Monday, February 27, 2012

Broadway on TV

The new show Smash is about the making of a Broadway musical; though hit musicals still tour the country, the audience for such a show would seem to be fairly small, especially in terms of audience size needed for a network hit (at least 8 million, I think), but recent programs like American Idol and (especially) Glee have made its appearance possible. As a theater fan, I was looking forward to this show, and the pilot episode was promising, but that promise is being squandered.

The plot revolves around a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe: the songwriting team working on it, the producer trying to raise money for it, the hopefuls auditioning for it, the director putting it on, and various tangential folks (assistants, friends, family). When the (TV) show sticks with the (Broadway) show, it is great fun. As song and dance numbers are rehearsed, we see the actual bare-bones rehearsal intercut with the full-fledged vision the creators have for the finished numbers, and these usually wind up the best parts of the show. The original songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, co-writers of the musical Hairspray, are quite good and feel like authentic show tunes.

At least two of the actors are very good: Debra Messing as one-half of the songwriting team and Angelica Huston as the producer. Both are saddled with soap opera plots: Messing and her husband are trying to adopt a baby (though why, when they have a teenage boy, is never explained) and Huston is going through a messy divorce from her former co-producer. The best running gag involves Huston tossing a martini in her ex-husband's face. Every time a drink and the husband are in the shot, you know it's going to end up splashed across his face. For some reason, I haven't gotten tired of this yet--in fact, I look forward to it.

That's the good. The rest is not so good. There's the gay composer who is given little to do, his straight assistant who started out sweet and is becoming a creep, and the somewhat slimy director who sleeps with his leading ladies. The main focus is on the two women vying for the lead role of Marilyn. Katherine McPhee (at the top of the pyramid in the logo photo) is the nice girl from the sticks trying for her first role outside of the chorus. We seem to be steered toward favoring her, as she is pretty, pleasant, friendly, and of course, the underdog. But her personality is bland and her voice is plain and overprocessed, making her sound like a mid-range "Idol" contestant. Megan Hilty, the other hopeful (pictured above), has played supporting roles on Broadway and has the advantage of already being blond and fairly buxom, and her voice is far more of a natural "Broadway belter." What I like is that, in some ways, we root for both of them; neither one has been demonized (yet). But Hilty is so clearly the better option for the role of Marilyn that there was very little suspense in the first few shows--SPOILER!: Hilty gets the role, though I'm wondering if what's in store for McPhee is to be the understudy who gets to go on in the lead at the last minute.

My biggest problems with the show so far involve the soap-opera elements, and I guess that's not fair because it really is a soap opera. I was hoping for more color, more fun, more larger-than-life personalities, or conversely, more reality about how stage actors struggle against the odds. The show is pitched in the middle right now and, though I'll probably stick with it, I'm feeling like an opportunity for a really interesting and enjoyable show on this subject has been lost.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Macca the jazzbo

Well, it's been a while. I used to post to this blog when I had a reference desk job in a library and I had a fair amount of time on my hands in front of a computer. Now my library job is in Technical Services, which means I'm not in the public eye, but I'm busy in front of the computer all day long, hence fewer posts here over the past year. I'm still consuming media, but I have less time to think and write about my consumption. So in order to reboot my blog, I'm going to try and write shorter posts.

I'll start with Kisses on the Bottom, the new Paul McCartney album. I love Paul, but he's largely a spent force on the music scene. He gets an album out every few years, there are usually respectable reviews, it hits the charts for a few weeks, then disappears. This new one is a collection of standards, or at least older songs. Some truly are standards ("Bye Bye Blackbird," "It's Only a Paper Moon") and some are songs that are less well-remembered ("Get Yourself Another Fool," a cute novelty song called "My Very Good Friend the Milkman"). He performs them in nightclub-jazz style--subdued vocals, brushes on drums--and he has some musicians with true jazz chops, including Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli, backing him.

But Paul is not a jazz singer, and he strains to sound like one. For most of the album, he sounds like a very old man half-whispering the songs. My first thought was, Oh, poor Paul, he can't sing anymore. But on a handful of songs, including the upbeat "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," he sounds like the same old Paul. So I'm guessing on the other songs, he was trying on the "jazz singer in a film noir nightclub" suit. It doesn't fit well. As an experiment, it was fun to listen to once, but the album is not a keeper. The odd title, by the way, comes from a line in "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" about putting XXXs at the bottom of a letter.