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Sitting Shiva for Smash

The show’s demise is a blow for musical theater—the art that incorporates virtually every other form of art

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Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright on Smash (NBC)

This week was Shavuot, when the Jews received the Torah. But just as the good Lord giveth, so does he taketh away (is that in the Torah? Or is that a New Testament thing?). And this week was also one of loss so great, I fear I can hardly do justice to the resulting sense of emptiness in just once column, except to say it’s a comfort to know that on some level, humanity grieves together.

We’re all always sitting shiva for something or other—our youth, our illusions, the perfect sentence that flew out of our minds (never to return) when the person in front of us thrust his seat back, almost crushing our pelvis and breaking the screen on our laptop. (Yes, I’m on a plane right now, just like Thomas Friedman! If it crashes, this will be the last thing I ever write. Dynamism!)

Today, I’m sitting shiva for Smash.

I don’t mean to Mazeppa my own horn, but as some of you might know, I’m kind of a big macher in Smashworld. I write the recaps of NBC’s reluctantly beloved little Broadway-show that-couldn’t for New York magazine’s Vulture blog, and since the network officially announced its cancellation this weekend, I’ve been awash with tweets, emails, and IM’s from well-wishers wanting to know if I’m OK, if I’m sad, and didn’t I see it coming? The answer to all of these questions, of course, is yes. Yes, I’m fine, but yes, I’m sad, and as for the demise of a notoriously embattled show: Is it less sad when your terminally ill spouse dies than if they lived a full, happy life and were simply hit by lightning one day, but didn’t suffer? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that what I’m mourning isn’t so much the end of Smash itself, but the Broadway-shaped hole in my—no, in all of our television screens.

If you tell me you don’t like musicals, I’ll tell you, as politely as I can, that you’re full of crap. Did you ever enjoy a Disney movie? It was a musical. Go to see Les Mis in the movie theater? Musical. Love South Park? Musical (and possibly a whole dissertation of its own). The Phantom of the Opera is a terrible piece of nonsensical ’80s bombast, but it’s also the highest-grossing entertainment property of all time. There is virtually no one in America today who hasn’t tried their turn in the chorus of their high-school production of Oklahoma, or gamely sung along with the parody lyrics Aunt Sharon wrote to “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” for Grandpa’s 80th birthday, or gleefully belted out “Matchmaker Matchmaker” that time they got really drunk at karaoke.

And the ubiquity isn’t just physical. It’s metaphysical—if that even makes sense. Musical theater is literally everything. It incorporates virtually every other form of art—visual, performing, literary—it’s giddily democratic yet fiendishly elitist and almost impossible to pull off. It canonizes the enthusiasm and joy of the amateur yet requires the cool head and technical expertise of the professional, professionals that Smash has attempted to bring into the limelight week after week. (Let me put it this way, Smash gave you Bernadette Peters as a recurring character. Glee gave you Gwyneth Paltrow. The defense rests.)

And it’s precisely that sense of difficulty that makes musical theater the greatest, and deepest, expression of American—and Jewish—popular culture. It’s incredibly difficult to make musical theater well, and given the veiled disdain for anything that seems girly and/or gay that still permeates much of mainstream entertainment, it’s difficult to convince people that they care about it. This inherent challenge—the herculean, often futile, always profoundly satisfying effort it takes to “put on a show”—gives musical theater as a construct the crucial layer of conflict that makes it so transporting. In its best moments, Smash realized it wasn’t just about the problems facing its fictional productions of Bombshell or Hit List; it was about the very real problems of making a real television show about them. Every actress who sings “Rose’s Turn” is, on some level singing about herself.

An indomitable character facing insurmountable odds: That’s the story of Gypsy and the story of every particular production of Gypsy. It’s the story of Exodus, and of the American Revolution. It’s the story of everything. And if another generation of audiences and producers decides that none of that matters because enough car companies didn’t buy ad time during Smash, well, that will be a loss even greater than that of Dr. Joyce Brothers, or Barbara Walters, or Angelina Jolie’s breasts. It’ll be a loss of a big piece of the Jewish, and American, soul. And then I’ll be pretty sad indeed.

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heaveho says:

Love SMASH — this column about it doesn’t even begin to honor this now cancelled yet ground breaking NBC TV show.

Love, Love, Love SMASH and musical theater. Maybe some creative soul will figure out that streaming will allow SMASH to reach its many fans who don’t fit the car advertisers’ demographic.

It’s a shame all the good, creative ones get cancelled.

Gordon Schochet says:

The cancellation of SMASH was among the few intelligent moves made by network television this year: it was never more than soap opera, with painfully transparent, stereotypical, and uninteresting characters, poor to fair (at best) acting, and an insulting story. I LOVE musicals — from Disney and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” to “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” even “Kismet.” But “Smash” was unendurable. (Of course, it will be replaced by something worse.)

Well, we can see how well musical theater is doing popularity-wise when every year the Tony’s on CBS is rushed off the air at 11:00 pm while the Oscars can run well over and no one gives a chit.

From Down Under…I love Smash. We still have one or two episodes to go here. I think that it is worth watching just to see Angelica Huston.. is it soapy? sure to a degree. Has the Karen cartwright character become so irritating you want to throw something at her? well yes. Can anyone see what she sees in what’s his name…? No. Despite his faults is Derek just well, adorable? well yes. Has Ivy grown on me? you bet. So in a nutshell, while the Tom and Julia characters are funny and likeable and some of the others are throw the wine bottle at them irritating, it is a great show. I too will miss it. Especially as there is so much drek out there. Scandinavian dramas anyone? A night of Kevin Spacey in House of Cards coming up soon. Pass the red.

A bit melodramtic don’t ya think?

Skipper50 says:

I love musical theater, and that’s why I found Smash to be a boring, stereotyped mess. Good riddance.

Guest says:

As someone who makes a living working on musicals (25 years and counting) my problem with SMASH was not that they were showing our industry in a very strange light but that after a great pilot, they could not seem to tell a compelling story. I am sure that doctors watch medical shows and scream at the TV the same way I did when Ivy left the theatre to sing in her angel wings in Times Square (no wardrobe person worth their union card would have allowed that to happen) – I will miss the recaps but not the show.

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Sitting Shiva for Smash

The show’s demise is a blow for musical theater—the art that incorporates virtually every other form of art

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