big sports fan, and that Jessica, despite being one of Ivy’s best friends, was willing to help out Karen, were exactly the type of characterization you’re talking about.

7. Yes, it happens, and yes, there will always exist the rumors that the “home life” affected the “work life.” That’s a part of the story, why ignore it because it might come across as cliched?

March 19, 2012 at 10:54 PM

See below for my reply ;)

March 19, 2012 at 3:42 PM

8. Get in a time machine, go back and re-produce the shows you’ve already aired to make me care enough about your series to write such a long, detailed analysis.

I’m still watching, barely, but I don’t have near the enthusiasm left for the dying shell of “Smash” that An Nicholson clearly does.

March 19, 2012 at 10:55 PM

Lol, Scott and I was afraid people would view me as too mean :)

March 19, 2012 at 10:54 PM

#1. I had an entire paragraph on Karen’s dancing which I cut in consideration of space. However, in the initial weeks they established that Karen was a fledgling dancer. All of a sudden, she can’t stop standing out. When you’re first learning a new genre, the flourishes and improvisational movements don’t come naturally. In fact, the extensions and chest pops that it takes to make you pop as a dancer can hurt as you’re learning.

Way back in my Sr. year of high school my mother forced me to take ballet lessons with our state’s ballet company and learning the posture, arm gestures and foot placement hurt. When I transitioned to another form, I learned the steps first before adding on the improvisational gestures. The other problem with intermediate dancers is when I started learning how to improv and pop, I also started hurting myself because I over-arched my back or over-rotated my arms backwards. Quite frankly, big gestures and pops DON’T come naturally.

So, a woman introduced as a novice dancer in the beginning who has difficulty learning steps, all of a sudden knows how to over-extend and stand out without hurting herself feels rare.

McPhee didn’t stand out from the chorus for me. When Ivy called her gestures too big, I didn’t see it. McPhee looked awkward.

#2. Yes. People aren’t stupid. This week showed McPhee at her natural element. Even better, the clips comparing Karen to Ivy this week showed Karen at her best, singing in the 1950s traditional broad-voiced style.

#5. That’s my point. Having just Ivy and Karen chomping at the stardom bit, doesn’t make sense. All of the cast should be equally ambitious. But, theatre is different from Hollywood and is about paying your dues, as Brittany once said.

#6. It’s the underpinning. In acting and writing, when you create a character to make it 3D, you sit down and imagine what fleshes out the character. There’re the 25-questions and then there’re the 200-questions where you literally create a biography. There isn’t that feeling in the previous episodes. Tonight, they actually did a good job fleshing everyone out.

#7. As I said before (hmm, I’m repeating myself a lot), they’re pulling from a rich theatre background. The point of ‘Smash’ is a show about Broadway. So, why soapify it? Yes, you can dramatize the sex, etc. At the same time, falling to cliches on things that don’t matter as much for that genre is simplistic. I was afraid this week would fall into yet another cold parent-oppressed child cliche, but both Hilty and Peterson’s emotion pulled it off.

March 19, 2012 at 10:58 PM

I think you’re giving the masses way to much credit to be able to determine the technical differences in the dancing and the voice work.

Hi, my name is Ivey West, and in this case, I can’t tell a difference in the quality of the dancing and singing between the two. Sure, I can tell that they’re different stylistically, but not quality.

I’d venture to guess that most fans are in my particular boat, and not yours.

March 19, 2012 at 11:11 PM

Meh. People are smart. I believe most of the viewers are either performers or theatre-goers. I won’t quibble over what I see as actual quality. OK, I will. However, I think the show is gradually doing a better job of framing and ‘showing’ without overtly saying, especially tonight.

March 19, 2012 at 11:12 PM

People can be smart, but that doesn’t mean they’re talented in this specific area.

So, they’re smart and tired of being beaten over the head as the producers try to make the point, I’ll wouldn’t disagree with you there. Two entirely different things.

March 19, 2012 at 11:29 PM

I think people can tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ dancing. If a character didn’t say ‘wow, Karen’s dancing stands out,’ would you see it?

So, yea, it’s a case of people being smart and also a case of the production staff not needing to beat us over the head to make sure we got it. But, this week, they did a much better job.

Let me know your thoughts when you watch this week’s ep. I think you’ll see what I mean.

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