TV's "Smash" is a Winner, But It Needs More History
by Bruce Chadwick
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the most talked-about new series on television is NBC’s Smash, which premieres tonight at ten. A writer for TV Guide magazine even said that the new series, produced by film wunderkind Steven Spielberg, was being counted on to save the network.
There’s been an uproar—and not the good kind of uproar—over the heavily-promoted Smash, because the focus of the series is on the development of a Broadway musical and stories of theater life. Most Americans outside of New York City, critics say, have little interest in the theater world and will not tune in to a series about the development of a stage musical about Marilyn Monroe.
But critics should be cheering for Spielberg for using a play about history as the subject of this incredibly hyped and enormously expensive series. Monroe was, and remains, an icon of entertainment history. During her troubled life, though, she became more than that; she became one of the most famous women who ever lived.
The story of Smash is her history.
Episode 1, out early on Hulu, explains how veteran theater producers stumble upon the idea for a play about Marilyn and start to write songs and choreograph dance numbers for it. They look at clips of her most famous films, like the yacht seduction scene with Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, discuss her vulnerability and start casting. The show also sets up romances between some people and conflicts between others. The main focus is the battle between characters played by Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty to win the role of Marilyn in the show. The series is loaded with beautiful scenery and luscious music, and it’s full of sharp vibrant color, especially reds. It is the story of a play’s production, and the backstory of life in the theater but it is, most importantly, a show about U.S. history.
Tragically, the history of blonde sex goddess Marilyn is pretty much ignored, at least in Episode 1. There;s not a single reference to her years in show business. If you didn’t know anything about the film actress who was romantically linked to many, including President John F. Kennedy, and died of an overdose of prescription drugs (although many still claim she was murdered), you might think she’s still alive.
The producers’ defense is probably that Marilyn was so famous that everybody today knows that she was a star in the ‘50s and died in 1962. Well, maybe. There’s one character in the story, a guy in his twenties, who told the producers he’d never heard of Marilyn. Many other members of the younger generation(s) would say the same thing. Others might think she was a figment of Andy Warhol’s imagination. Plenty of teenagers don’t remember Ronald Reagan, either.
TV series, plays, and movies, must add dialogue to explain history to their audience. It takes thirty seconds, no longer. Debra Messing, one of the stars of this show, needs to have a conversation with somebody and just explain when Marilyn lived and the problems she had in that era. In some other conversation, Messing or someone else must explain what the 1950s were like and how Marilyn became such an icon because of the atmosphere in which she matured as a star. She was special and the ‘50s were special. That needs to be explained. The 1950s were sixty years ago; that’s a long time. It’s not contemporary; it’s historical.
Here’s an example: there’s a scene in the show in which McPhee emerges from a director’s bathroom dressed only in a man’s shirt. She slinks across the floor towards him and sings a very breathy Happy Birthday, to him, adding the line “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Monroe sang that song, and in that very sexual way, to President John F. Kennedy at a birthday party for him at Madison Square Garden in New York. If you’re thirty, you probably won’t know anything about that (then again, maybe you do). Somehow, the TV producers should have had somebody (maybe McPhee talking to herself) note Kennedy and the birthday party to make the song have some historical value in the show.
The songs unveiled in Episode 1 were good tunes and the dance number, which looked a lot like one of Monroe’s numbers from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was majestic, as good as anything on Broadway today. Let’s hope that Episode 2 brings some explanation of history and Marilyn’s role in it.
This seems to be the year of Marilyn Monroe. There was an Off Broadway play about her last summer, the film My Week with Marilyn, and several television documentaries about the actress. Some of her clothing was sold for astronomical sums at show biz auctions. Now there’s Smash.
Spielberg and his colleagues should be applauded for staging a history play within their series. They need to add some more history, though, to enrich the show and educate viewers. Marilyn’s fame emanated from the times she lived in. The woman was a much better actress than people believed. She was funny. She was sexy. She lit up the screen with a special pizzazz. She was not married to just one American icon, but two—playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) and baseball star Joe DiMaggio.
Marilyn was an historical figure and the TV series needs to do more in its play-within-a-play to showcase the era in which she lived. Monroe was historic. She was substantial.
She was no Kim Kardashian.