Photo: Will Hart/NBC
You guys, I’m having kind of a weird night. First of all, I’m still feeling really burnt out from the Oscars. After more than 48 straight hours of meticulously inventorying each and every possible way in which Seth MacFarlane might have offended each and every sentient organism in this or any possible worlds, and making this, and attempting to finally make sense of my deeply complicated feelings about Anne Hathaway, a process that required two phone calls to my therapist with the eventual breakthrough that everything I think I don’t like about Anne are really things I don’t like about myself — well, now I know how war correspondents feel.
And then, after spending the difficult pre-Smash hours guzzling caffeinated beverages and reading everything I could get my hands on about the “Cannibal Cop,” I went to the store for emergency Haribo and there was this creepy guy I’d never seen before hanging out in the lobby of my building who followed me there and back, and all I could think was Oh my God, if I get serial murdered in the boiler room tonight, Ben is totally going to forget to explain to my editor why I didn’t turn in my recap! Honestly, I’m still half expecting him to burst in any minute with a stainless-steel flaying kit and a full set of Mikasa dinnerware. Do you think he would honor a last request to have my flesh ground and baked into pies, instead of braised or grilled? If I must be murdered and consumed by a psychopathic maniac, at least I’d like to know that the meal was Sweeney Todd themed.
But I digress! As always! Luckily, I’m not the only one in a dark and twisted mood. Because there’s Derek, his testicles fitted with cathodes wired to administer a small electric shock at the merest hint of sexual excitement as mandated by Actor’s Equity in the terms of his probationary contract, otherwise nobody’s boyfriends will let them work with him. He’s glowering as Tony Award winner Veronifer Hudsonmoore sings that song from Purlie about the magical keychain that saved Carrie Bradshaw’s life. (Also, Purlie? Nicely done. That’s going deep.) They’re in rehearsal for her One! Night! Only! concert, “Veronifer with a V(eronifer)!” with Tom as the music director and dear, dear Linda, the Only Living Stage Manager in New York, as the stage manager.
Derek’s not happy, as he despises human sentiment and trusts only the joyless thrum of the mechanical sex act, but …
… “You can never have enough love!” says a crisply enunciated disembodied voice, and then, Sheryl Lee Ralph emerges from a puff of scarlet smoke. Sheryl Lee Ralph! The original Deena from Dreamgirls and she’s playing Jennifer Hudson’s mom! Ager! Momager! That is some grade-A clever casting right there, Smash. Although you would have gotten an A+ for Jennifer Holliday. Or an A++ for Simon Cowell dressed up in a Terry Jones–like housecoat and wig … but wait, that’s Derek’s mom.
Anyway, Sheryl and Derek are arguing about the Veronifer’s veroniformance, setting up what will be the — basically, Sheryl wants her to sing “Castle on a Cloud” on an endless loop (although obviously in a less revealing costume than that slutty Young Cosette, with her nipple practically hanging out like that), while Derek wants to turn her concert into what it would look like if Rob Marshall directed one of those Amsterdam sex shows where a hefty Albanian woman dressed as Cher scrawls the word “HOT” on the bared stomach of a terrified Mancunian teenager with a dry-erase board marker clenched in her cervix.
And look, I’m happy as long as Jennifer Hudson is singing anything in that big gorgeous voice of hers (as opposed to doing talking acting or, God help us all, dancing), but I am perplexed by these options. On the one hand, a mother being this threatened by the idea of her adult daughter as a sexual being makes you worry there may be an all African-American production of Grey Gardens in the Moore ladies’ future (Token likes the way she does her corn!). On the other, well, it makes perfect sense to me that Derek thinks his vision is provocative and “edgy,” but is that really what you want to see from Jennifer Hudson? I don’t mean to imply she’s not a perfectly gorgeous-looking person, but to me it seems like her gale-force energy as a performer is actually entirely totally beyond normal limitations of sex and gender, like the egalitarian conception of God in a Reform siddur. Thinking about fucking Jennifer Hudson is like trying to give a blow job to a mountain. You know what I mean?
Anyway, they decide she could use some new material, so Karen, wan little Lego person Karen — because of course she’s here, why wouldn’t she be, she is the most beautiful dancer and songstress and Depressive Pixie Dream Girl in all of Manhattan, and possibly the universe! — is very excited to put her lips three times to the enchanted horse chestnut Kyle Goblinweed gave her if ever she needed to contact him. Might he and his master be able to leave their Brooklyn tunesmithery long enough to play some of their songs? “I don’t know,” Jimmy says, “can she take Derek’s cock out of her long enough to sing them?” She can! So they’ll be there, just as soon as Jimmy finished breaking Kyle’s arm for answering the horse chestnut before he told him it was okay. And you thought Veronica Moore was the only one who played Audrey in Little Shop!
Plus, there’s more news: Bravo is going to film the concert! And you know what that means — if Jimmy and Kyle get one of their songs on the show, one or both of them might be famous enough to serve Ramona Singer a glass of pinot grigio on Watch What Happens Live as she tells Andy Cohen all about her new line of faith-based laxatives. And that is what they call in the dramaturgical business “raising the stakes.”
Speaking of dramaturgy (a word I am going to fit into every recap if it kills me, like Gail Collins and Mitt Romney’s dog. It’s the new Into the Woods!) Peter Gilman, Broadway’s most fashionable script-doctoring playboy, has appealed to Cousin Debbie’s unquenchable vanity by inviting her to speak to his acting class at NYU. Except — ha HA! — it’s a trap! They are actually going to read her script from Bombshell out loud, so Cousin Debbie can hear everything that’s wrong with it, in person, as intoned by the girl using her best Edith Skinner Speak With Distinction diction to read the stage directions, God bless her. “Don’t worry,” Peter says, “I changed the names” but of course, Cousin Debbie can keep her mouth shut when she feels threatened about as well as she can turn down an unstructured earth-toned blazer (this season, at least), so in a matter of seconds everyone knows it’s her play and she is forced to face the terrible knowledge that in the eyes of New York’s up-and-coming generation of deeply hurtful assistant casting directors, Pilates instructors, and (ahem) freelance television recappers, she is not, in fact, quite as skilled a dramatist as Henrik Ibsen. This, despite the brilliant and previously unheard opening line of Bombshell: The Musical: “Hi. I’m Marilyn.” Because it’s very important to establish your character’s names right away in order to avoid audience confusion. Right, Midriff? Eyelid? Carpet?
Anyway, all is not lost, because Peter, in the first sensible advice anyone on this show has yet given about writing, suggests getting drunk in the middle of the afternoon, which leads Cousin Debbie to the realization that while she is captivated by Marilyn Monroe, she identifies with the men in the story. “You know what that means,” Peter says. That Cousin Debbie is a late-in-life lesbian? No, that the only interesting thing about movie stars is the sociological implications of how they are perceived. Anne Hathaway as a person isn’t nearly as fascinating as the reactions she elicits. We can’t identify with Marilyn Monroe (unless we are Joan Holloway Harris), but we can identify with the men who alternately attempted to understand, possess, and ultimately destroy her, and what those impulses say about the way our culture treats women, particularly overtly sexual women: that they have to be idealized, then punished, then idealized again. Yes! Peter says, yes, yes yes, and speaking of the male gaze, how about we continue this at my “home” in the Berkshires? Home (as opposed to “house,” which means you know it has a pool and probably a tennis court) in the Berkshires? Oh, Cousin Debbie, if you won’t say it, I will: Scha-WING.
And yet another breakthrough, which is only tangentially related to Anne Hathaway: I have finally figured out the specific way I don’t quite buy Katharine McPhee as a musical theater performer! It’s because she doesn’t phrase! Here she is, singing Jimmy’s songs for Tom, and the notes sound okay, but she doesn’t put the words together to make any kind of logical narrative sense. It’s just a random series of inflection that makes it impossible to follow, like if Christopher Walken recorded an album of Christina Aguilera covers (except, you know, not awesome). Anyway, poor Tom must be as bored as I am, or just anxious about getting back to rehearsal, because at one point he checks his watch and Jimmy, who greeted this successful Broadway producer with a defiant admission that he had never, and would never bother to listen to any of Tom’s work, tips the piano over with superhuman rage-strength and reenacts that scene from Life Goes On where Patti Lupone screams at that lady for talking through her community theater audition and storms out, a bewildered but defiant Corky in tow. (Except, again, you know, not awesome.)
Many of us would have chosen this point to call security, or bludgeon Jimmy over the head with a ghost light, or methodically stuff wads of gaffer tape down his throat until he was dead, while Linda the Stage Manager, in the tradition of high school stage managers everywhere, fretfully reminded us just how much that stuff costs per yard. But like his successor in co-dependence Kyle of Goblinweed, Tom has internalized years of emotional terrorism from the auburn maelstrom of Cousin Debbie, and so he enables the abuse by giving Jimmy the Jonathan Larson One Song Glory Memorial Sweepstakes Challenge: If he can come up with perfect song in the next three hours — or before someone kills him — maybe, maybe it will go in the show. It’s not impossible, after all, our Lord Sondheim, blessed be he, wrote Send in the Clowns, although unlike his Almighty Dissonance, Emperor of the Universe, Jimmy will have to do it without the aid of Scotch or weed or coke or a sex dungeon or a Faustian pact with the damned (please pronounce the second syllable, if you are reading this out loud) soul of Oscar Hammerstein II.
But he does have Karen, damp-Scrabble-rack-of only-I-and-Us Karen, who can listen to a four-note phrase and suggest that the last one go higher. My God, is there anything this woman can’t do? I mean, besides move her face or modulate her voice to indicate her feelings? Oh, but the look on Kyle Goblinwood’s bruised little mouse face when he realizes he done been replaced in the vagina department is just heartbreaking. Someone start writing a musical version of E.M. Forster’s Maurice for Andy Mientus to star in, stat (a live-action version of An American Tale would be fine, too). He does cheer up a little bit, though, when Derek refuses to listen to said song, and Jimmy, after setting Karen’s hair on fire and frantically slitting the throat of a nearby mad Beggar Woman he doesn’t yet know is really his long-lost wife (and God knows I don’t want to be the one to tell him?) storms off. Karen manfully tries to arrange her features in a look of concern, but …
… “Just fuck off, Karen!” Kyle cries, brandishing his asparagus spear bayonet. She doesn’t understand anything! Not what Jimmy needs. Not what Jimmy wants. Not the thing that happened the one time when Jimmy was on all that ketamine and that Kyle prays into his lima bean pillow every night might happen again. Kyle Goblinwood is his squire and his only friend and he alone must wander through the terrifying wilds of Greenpoint to find him, before something terrible happens, before he drinks himself sick on Stumptown coffee or gets peed on by Lena Dunham or has to take the G train after 9 p.m.!
Except Jimmy isn’t in Greenpoint at all. No, he just went uptown to score some E from Elaine Stritch and then came back to the theater, to be smiley and giggly and to kiss Karen, who is like “let’s try that again when you’re not high,” and look, to all of my friends in recovery, I’m very proud of you and I don’t mean in any way to trivialize your bravery and accomplishment, but some people are just not meant to be sober. Jimmy Collins is one of them.
And yet, it’s a happy ending, in spite of — or because of — Jimmy being back on the powder! Because Veronifer ends up singing Jimmy’s song, so he wins! And it’s a gorgeous Shaiman & Wittman power ballad called “I Can’t Let Go,” so we win! And she introduces Kyle on national television as Jimmy’s “partner, in the manner of ‘my partner David Furnish’” and they get to wear cute matching ties, so he wins! And Karen has a possibly new boyfriend whom she will probably inspire to eventually write an elaborate Smash-themed Carousel parody (“You’re a Queer One, Karen Cartwright”), so she wins and I win! And Derek’s reputation as a director is saved, so he wins! And Sheryl Lee Ralph is Sheryl Lee Ralph, so she wins! And we see Bravo’s logo on the side of a camera, so Andy Cohen wins! And Tom never wins, but he derives all his joy from other people winning, so he still wins! And Cousin Debbie is enjoying oral sex and micro-ground coffee with Daniel Sunjata in the Berkshires, so she wins! And you get a Tony and you get a Tony and you get a Tony!
But there is one who doesn’t win. Anjelica Huston, who for millennia has ruled this realm and the next wisely and well, until she traded her power of Sight for the love of a mortal man, pushed out of her own show owing to some sort of nefarious criminal money thing that even I, who has written close to a quarter of a million words about this show, cannot dream of understanding.
And who is this shadow that stalks her, spindly and sinister as haunted marionette, leaving a trail of peanut dust and ragged off-cuts of soiled Madras in his wake? Listen to the sound of your nightmares, to the wind as it whistles through the craggy mountain you’re trying to get your mouth around, to the unearthly voice of fear and doubt that gurgles like a demon inside Anne Hathaway’s empty stomach and makes her behave that way, and you will hear its unholy name:
To be continued.