Monday, March 19, 2012

'Smash' Workshops Its Character Dynamics...

I've said it before, though I don't believe I've ever expressed us much in print, one of the reasons I enjoy Smash as much as I do is because of identification: I see a lot of myself and my journey reflected in some of these characters. It's why I am so Team Karen (Katharine McPhee), even though intellectually I can see Ivy's (Megan Hilty) merits, as well. It's also why I'm so Team Julia in general and so Team Affair (for lack of equally concise but better encompassing term). Look, I may be biased because I hate teenagers, but if I had Julia's home life, I'd be looking for a little more passion, if not downright excitement, on the side, too. However, "The Workshop" seemed to show a side to these women-- to all of its women except for Eileen (Anjelica Huston), really-- that made me rethink a number of things. Suddenly the strength I saw in these women in the beginning seemed like something I was simply projecting onto them-- something I desperately needed them to have in order to identify, and fall in love, with them so easily as I did. Because although it took strength for each woman to stand up for themselves the way they ultimately did (we'll get there in a minute), it came with a lot of overtly emotional, destructive actions first. And those will surely be their detriment.

When I interviewed Phillip Spaeth, he pointed out that his Dennis, and many other of the ensemble players, often act as the Greek chorus, just saying what's on the audience's minds. Never has that been truer than when he gazed in awe at Bernadette Peters and then blurted out: "Sing something!" because I had said the exact same thing the minute she walked in the door and it was obvious by the way everyone stopped in their tracks that she was famous within this show, too. I wasn't expecting that; from the way she seemed to dismiss Ivy's excitement over first getting the callback for this musical, I assumed she was some kind of doctor or lawyer or other high powered "normal" who didn't quite "get" the arts. Instead, it turned out she got the arts just fine-- but most importantly, the arts got her-- and that immediately changed the relationship dynamic in my head because though she should be the type of mom from whom Ivy could get advice, their tension and strain all stems from Ivy never quite living up. It wouldn't matter if Ivy spun around on her head; all eyes were on her mother at all times. She stole the spotlight from her the way Karen is (unintentionally) doing now. Again, had we gotten this information earlier, we probably would have sympathized with Ivy from the start. But the show clearly wanted her to be the bad girl for a few episodes, so now I'm interested to go back and re-watch the first few episodes to see if I feel differently toward Ivy.

It's curious that Ivy didn't catch her mother's eye once during her performance-- to see the pride that so clearly shone there, to see the way she was moved. Of course, seeing that wouldn't be enough; she had every right to want some words of encouragement-- or at least some neutral words instead of the negativity exuded to help her daughter build a tough skin in this business. But still, actions speak louder than words, and though her mother is used to being a spectacle (seriously, if I were Ivy, I wouldn't have popped the sleeping pill myself; I would have slipped it into my mother's drink!), she was legitimately shut up by the power of her daughter's performance.

In RENT there is a great singing argument between Roger and Mimi over whether you should live in the moment, every day for today, or if you should be more cautious because you've already been burned. The conflicting emotions that song ("Another Day") brings out in its audience is exactly the emotions Karen's inaction with the meeting sparked in this episode. There was something just so dreamy about her love of the theater instead of potentially being a solo star act; she was happy to sing and dance in the background and watch someone else in the spotlight made (also) for her. On one hand, it was nice to see her stick with her commitments and not simply flake because a better offer came along (as so many in this business are prone to-- and I'll admit, as I assumed Ivy might-- do. But on the other she was giving up such a great opportunity, and it might not ever come around again. What if she burned a bridge? What if she missed her chance? The fact that she was okay to just sit in the moment and be swept away with Marilyn was maddening and inspiring all at the same time.

And then there was Julia. Sweet, sweet, now messy Julia. Slipping into the empty rehearsal space to steal moments with Michael (Will Chase) was something her son would do. Because it was a teenage move. In part, it was nice to see such a giddy side to someone who could have easily been so Type A come out, but the breath was so quickly sucked out of the room with every interruption. On the street, in the studio, during rehearsal when his wife and kid ran in (um, way to be unprofessional, but I'm still not convinced his wife isn't just keeping an eye on things). After a while, you have to stand back and say "I may want this. I may really, really want this. But all of the forces of the universe are trying to keep us apart, so maybe I should reevaluate things."

As things were, Julia was like two different people. When she was alone with Michael, she was light and giggly, and yes, a bit irresponsible, but the minute he left or someone else walked in, she changed, darkened, guiltified (yes, I know that's not a real word). The conflict was written all over her face. She has her sensitive and somewhat stunted son to think about, after all. See what coddling will get your kids? Immature reactions and pouty attempts at rebellion! But anyway, as much as those two (Michael and Julia) may have real passion and chemistry, there is something to be said for the fact that she changes so much. I didn't want to focus on it because I didn't want it to be true, but it just is. There's also something to be said for the fact that he is so seemingly okay with the secret even though he also seemed to be hurting by her rejection.
He may just be a really good actor, after all, convincing both his wife and Julia he cares more than he does. It's hard to know for sure when we know so little for sure about him. And now I no longer believe this is just about Julia being the one who got away or whatever; I'm sure he has cheated before. He wanted the cake and the ice cream-- his family and the excitement on the side. The "need" in his eyes I called out last week always seemed like pure passion, but as he continually pushes her toward the dark side with him, I see it more as an addict just chasing a rush. They may not be on the same page the way I had so hoped when I first caught them stealing little glances at each other over the early bars of "History is Made at Night."

Michael isn't a main character in Smash, so we don't get to explore his full range of emotions or motivations the way we do with Julia-- hell, we haven't even gone home with him as much as we've gone home with Julia-- so it seemed only natural to be invested in her side of the relationship more. Maybe it helps that Julia and I are both females. But she certainly seemed to be the better fleshed out player here, dealing with her actions and their consequences, while he, perhaps in a stereotypically male way, just wanted to be in the moment with her and then in the moment with his family, even when they were in front of her. It just made me wish he actually was a main character, so we could get better insight into his genuine nature. As it was, the spotlight moment in "Lexington & 52nd Street" where he sang directly to Julia told us more about Michael, though it was written for his on-stage alter ego, than we had been given in the handful of episodes that came before. If he truly feels inadequate-- either because his wife has a high-powered job or when he sees Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) beside Julia and she hangs her kid over his head-- that's an emotionally fascinating story road to take him down. And it certainly fits into the actors' need for validation that we've seen so often with Ivy. However, it's really not something the show has set up, so I feel kind of like I'm reading too much into things simply because I want to justify his behavior.

Michael shouldn't have wanted to open the "who cares more in this relationship" can of worms-- because it's really not even a real relationship (much like how Tom (Christian Borle) refused to qualify his own relationship as boyfriend/boyfriend, just another reason it's doomed, even if John is quite adorable)-- but Michael did. Their attraction-- their bond-- is clearly too strong to allow for "just" a fling, but she clearly wasn't ready to take it further and actually upset the life she has built for him. Everything is heightened in this world, but this just all happened so fast!

You don't bring in Thorsten Kaye to play a bartender unless you plan to have him hook up with a core castmember (Eileen's flirtatious, but I just can't see that being his only purpose. Look at how little Frank is around) and/or be otherwise integral to the musical. If he's some undiscovered talent they bring in to replace Michael Swift, I might literally shit myself, though. Tom wants to protect his friends so badly, it's unprofessional enough on its own, but Julia being so hurt she actually went along with him? Unforgivable. She's allowing her personal feelings to lead her professional decisions, and that is a disaster waiting to happen.

But as long as we're on the subject of the mobility of actors in workshops, until Derek called out for "Arthur Miller" during rehearsal, I hadn't realized he was firmly in place in the show. I remember getting a glimpse at him in the "Let's Be Bad" number of two weeks ago, but I assumed it was just an ensemble player they had bumped up for the choreography. The musical itself may be focusing on the Joe DiMaggio years, but the actor playing him should figure into the storylines with the rest of the cast a bit, don't you think? I say Smash gets Zachary Levi for that role! And if Chuck fans are interested in seeing him back on NBC, I know they can rally hard enough to help make that happen!

Staging the actual workshop was a treat I was thrilled to see us get so early in the show. A lesser series would have dragged it out, but the pace here was much more realistic. In theater, you really only have about a month to stage a show, and then you do tech if you have a space, but things are still so in flux with Marilyn. What can be said about the medley or the new original other than it was so exciting and true to life to watch it come alive in front of such a stiff group of suits? Was it perfect? No, of course not. But that's exactly what makes it so true to life. Shit goes wrong in production all the time! Did Ivy deserve to be reprimanded in the hall in intermission? No, of course not. That is one way to ensure emotions are overloaded when she goes back out there. But she shared a very specific trait with Julia until this point: she let her emotions get the better of her, and really, an actors' emotions should only be used to fuel and inform the characters they play. If an actor lets them become distractions, taking them out of the character and the moment and the story they are trying to tell, then they have no business performing. Ivy has gotten tripped up a lot recently, mostly due to her jealousy towards and fear of Karen, but also because she can't separate boyfriend (or "sleeping with") Derek from Director Derek. He has been harsher than he has needed to be with her, perhaps to prove a point that he doesn't play favorites, but she has expected favoritism in a lot of ways, too. So this time, I was thrilled to see she didn't have a meltdown and she was actually able to hear Derek's words and deliver the way he asked. She pulled it together; held her head high; and whether it's the steroids or the sheer adrenaline from doing what she knows she was born to do, she not only prevailed, but she excelled.


Free_Derek said...

Love reading your thoughts, as always. I do not think Michael is acting out of passion, I think the episode made it abundantly clear that he is acting out of LOVE: he is and always has been, madly in love with Julia. He just won't put up with the fact Julia keeps living in denial and keeps denying her true feelings just because "appearance matters most" and "I have a son" (that is the truth, she has lied to her husband for FIVE years and when after five years the person you fell for and cheated with comes back and you clearly feel the same and then some, there's no hiding anywhere).

I think the episode made it EXTREMELY clear that Julia broke Michael's heart once and is doing it again, in fact when he replies to her "I DO NOT know that" (as in "No I don't know you are right because married as we may be, loving our children has got NOTHING to do with me being in love with you rather than my wife". And he is RIGHT.) And again, Michael WAS NOT married when their first affair took place, so it's very clear it's Julia who abandoned him. And that "DON'T DO THIS TO ME AGAIN" (again being the keyword) sealed the deal.. it's clear he has always wanted Julia to be an ACTUAL relationship for him, it's clear he has always wanted to be with her, but her fears come first.

So much so that she did that totally unforgivable thing at the end. Which I hope she pays a very high price for. Clearly he is re-hired seen as Will Chase is back in the final 2 episodes. Equally clearly, Julia will have to BEG him for forgiveness. And I, for one, can't wait to see that. I'm sorry but the villain here isn't Michael. Michael made the best of life after Julia left him (and no, I do not believe he had other affairs at all, in fact he even didn't want to take the part at first because of Julia. one who is prone to affairs wouldn't even hesitate). Julia kept living a lie at home and lying to herself about her feelings. Sooner or later, they come back and the "dish" hits the fan.

Free_Derek said...

Also, about Michael being normal with wife and kid. Has anyone ever witnessed an affair? OF COURSE he pretended absolutely NOTHING was going on, just like he did with Frank! What was he supposed to do, go "oh wait the woman I actually love is here, let me just not kiss wife and kid because hey, I have to show remorse so wife can see I'm having an affair"?!?!? That's the normal reaction anyone in the situation has (and I've witnessed it first-hand). Not a matter of being good actors at all, it's a matter of survival as long as you don't decide you want both your spouses to find things out.

I'd also like to underline how Ivy is an amateur and doesn't deliver while Michael does the exact opposite after he has been told a one-second and utterly cold "it's over". I don't think she was better after Derek called her out on her lack of performance... I thought she was still very much lacking, while Michael shined. I'm really thankful for the Derek character, not just because I love Jack Davenport but because he is the only one in all this who always puts professionalism first. Crazy as it may sound, even if he sleeps with someone he does NOT let that get in the way of judging their performance (except maybe at first when he was ok to hire Ivy instead of Karen, who clearly was more deserving of the role). I'm also thrilled next episode he and Karen join forces and Karen is finally in the spotlight. I MUCH prefer her to Ivy. In every way. How she sings, how she behaves, all of it. I'm glad Derek is the first one who shows Tom and Julia how you do NOT behave like they did without paying a price.. and the price is he takes control of the musical, a new number is added.. and in the end they will re-hire Michael.