When I was in drama school, our teachers always said that just getting a callback was its own mark of success. Where there are callbacks, there is hope: The simple laws of probability dictate that eventually the producer’s first choice will drop out to do a series or be suddenly struck blind from a satanic ritual performed by the elderly coven led by your next-door neighbor Ruth Gordon. But until then, as Tom Petty once mumble-sang in his seminal hit about the Broadway audition process: “The waiiiiittting is the hrrrrrrrrrdst prrrrrrrrrt” and this week, Smash mines the barely controlled panic disorder that is the birthright of New Yorkers in general and actors in particular for all its narrative worth. Will it be a gripping high-octane race to the finish line? Or will you abandon it halfway through to pace the floor of your apartment in ever-tightening circles, wondering why your agent hasn’t returned your call yet when you left word four fucking days ago? Let’s watch and find out, fellow Tisch alumni and honorable guests! (And also, I swear on the unextant souls of my levonorgestrel-averted children that will be the last time I ever quote a straight person song in one of these recaps again.
The episode opens with an extremely tight close-up on Kat McPhee’s huge, blank, beautiful face, cupping a microphone close under her chin with hands festooned in Urban Outfitters' finest cocktail rings. Her mouth is moving, and unintelligible sound is coming out … oh, wait, she’s singing “Call Me.” Oh dear. Oh Kat. First Judy, now Debbie Harry. Did Randy Jackson teach you nothing? The camera zooms out to reveal her standing on a stage in a place that looks so much like the old Fez that I get a small throb in my throat. Sitting in the audience are all the people we’ve met so far: Tom and Cousin Debbie, Ellis Dappledawn (of the Acorntown Dappledawns), Derek, and Anjelica Huston. They love it, they love her, they want her, they …
… WHOOPS! It was all a dream! She’s just stupid boring Iowan Karen again, standing dazedly in the restaurant where she works, coffee urn in hand. The other waitress is like, What the hell is the matter with you? I just had to take care of your whole table. Karen is sorry, she’s just so nervous; it’s been four days since she heard anything from the Marilyn people. The other waitress scrunches up her face in the expression of delighted concern we all love to give and hate to receive: “Four days? That’s not good.” “I know,” Karen says. “I wish they would just … [wait for it] call me.”
Karen’s right to be worried, for even as she is immersed in her terribly literal daydreams, the creative team has gathered Stone Table in Anjelica Huston’s sacred elder grove (to the Muggles at home it just looks like an office, but we know better) to decide her fate. Tom wants Ivy, because (a) she is his friend, (b) she is awesome, and (c) a role of this magnitude probably requires someone with stage experience beyond earning her “Doing Hobbies” Girl Scout badge playing Big Julie in Camp Tanglefoot’s all-female 1998 production of Guys and Dolls. Anjelica and Cousin Debbie think Karen is fresh and innocent and vulnerable, and all the other nice ways they can think of to say that Ivy is a dried-up old hag. So who will it be, and more important, can Meryl be persuaded to play Paula Strasberg, and maybe is the story told from her point of view? Derek, the tiebreaker, is on the fence: Ivy is the total package, but Karen “feels like Marilyn.” “How do you know what she feels like?” Tom snaps. Derek, what’s that on your blouse, mama? ‘Cause I think my girl Tom just threw some shade!
Outside, Ellis is standing next to a Pacific Overtures poster, one bunny ear pressed tightly against the door. Anjelica Huston knows he’s there of course, because all solid matter is transparent and permeable to her, but she opens the door anyway, so as not to make a big thing of it. “Get me Joe Machota at CAA,” she orders her own hovering assistant. Who is Joe Machota, you ask? Why, he happens to be Scarlett Johansson’s real-life agent. (He also reps Vanessa Redgrave, leading me to abruptly fantasize about an alternate-history Marilyn the Musical, starring old Miss Zionist Hoodlum herself as an elderly and forgotten Marilyn Monroe losing her mind in a decrepit mansion haunted by the ghosts of the past. “Arthur likes the way I do my corn … ”)
Whatever, they need to do more auditions. Ivy is a trooper. It’s Marilyn, she tells her Gay Chorus Boy Friend and her Nondescript Female Friend as they walk under the On a Clear Day/Michael Mayer Product Placement marquee on West 44th Street; if she has to jump through hoops, so be it. After all, she’s not just some 24-year-old nobody who shows up from Iowa and expects to be handed the role of a lifetime because Simon Cowell once sneeringly told her she could be on Broadway. Karen, wearing the wan coffee filter of a face of someone who has spent the past several days in a rapidly decompensating terror-spiral, goes to deliver the news to Beloved Boyfriend Dev on the set of Fiorello! ... oh, my mistake, it’s just City Hall, where he works. And between him and the Irish cop in Bridesmaids, what is with all these foreign people taking all the jobs in our fictional public sector lately? Is this legal? Has Mitch McConnell been informed? Beloved Dev is as encouraging as always. “You’re a great dancer,” he says. I’m sure he’s totally the best judge of that!
Over in Boringland, Cousin Debbie and her recently thawed husband product (whom I am baffled I did not recognize last week as two-time Tony-nominee Brian D’Arcy James) are in the office of their Asian infant dealer, Ellen Greene, finding that they qualify to purchase a top-of-the-line baby today with no money down. How long until they get the kid? Weeeellll, with all the paperwork having to be translated into Mandarin and reproduced in triplicate and flown to the gates of the Forbidden City on the wings of an enchanted phoenix that appears only once a century, about two years. “TWO YEARS?????” Unfrozen Caveman Husband bellows, dry ice vapor unfurling from his nostrils. “ME WAIT LONG ENOUGH! ME WANT BABY NOW!” “Look, Shrek,” Ellen Greene says, “Don’t tell me about anticlimactic. How do you think I felt when Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don’t You Ever Forget It) closed before we even opened?” Cousin Debbie squeals, “Omigod, that’s right, you were in that!!! Can you get me the score? Tom and Jack and Karen and Michael Mayer and I totes want to do a benefit reading of it for Broadway Cares this year!” “Fuck you,” says Ellen Greene.
Back to the rehearsal studio, where Karen, accompanied by several highly muscular backup dancers, is learning the number for her dance audition. Derek sexily caresses the back of her hand as he partners her. “Let’s make ourselves a Marilyn,” Derek murmurs Britishly, getting a Matthew Crawley–esque tingle in his soft pants, which makes Karen feel excited … well, excited and scared.
Meanwhile, in an office across town, Tom and Julia — I called her Julia! NBC lives! — are engaged in the deeply creative process of moving index cards around on a bulletin board while whining about their personal lives. Did you know, says Cousin Debbie, it takes longer to adopt some stupid baby than it did to write West Side Story? And only one of those things gave us Chita Rivera, so it’s clear which is the greater societal good. Hateful Ellis suddenly materializes out of the ether to squee about how EXCITED he is to see HIS idea coming to life and OH NO YOU DI’INT, ELLIS! Cousin Debbie was right about this guy from the beginning! It’s just like Uncle Grizzly Timbertop always said: You can never trust a Dappledawn, ever since they turned their pine-needle swords and fled to the side of Clan Hazelnut at the Battle of Sleepy Time Hollow! Tom, brushing off the fact that this cute little bunny bottom is a multi-million-dollar intellectual property lawsuit waiting to happen, points out that for the first time in his assistant-having history, his closets are organized. Cousin Debbie screams: “Hey, there’s an idea! Why don’t we write a musical about organizing closets!” Oh, honey, Jerry Herman already did La Cage Aux Folles, but keep thinking.
Karen dances! And look, I’m not an expert, given that the only dance combination I have ever managed to retain for more than fifteen seconds is the cuckoo clock section of “So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehn, Goodbye,” but I’m afraid this might be sadly a “Looks 10, Dance 3” kind of situation. Her center of gravity is all off and she’s got some weird floppy thing going on with her wrists, like she’s trying to do the Balanchine infinite line thing but just winds up looking like Charles Nelson Reilly. Ever attuned to the faintest whiff of human despair, Derek thinks this might be an excellent time to introduce her to Ivy, who is waiting outside, golden and sun-dappled and clutching an enormous biography of Marilyn Monroe to her abundant bosom. Careful, Ivy, the path of Marilyn overidentification is like a dark and treacherous Indiana Jones–style obstacle course, littered with the decaying corpses and shattered collagen syringes of the ones who went before. At best, you could wind up with a very unfortunate and costly tattoo removal to deal with, and at worst … well, the evidence has been seen right here in the pages of this very magazine. “I love your scarf!” Ivy squeals at the flustered Karen, which seems like a compliment but is actually a Meisner repetition exercise way of saying: “I will rip out your kidney and use it as a urine-scented paperweight.” Karen complains to Beloved Dev that Derek is a possible sociopath obsessed with his own power. Beloved Dev is like: “Welcome to New York City, asshole. Perhaps you’ve also noticed that real estate is expensive and people tend to envy and resent the professional success of others. Have you been to the High Line yet?”
Speaking of envious resentment: At the oversize kitchen island in Cousin Debbie’s improbably lavish townhouse, Unfrozen Caveman Husband is engaged in the angriest bout of salad-tossing outside of the men’s room at CPAC. Cucumber, that’s for bitterness; yellow bell pepper, that’s for rage. He doesn’t want to adopt some stupid baby anymore, not if it’s going to take two whole years. He’ll be 65 by the time it graduates from high school, which … well, have you been to the West Village lately? Do you see the lady with the Bugaboo outside the Marc Jacobs store? She’s not that kid’s grandma. Rupert Murdoch is going to be nothing but a cryogenically frozen cerebral cortex by the time his youngest kid gets her braces off, so stop being so selfish, Unfrozen Caveman Husband. Carpet, Cousin Debbie’s shaggy teenage son, emerges suddenly from his hiding place in the under-stairs broom closet, which has been newly and immaculately organized by Ellis when he broke into the house earlier to plant falsified evidence that the Marilyn musical was all his idea in the brilliant inversion of the plot of Working Girl that I hope this show will become. Carpet is furious that his Unfrozen Caveman Father has abruptly closed his heart to little Mai Lin, wherever she is. Oh, Carpet, you’re just a piece of Carpet. And since when are teenage boys so communicative? Is this a Millennial thing? Shouldn’t he be popping No-Doz in parking lot of a 24-hour Kinkos, silently and determinedly playing hacky sack as he waits for a marijuana delivery that will never come?
With a mighty sigh, Cousin Debbie tosses her casual at-home day cape majestically over her shoulders and takes Carpet out onto the lanai for a little mother/shag-rug heart-to-heart. “Ever since I was little, you told me I’d be getting a little brother or sister,” Carpet moans, oblivious to the fact that IVF has only an 11.3 percent success rate in women 41 and older. “My sister is in China, you said, and we have to go get her. She’s waiting for us. What’s going to happen if we don’t get her?” Oh, Carpet, Cousin Debbie thinks, blinking back tears, cradling his shaggy head against the luxuriant swaths of merino cashmere that encircle her collarbone and throat. Her little Carpet. One day she’ll have to tell him that it wasn’t true, that there is no Mai Lin and she was never waiting for them, that that was just from a Lifetime movie she auditioned for right before she booked Ned and Stacey and things began to change. But not here. Not now. Not this day.
Anjelica Huston! Stalking across the floor of a restaurant, passing a booth where her loathsome ex-husband who is not Frank Langella sits with his latest hopelessly naïve paramour, Bimbetta O’Toole! “Hello, Jerry,” Anjelica sneers. “Hello, Newman,” hiss back the 11.5 million Americans watching at home. Bimbetta O’Toole is boobielisciously overjoyed to see Anjelica, with predictable results, and I would like to offer the following public service announcement to the young airheads of America: Never act all bubbly and excited about meeting a woman visibly older than yourself, particularly if you are clearly implicated in some kind of oily free-market sex exchange with her former husband. You will be a visibly older woman yourself one day, and you will recognize. In the meantime, should you need a reminder of this important rule of etiquette, The First Wives Club is never not available on Time Warner’s “Hits on Demand.”
Anjelica glides past them and sits down with Derek to talk casting, but their tête-à-tête is quickly interrupted by real-life Spring Awakening (director Michael Mayer) producer Jordan Roth, waving frantically in their direction. “Hi, I’m Jordan Roth!” says Jordan Roth. “This is what I look like, America! Can I borrow Derek for a second in order to enable you to have an uncomfortable conversation with your evil ex-husband?” Jerry immediately slides into Derek’s still-warm seat and orders two Manhattans, which arrive instantly, for instantaneous food/beverage service, along with presents where the lid is wrapped separately from the rest of the box, is the main reason why TV life is so much better than real life. “Get out of my booth, Jerry,” Anjelica hisses. Fine, says Jerry, but not before he tells her how everything she touches is going to turn to shit and she’s nothing without him. “For the last time, Jerry,” Anjelica says, “get out of my booth.” Jerry’s not going anywhere. “Fine,” says Anjelica, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She tosses her drink in Jerry’s face, and suddenly Jerry feels himself shrinking, feels the fiery prickle of coarse fur sprouting all over his body. His ears grow, his teeth lengthen; a long pink tail shoots out from his coccyx like a panicked earthworm emerging from a mound of soil. Gasping for breath, he scrambles out of the suffocating folds of his sleeve, leaving his clothes in a limp puddle on the floor. Something is falling through the sky, something big and flat, about to crush him, the words “Bruno Magli” flash before his eyes and … wham! Just in time, Jerry scurries to safety under a table where he comes face to face with another rat, wearing a dirty white T-shirt and a diffident expression. “Name’s Rizzo,” he says. “Rizzo the Rat. Ain’t seen you around here before.” “I’m Jerry,” Jerry mumbles, numb with shock. “All right, Jerry, here’s the plan. See that producer?” “Jordan Roth?” “No, the frog. Over in the corner.” Jerry pokes his snout out from under the edge of the tablecloth and sees him: a small green figure wearing a silk cravat and pencil mustache. “Got a show called Manhattan Melodies he’s trying to sell, and we’re going to help him do it. It’s a whispering campaign, capisce?”
More auditions, or rather practicing for auditions, which is becoming nearly as tedious and grinding as an actual audition process, so way to verisimilitudinize, Rebeck (and no, that’s not a word). Guess who sucks at acting? Karen, that’s who! Guess who doesn’t suck? Ivy. She’s working with Derek on a karaoke monologue as performed in the style of Marilyn Monroe, and she’s so good that he actually kneels before her, looking deeply into her big hurt eyes. He looks incredibly hung-over, which in no way diminishes his sexual attraction for the collective entity that Megan Hilty and I have become. Slowly, deliberately he reaches up to remove the butterfly clip from our hair …
… and the next thing you know, they’re in bed, grappling sweatily with each other’s naked bodies. I’m all for this development, obviously, but putting on my little Doris Dramaturg hat, and given how hard NBC seems to be pushing Kat McPhee as America’s sweetheart, I’m afraid that they’re going to try to spin it like Ivy slept with the director for the part, when to me, it seems like there is something obviously more genuine and complicated going on than that. Not that I think anyone should be buying a dress for the wedding yet, but … what people who have never been around theater people don’t understand is that it’s kind of like they’re on Ecstasy all the time. Everything is totally genuine while it’s happening. And Derek, for all his admirable qualities such as his impatience with messy jazz technique and the fact that I have decided his neck skin smells like that really expensive English lime extract soap they only sell at Bigelow’s, is exactly the kind of sadist that would fuck you and then purposely not hire you, just to make a point. But good for Ivy for getting some hot sexing, since God knows the opportunities for such in the world she moves in are few and far between. If the Christian Right were really serious about promoting an abstinence-only agenda, they’d mandate every American girl be enrolled in a federally funded musical theater conservatory program until she gets married or goes through menopause, whichever comes first.
It’s Judgment Day! Karen and Ivy eyeball each other across the hallway, waiting to be called in. Ivy is glowing, as her night of tender yet animalistic lovemaking with Broadway’s most heterosexual male choreographer has impregnated her with a zygote called “Hope.” Karen, on the other hand, is wearing a dingy sports bra and was unfairly screamed at by Beloved Boyfriend Dev last night after she missed his Very Important Business Dinner, because he has not yet reached the point in his personal maturity where he realizes that no one at work actually gives a shit about meeting his girlfriend. Karen gives her final audition, “20thCentury Fox Mambo,” the one full-fledged, semi-imaginary musical number of the episode, at the end of which we get to see what Katharine McPhee looks like doing full Marilyn: platinum hair, sparkly gown, beauty mark, the works ...
… and the verdict is: not enough!!! IVY GETS THE PART!!! I’m weeping, Megan Hilty is weeping, Christian Borle is weeping, every actor over 30 and beginning to think that this is maybe just never going to happen for them and all that fucking yoga was for nothing is weeping. I haven’t had this much faith in America since Sasha Obama walked across the stage in Grant Park. Anjelica Huston asks Derek if he’s happy with their choice. He is, but there’s something he has to tell her: Jerry, aided by a mysterious band of felt creatures who appear to report to Lonny Price, has raised the money for My Fair Lady and wants him to come back to direct. Anjelica Huston lets out a little gasp. How could she not have foreseen this, in her sacred fires? She’s heard tales, of course, of priestesses who lost their way, of great warlocks whose sight blurred and then grew dim. She never dreamed it could happen to her. There was so much to see, so much still to come. But no, Derek is just doing that dick reality-show thing, “And I told him yes, except it was opposite day so that actually meant no and I’m staying with you.”
Anjelica smiles gamely, but as soon as he is gone, her eyes fill with grateful tears. The Fires did not lie. She is not yet a dying ember, a faceless howl in the Vale of Souls. The Darkness has not yet begun. One day, she knows it will come, must come; a time when the fires will be quenched and the great cities lie in ruins; when Joe Machota will call and say he’s spoken to Scarlett and she’s really interested in doing some theater. But not here. Not now. Not this day.