Baroque beyond belief and gilded to its gills, the St. George Theater on Staten Island, a vaudeville palace when it opened in 1929, has fallen on hard times. However eye-popping the interiors, it looks from the street, where a crumbling stucco marquee scowls overhead, like a porn theater at best, or perhaps the future site of an Applebee’s. These days, it’s often rented as a set for movies and TV shows that need to simulate a Broadway house, and so, on a foggy morning in November, the new NBC series Smash, which shoots most of its big production numbers here, has occupied the premises. As technicians adjust the dolly crane for a number called “Let’s Be Bad,” chorus boys in tailcoats and lithe girls encrusted with spangles wander about in the inky dark, giving the impression of some outer-borough revival of Follies.
Except that Follies is about the death of the American musical, while Smash, which debuts on February 6, is banking on its viability. And that’s just the first of the paradoxes in store. Consider that the show, in which a bunch of fictional theater types set out to write a serious musical about Marilyn Monroe, was largely created by actual theater types—the playwright Theresa Rebeck, the director Michael Mayer, and the songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—whose up-and-down reception on Broadway of late might lead some to expect a poison-pen letter. But no, it’s a love letter: a romantic-dramedy musical soap opera that borrows elements of reality TV in focusing, at first, on the competition between two actresses to play Marilyn. If Smash is successful and gets renewed, the Marilyn musical should reach “Broadway” next winter—much faster than a real production would. But, even stranger, if the Marilyn musical is itself successful, producers hope to crack it out of its Smash shell and move it to the actual Broadway sometime thereafter.
That’s two jackpots with one ticket—but let’s not put the meta-cart before the meta-horse. For one thing, if this Marilyn musical existed sans Smash, it might never get produced. An earlier attempt at a Broadway Marilyn, featuring a happy ending, was a huge bomb in 1983; Frank Rich called it “incoherent to the point of being loony.” Also, as the Smash creators well know, original musicals, particularly the most ambitious ones, face bad odds in the current market. (The Book of Mormon, a comedy, is the exception that proves the rule.) Almost all 40 Broadway houses are booked, but with what? “Revivals! Movies!” complains Debra Messing within the first three minutes of the Smash pilot. (She plays the lyricist half of the songwriting team.) “Why doesn’t anyone do new musicals anymore? New book! New songs!”
For Shaiman and Wittman, golden boys of Hairspray fame, the contrast between the two worlds—the theater and its televised simulacrum—is particularly piquant. They began the bulk of their work on Smash, for which they are writing the original songs, just as their Broadway show Catch Me If You Can, after six years in development, was being pushed by critics into an untimely grave last summer. If they are still smarting from that, they don’t let on. “Smash was a very nice thing to turn to in the midst of Catch Me’s falling,” is all Wittman will say. “A very nice thing to be caught by,” adds Shaiman.
So far they’ve written thirteen songs for the show, with smart hooks (“Never Give All the Heart” takes its title from Yeats, whom Monroe read assiduously), playful lyrics, rhythmic vigor, and a Jule Styne sheen. But they’re more complicated than most theater songs in having to do double or triple duty. Shaiman calls them Rubik’s Cubes. “Let’s Be Bad,” he says, is not just a Charleston about “an actual moment in Monroe’s life when she was misbehaving” on the set of Some Like It Hot. “It’s also a moment where the characters in Smash are misbehaving”—particularly Ivy Lynn, one of the women competing to play Marilyn. And while it has to fit seamlessly into that narrative as theater songs do, it has to work as a movie song as well, supporting a huge choreographic enterprise that can be completely entertaining in no context at all. In other words, says Shaiman, “it has to pop on TV.”
Whether it does or not, I can’t say; I appear to be the only one listening to it live. Well, semi-live. Though the track is actually prerecorded, Megan Hilty, who plays Ivy, is belting to the back of the house; she tells me later that she does this to produce her authentic “singer face.” Similarly, the staging is designed to look good in the frame of a proscenium, even though a television screen has none. It’s a mille-feuille of illusion, which may be why everyone but me is huddled like cavemen around fires in what they call “video villages”: clusters of monitors with earphones attached so they can experience the number as viewers will. “Who cares about the actual stage image?” says Wittman. It’s very confusing being in a theater watching the filming of a TV show in which an actress playing an actress is having a fantasy of playing a character in a stage musical about a movie star in a movie musical. “Have I missed any levels?” I ask Rebeck when I find her wrapped in scarves by a monitor.