NBC's series about Broadway musicals, Smash, had its second-season premiere this week. Though I watched the first season, I don't expect to watch Year Two. I only mention this for two reasons. The first is because I actually love Broadway musicals. I have an embarrassingly large number of cast recordings from Broadway and around the world, over 400 (what can I say? I enjoy staking out used record stores -- it's like a treasure hunt, finding the more obscure at this point, the better ), so I don't snark at the TV show as a non-believer. But if they can't keep me around, that's an issue for the show. The other reason to mention Smash (in fact, my main reason) is to bring up my favorite moment of the series last year, something that likely slipped past 99.5% of the audience. I'll get to that in a moment.
To be clear, there were things I liked in the first season. For starters, I found it semi-enjoyable -- I say that as someone who finds Glee unwatchable, and have only seen about eight minutes of it. But that's not enough for me, and there was too much that I found annoying. But Katherine McPhee was terrific, I liked a few of songs -- "Let Me Be Your Star," in particular (though I wasn't crazy about the full score), it had a joyous send-off of Bali movie musicals where most everyone got to perform, and there were plot lines that worked well for me.
I also got a kick out of the fact that one of the few characters on the show who has no reason to sing -- the husband of Debra Messing's character -- is one of the more notable, actual Broadway musical stars. Brian D'Arcy James. (Among other things, he starred in the title role of Shrek. And was in the Tony-winning Titanic.) It was fun to see them struggle to find some way to get him to sing. Eventually, there was a 12-second sequence when he was playing a music video game and joined in. Somewhat similarly, they figured out a way to get Christian Borle (who plays the composer) to do a full-blown musical production number -- not unreasonable since he won a Tony Award last year in the musical, Peter and the Starcatcher. They had a character be late for rehearsals, so the composer filled in because he knew the number. It was sort of a, "Put me, coach, I can do that!" moment.
(By the way, for others who like Katherine McPhee, you might want to check out a film written and directed by a good pal of mine, Rob Hedden. You May Not Kiss the Bride. She's the female lead in it, and does a nice job in her fist starring role. The comedy adventure has a wonderful cast, and is light, fun entertainment.)
But overall, too much was overly soap-opera and stretched credibility of important plot points for me. I understand them doing it, I hope people enjoy keep enjoying it, but it wasn't enough to my taste.
But I did love one tiny moment. A moment, as I said, that I'm sure went past nearly the entire audience, even most theater lovers. But was a touch of theatrical history.
It came near the end of the year. The production team was gathered in a piano bar -- made all the more fun because the pianist in the scene was played by Tony-wining composer Marc Shaiman who co-wrote all of Smash's songs. At one point, the character played by Angelica Huston (in real life a decidedly non-singer) is put in the position of singing a song. But what to sing? "Do you know 'September Song'?" she's asked. She does, she says with a smile, and performs a quiet, simple version of it. "But it's a long, long time, from May to December..." That's all, nothing special, but pleasant.
But -- what I found such a total joy about it was that there was an inside "joke" to it. The moment I heard the question, "Do you know 'September Song'?", I smiled wide in appreciation. That song was not remotely chosen by accident or the whim of the show's music coordinator. "September Song," you see, is from the very old musical, Knickerbocker Holiday. It was written in 1938, with music by Kurt Weill (who also wrote "Mack the Knife," among much else) and Maxwell Anderson. In the musical, the song is sung by an aging 'Peter Stuyvesant,' the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. All well and good. And the actor who played him was...Walter Huston. The grandfather of Angelica Huston.
As I said, that choice of songs was no accident.
(Walter Huston, incidentally, had a long and distinguished career. He's probably best-known today for playing the old, crusty prospector opposite Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of Sierra Madre. A film written and directed by his son, John Huston -- Angelica's father.)
"Do you know 'September Song'", Angelica Huston was asked? You bet she did. Great TV moment.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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