Monday, February 27, 2012

'Smash's' "Cost of Art" & An Open Letter To Julia Houston...

Dearest Julia:

Have I told you lately that I love you? Because I do. I love your big sweaters. I love your Muppet fur vest. I love your enthusiasm, even decades into your artistic career. I love your integrity; though you feel a pull to "the one that could have been," you fight it to not be a stereotype (though I'm sure that is only temporary). I love your ability to see talent, regardless of name or face recognition (or lack thereof). I love that you are so blatantly Team Karen. I love how you speak in seemingly idealistic and therefore inspiring terms about this industry (I want to believe the audience likes a coherent book, but I don't know, have you seen glee's ratings!?). I love your modern-day Will & Grace friendship with Tom. I love you; I love your work; I love you and your work.

I also love the attraction between Julia (Debra Messing) and Michael (Will Chase). Honestly, when he kept stealing little glances at her while singing, I forgot he was married. I focused on the chemistry they both so clearly have. When he came running to the party, no questions asked, just because it was she who called-- and then he got there only to realize his place was to perform in the background and therefore he wasn't really needed-- I remembered he was married, but I didn't care. I didn't care as much as he didn't seem to because all that seemed important was that he and Julia spend time together. They have a lot of catching up to do. They clearly are the ones who got away from each other-- or the ones they forced away due to timing and circumstance. But their chemistry is palpable.

Julia-- and Messing-- is so light and airy in Smash. She's a woman clearly under a lot of stress, but she manages to find the fun and the quirk to her crazy life and business nonetheless. She only tenses up around Michael right now because she's forcing herself to keep a distance and limit her reaction to seeing him. There was a brief moment of pure joy with Michael at the party, in part from the high of performing and seeing her original song so well received so early in its inception, but she shut it down quickly, ever the professional. I personally can't wait until she cracks and just gives into her instincts to be with him, though.

Is it a titular "Cost of Art" that Julia will end up falling into bed with her leading man, thereby threatening her happy home life as it were? I don't believe so. I believe this show is doing a spectacular job at setting up their deep-rooted feelings for each other that they've each tried to bury out of professionalism and morality. It's not just the case of "everybody sleeps together" to take community to a whole other level in the theater world.

...Though it definitely appeared like everybody sleeps with Derek (Jack Davenport). As a straight man in theater, he is in the minority as it is, and as a good-looking and powerful straight man in theater, he is quite the catch. He knows it, and he uses it to his advantage. Every time someone mentioned Ivy (Megan Hilty) sleeping with him, I found myself wondering why they follow-up commentary wasn't "I could have slept with him, too." And not just from Karen (Katharine McPhee). Let's face it; they all could have slept with him. Because I don't for one second believe Derek hasn't used his casting couch before-- even if "just" to put a girl in the ensemble. But by the surprising amount of judgment already directed Ivy's way, even if someone else in that company had slept with him in the past, they'd be dumb to admit it. Karen certainly won friends fast by showing that she stood up for her morals, as fleeting as they may be in this industry. It was nice to see her embraced for that, rather than mocked or disbelieved.

However, I hated that Karen (Katharine McPhee) had to learn how to tone herself down-- and how willing she was to at that-- in this episode. As the great saying (from What A Girl Wants) goes: "Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?" The point of star quality is that when you have it, you shine on your own. There are literally thousands of men and women who would kill to have what Karen does innately. To subdue it is unnatural but also just kind of depressing. She shouldn't have pointed that out to Dev but to Derek. It's basically like asking someone to water his or herself down and conform. Karen doesn't need to dumb herself down to blend; she needs to find a role-- and the powers that be-- that will let her shine. I believe Julia is that power that will. It's just a matter of time.

It didn't bother me that Ivy was pointing out Karen's shortcomings at this point. Sure, it got Karen bumped to the back row and then out of the number for a time being, but that just helped her gain points with her fellow ensemble-ers. The world of theater can be so cutthroat, but I believe these ensemble players when they embrace Karen and teach her how to be one of them. Ivy calling her out humbled her; it showed them that she was just like them, all trying to make a living doing what they loved. She wasn't being a diva or being carried up the fame ladder. Besides, ensembles often become like family because they're in the trenches together. Additionally, all of the things Ivy pointed out about Karen were fixable-- and Karen did so almost immediately. So soon if Ivy doesn't stop worrying about what those around her are doing and worry about stepping up her own game, she'll have nothing to complain about, and Derek and even Tom will have to take notice of what she is doing that's lackluster. Because already in this episode there were some gaps in her abilities. Being so easily distracted-- even if she was just playing it up to call out Karen-- is one. Not being able to keep up with the intensity of the song is another. Remember when I said this was Ivy's part to lose? It looks like her unraveling may be occurring sooner-- and without real personal provocation-- than I ever expected.

Technical point of contention: just last episode a character was chastised for saying "chorus" instead of ensemble (it proved the amateur we were dealing with), and yet in this episode, everyone in the actual ensemble to Queen Ivy herself dropped the term. I kept waiting for Karen to stand up and correct someone, but she never did. Maybe it's because she's about making friends in this company, not isolating herself, as unfortunately it seems Ivy is setting out to do, even if unintentionally, but really I think it was just an oversight on the consultants' and/or Scripty's part.

Also, can we talk about Lyle (Nick Jonas) for a second? I mean, what kind of a narcissist performs at his own birthday party? Birthday parties, as they are, are all about "look at me, love me, shower presents down upon me!" He can't successfully claim to just want to hang out with his friends when he literally sat in the center of the room at an imposing piano and sang at the top of one's lungs. I don't care how talented you may be, past the age of six or seven, that shit's just not cute. Nor was Ivy's cougar-eyes devouring him. Ivy should be a cougar by no one's standards, but this one is literally a child. So unless she's going to pull him into the bedroom for an Easy A fake-out, it's just not okay that she'd consider sleeping with him. This smarmy kid owning a piece of "Marilyn" worries me. He is too young and already too entitled, and if he is coming with the big bucks, the usually strong Eileen (Anjelica Huston) may find herself having to kowtow to what he wants. And what if what he wants is a part within the show!? Can he pull off a man as complicated as JFK or Arthur Miller or even Clark Gable? Not organically. It'd be like Vanessa Hudgens in the role of Mimi Marquez! ...Oh wait; I guess we just found the true "Cost of Art."

My minor nitpicks aside, though, this episode is Smash. It is the show as it always should be-- that toe-tapping, tingling excited feeling while watching that doesn't dissipate with the end credits. I want to live in it. I want to play with these people and work in the arts in the same way as they are. I don't know how you can top this, but I'm somehow sure they will manage it next week. And then next and next and next.

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