Well, fellow members of Equity, the Drama Critic’s Circle, and “Ensemble/Swing,” this is it. We made it all the way to the very last episode of the very last season of the very last show that will (probably) ever be helmed by Theresa Rebeck. We’ve been through her headaches, her heartaches, her backaches, her flops, and finally, we’ve reached the episode in which we will be introduced to the sheriff who will escort her out of town (played by Jack McBrayer in a frighteningly lifelike peacock costume) for the crime of attempting to create a TV show about a Broadway show about the Passion of the Marilyn, the greatest martyr to the machinations of the entertainment industry since St. Grace Gummer was forced into Micronesian exile.
Marilyn, that is, not Theresa. But maybe it is Theresa. Maybe every time a character has, Tourette’s-like, uttered a contradictory non-sequitur about how such-and-such was just like Marilyn (“Marilyn was sex!” “Marilyn was purity!” “Marilyn understood love!” “Marilyn was afraid she would never know what love was!” “You’re a slut, Ivy, just like Marilyn!”) throughout the million and a half weeks of our relationship with this show (the complex meta-layers of emotional abuse and creeping sense of entrapment being what Smash gets most right about a Life in the American Theater), they were really talking about Theresa. Maybe, just maybe, Theresa Rebeck has been our Marilyn all along.
I know it’s a big idea, my fellow Austrians, but since I shall not be seeing you again, perhaps for a very long time (even now, officials are waiting to escort me to Bremerhaven, where I WILL accept my commission as Admiral of the Reich), I feel like I should lay out some thesis statement, some big, Zeitgeist-y, cultural/thematic critique of the show beyond Into the Woods lyrics and figuring out new ways to unflatteringly compare Katharine McPhee to various mildewed kitchen items.
But then I remembered one of the Ten Commandments of musical theater (not the first, which is “I am the Lord your Sondheim, who brought you forth from the land of Sentimentality, out of the House of Hammerstein” or the second, which is “You shall have no other gods before me” but pretty high up there nonetheless): “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Now is not the time to be screwing around with what works, not …
… “FIFTEEN SECONDS TO CURTAIN!” screams Ann Harada into her headset, trailed by her assistant Scooter. So clearly this is the best time for Cousin Debbie — who for her big opening has chosen an outfit depicting what Nicki Grant Henrickson would look like if in her post-polygamist life she became a cognitive-behavioral therapist on the Upper West Side — and Tom to ‘scuse me-pardon me their way through the crowded backstage area, with a sheet of highly important last-minute lyrics for the actress playing Marilyn.
But who is this woman, Miss Monroe? What kind of goddess has lived among us? She walks onto the stage with a noncommittal quiver of her wig, we see Eyelid and an artfully blurred shadow self scurry to their places on their Pedestals of Frustrated Anonymity and then …
… it’s twelve hours earlier! This entire episode is going to be told in flashback! How very Mad Men of us! And true, Matthew Weiner doesn’t usually use a title card to accomplish this, but at least NBC is assuming Smash’s audience can read! Who says network television is dumbed down? Anyway, we are ushered through Anjelica Huston’s Fiery Portal of Cyclical Eternity (which will soon be the newest attraction at Universal Studios Florida) to the stage of the Donnie Wahlberg Memorial Community Theater in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where Derek, Tom, Cousin Debbie, and Her Supernatural Highness are standing in a Zip-Zap-Zop-ready Circle of Feelings, screaming at each other about who is going to play Marilyn after “Rebecca Duvall’s” sudden peanut-influenced and curiously contractually unencumbered departure. Will it be the girl who actually knows the role, is physically and vocally perfect for it, and is a seasoned Broadway professional? Or will it be the understudy? We don’t know, but Derek storms out of the creative team’s Viewpoints demonstration in fury (he’s exploring the architecture) while Ivy and Karen’s phones ring simultaneously. Karen’s call is from Formerly Beloved Dev, giving her the opportunity to ostentatiously refer to him as her “fiancé,” while Ivy’s is from Bernadette Peters.
“Hello, Ivy, it’s Bernadette Peters,” says Bernadette Peters, who has made the interesting acting choice of sounding totally sloshed. “I’m calling to see if they’ve given you the part yet.” “I told you to stop prank calling me, Cole,” says Ivy, “and anyway, Karen’s the understudy.” “Ah,” says Bernadette Peters, as we suddenly cut to a shot of Bernadette Peters, which does little to prove she is not, in fact, Cole Escola, “but the main reason I called is to let you know that in the world of Smash, understudies aren’t allowed to so much as see the finished script before previews are over, let alone rehearse.”
“Wait a minute,” Ivy says, “With a star as clearly unreliable and incapable of carrying the show as ‘Rebecca Duvall,’ they wouldn’t prepare the understudy? And if they didn’t formally plug her in, wouldn’t she, after months of rehearsal and weeks of previews, at least know the songs, the lines, and most of the choreography, the way, say, somebody named Rachel Shukert had played Brigitta in a twelve-week run of The Sound of Music (a performance deemed “personable” by no less a source than the Omaha World-Herald) in 1992 could probably still be up and ready to play Maria in less than 24 hours, a factoid incidentally she related to the tour guide on her Jewish Teen Tour of the Death Camps of Poland when he said the same thing about Majdanek?” “I know it seems impossible,” says Bernadette Peters. “Just like it seems impossible for a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden carriage. Just like it seems impossible that I would have floor-length windows in a skyrise in Connecticut, where I’m supposed to be right now. Just like it seems impossible that one might be overlooked for one’s definitive late-career performance in the revival of Follies and instead be awarded an honorary Tony for one’s work with animals. It’s called suspension of disbelief. That’s showbiz, kid.” And Bernadette Peters hangs up the phone. Hold for applause.
Meanwhile, a wild-eyed Derek is pawing through the wardrobe room, sniffing the crotches and kneading the built-in foam-insert dance bras of Marilyn’s costumes, because ultimately, the decision of who is going to carry a $7 million Broadway show is going to rest on whose tits Derek wants to see more. And he’s seen plenty of Ivy’s, so the answer is Karen! Karen is going to play Marilyn! Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, amirite, fellas?
But no! No! cries Ellis Dappledawn, Friend of Sylvania, galloping into the lobby in his chariot of a seashell and the suit Pierre Pickleweed (Acorntown’s finest porcupine coturier) sewed for him using the pattern of a British Airways steward’s uniform from 1973 and an autumnal maple leaf softened with his own tears. It’s Ivy’s part! That’s why he poisoned “Rebecca Duvall’s” death smoothie, and in the tradition of screen villains everywhere, he’s going to tell you exactly where and how he did it! It was peanuts! You know, peanuts? They sound like nuts but they’re really legumes, which is why Ashkenazi Jews are traditionally not allowed to consume them during Passover? He put them in the blender? Where they grind right up?
Anjelica Huston, horrified, fires him on the spot. Ah, but something (that thing being Ellis himself) tells me we haven’t seen the last of Ellis Dappledawn. HE IS NOT GOING TO BE IGNORED, DAN(jelica). When we confide in someone, then have the feeling that someone else is cowering behind a door, listening and wishing us harm, he’ll be there. When we lie in bed at night and have the sudden sensation of a mouse running up our leg, he’ll be there, too. And when we turn on Court TV in the middle of the night and think, What the hell is that Calico Critter doing on trial for the attempted murder of Uma Thurman? well, he’ll be there, too. In the meantime, Anjelica Huston has to call the Michael Riedel Product Placement hotline and explain how this whole thing is just like 42nd Street, and as my grandmother said to me about Pearl Harbor right after 9/11, “That all turned out all right!”
Let’s continue to the stage, where Karen is rehearsing “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in a mechanical pop head-voice that nobody is going to be able to fucking hear past the second row, no matter how manfully Ann Harada (who is the only tech person employed on this entire production, it would seem) cranks up the amplification. Also, that pregnant heifer “Rebecca Duvall’s” costume is WAAAAAAAAAYYYY too big on her, proving once again Kat McPhee’s superior thinness, and thus by Hollywood standards, effectively laying all lingering doubts about her talent or suitability for stardom to rest. Because what’s really important is how everyone makes a big public deal about how they have to take in all your costumes, because that’s how tiny you are.
Then suddenly the lights go out, which affords Michael Swift to turn his pupil-less psychopathic gaze on Dr. Cousin Debbie and her many ethnic necklaces that can (when combined with various foul-smelling cattle secretions) be used as currency in some primitive cultures, and make a play for her sex-sympathies by telling her that his long-suffering Wife of Convenience has taken their BrooklynChildTM and fled all the way to Seattle, and it’s all the fault of stupid Cousin Debbie and her Dance of the Seven Loose-Weave Earth-Toned Veils.
And this revelation compels Cousin Debbie to stroke his arm in commiseration, which Unfrozen Caveman Husband trudges into the theater just in time to see because nobody on this show ever stops to tie their shoe or something, thus missing the small act of interpersonal betrayal going on in the room they are just about to enter. Cousin Debbie is forced to run out after him onto the sidewalk to importantly deal with their very important problems. At first Unfrozen Caveman Husband is upset, but then Cousin Debbie shows him his testicles which she keeps in a Tibetan silk pouch around her neck, all shriveled up like a pair of umeboshi plums, and he remembers himself and apologizes to her. “I’m so sorry,” he whimpers. “I know we decided I was totally over the fact that you lied to me for years while you were fucking this guy behind my back in front of everyone we know and that you are obviously still overwhelmingly attracted to him, but it’s my problem. Forgive me, Cousin Debbie, forgive me.” And Cousin Debbie tells him firmly to think of all the good things they have together, and then right on cue, Carpet comes scampering up with a big smile on his squashed muffin face and a Medium Brown Bag full of lunch he’s hunter-gathered for them, just like his Unfrozen Caveman Father taught him to.
And Carpet, oy, Carpet. To quote Fred Armisen quoting the president, look. One final time, really look. I was, I think, a pretty typical teenager (if not an A-plus-plus-plus student textile like Carpet). See if you can guess which of the following three did not happen during my adolescence:
A. I lied to my parents about sleeping at a friend’s house and went to a college party with my college-aged (although not college-attending) boyfriend, causing my father to break into his house in the middle of the night with a baseball bat.
B. My mother confronted me about some condoms in the Big Bird lunchbox I used as a purse (it was the nineties), resulting in a fight that ended in one of us (I won’t say who) throwing a dining room chair at the other.
C. I willingly, even cheerfully, spent my spring break out of town at my mom’s job with no other kids my age or prospects of sex and/or controlled substances, thoughtfully fetching special fish-and-chips lunches for my parents and even remembering to get a special one with vinegar just “for you, Dad.”
If you answered C, congratulations, you have successfully proved you are a human being, but honestly, you may want to consider giving birth to a Carpet. Because then you never have to stop being selfish.
Anyway, back to the theater, where poor Derek is having a hell of a time! How hellish? Well, Karen, the human equivalent of that little puddle of soap scum that somehow always collects around the rim of the fancy decorative dispenser you started put the dish detergent in because that’s how far you’ve come and you don’t live like the girls in Girls anymore but it gets your hands sticky every time you touch it and how can soap make you feel dirty, can’t get her costume on in time for the “Never Met a Wolf” number. Anjelica Huston is yelling at him about how since she’s into her mobster boyfriend’s probably sex-trafficker friends she should have some say about who plays Marilyn, because if this show doesn’t return she’s going to wake up from an opiate-induced stupor to find herself chained naked to a bare mattress while a couple of tattooed Albanians in the next room are saying things like: “Good, the sheikh will be pleased with her.” (In subtitles, obviously.) Like that’s his problem! Derek isn’t a collaborator! He hates collaboration, which is why he became a theater director instead of a novelist or a painter or something where you don’t need other creative people to enact your vision … oh, never mind. (Also, am I the only person who — ahem — thinks Anjelica Huston might be a terrible producer?)
To make matters worse, Ivy has chosen this moment to confront him, Cromwell, about why he picked Karen and not her, especially after no less than Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that she “made the character of Lorelei Lee entirely and originally hers.” Truth? It’s because Derek sees her. In his head. And by her, he means Kat McPhee’s agents. And her publicists. And the studio executives who said they were more likely to pick up the show with a “familiar face” in the lead. And how the U.K. is all well and good, but he’s been trying to be known to American audiences for something besides the guy no one wanted to sleep with in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, because the U.S. is where the real money is, and can’t Ivy understand that? After all, they’re both professionals. Speaking of professionals, Ivy is just about to flee in tears when she runs into Formerly Beloved, Currently Loathsome Dev, who wants to know if she ever found the giant diamond he bought his perfect girlfriend who stole Ivy’s part? He knows she said she checked under all of her herpes lesions, but maybe he accidentally dropped it in her asshole, because he knew she asked him not to do that in there but he figured it was okay, since she’s been with so many guys she doesn’t actually have any feelings anymore, right?
But of course, Ivy does have the ring, which she uses to confront Karen, who uses it to confront Dev, which …
… OH MY GOD, Karen took off the wig! She disappeared, and she took off the wig! Gore Vidal, like any devoted watcher of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is properly aghast. This is some serious shit, right here. Derek, naturally, follows her in hot pursuit, because God forbid Karen’s lack of professionalism should be a break for Ivy. He runs through the theater, past fussbudget Jewess Tom getting a Magical Negro pep talk from Token, past Cousin Debbie and Unfrozen Caveman Husband tenderly stroking Carpet’s tassels before they roll him up for the night, past Dev, who tries to confront him all Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny–like, forcing Derek to put on his half-mask and twirl his cape and cackle “SHE’S MINE NOW!” in a weird Michael Crawford counter-tenor voice, and there are about three seconds of suspense before he finds Karen cowering in her underpants behind a wardrobe rack and convinces her to do the show, because she understands what love is, “just like Marilyn did.” And by love, we mean allowing a lot of powerful men to treat her like an object before cruelly dismissing her when her obvious instability and possible mental illness grew too complicated to continue to compartmentalize, then I guess Marilyn did. And again, advantage Ivy.
But whatever. It’s Karen. Karen Cartwright is Marilyn Monroe, and Katharine McPhee is going to be a star whether we like it or not. I watch the triumph we are told to believe is hers (much as we were told, without sensory evidence, as the workshop was Ivy’s failure) with an emptiness I don’t remember feeling quite this acutely since the networks called Ohio for Bush in 2004. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. That’s American Idol, folks. Love it or leave it, I guess. Ivy, sitting forlornly in her dressing room, dumping prednisone into her hand as though it were something that could actually kill you instead of briefly turn you into the Incredible Hulk, seems to be contemplating leaving it, and I can’t say I blame her.
The rest of us have to love it, knowing deep down that we’re complicit in the delusion. Knowing that as we watch Kat McPhee rise, phoenixlike, from the oddly chipper suicide that really should have been the uncompromised end of this musical and this show, to wanly belt the final lifeless glory note some executive mandated should be hers, we are complicit in the delusion. When we jump to our feet in a standing ovation, we are actually trying to block out the view of the edge of the cliff. The wilder the applause, the more deafening the silence. At best, we’re really clapping for ourselves.
And so, my friends, I exeunt for the season. Thanks for everything. Safran, over to you.