Can Broadway Survive Smash? A Theater Critic’s Appraisal of the NBC Show

In a revamped second season, the NBC backstage soap opera is still bad, just in different ways

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You have to say this for Broadway. If nothing else, it’s doing a fabulous job of marketing itself. Even through the worst of the recession, Broadway theater attendance held up remarkably well. The Great White Way is still a must-see destination for tourists (who now make up a record-high 63 percent of the Broadway audience, according to figures for the 2011-12 season). The Tony Awards, despite periodic talk of being dropped by CBS, is still the greatest two-hour commercial an industry could ever dream up. Glee has shown young musical-theater nerds across the country that knowing all the words to “Don’t Rain on My Parade” will make you cool in school. And then, of course, there’s Smash.

NBC’s backstage drama about the making of a Broadway musical debuted last year to mixed reviews and only mediocre ratings, but won enough of a cult following to get renewed for another season. Playwright Theresa Rebeck was replaced as the show’s producer, some cast members were jettisoned, and new storylines geared up. After three episodes (the first two combined into a two-hour season premiere), the view from this theater critic: Smash is still bad, only in different ways.

(READ: Love, Hate, or Love-to-Hate It, ‘Smash’ Is Back )

Some of the changes have helped. Last season’s ridiculously drawn-out competition between two actresses — the hard-working trouper Ivy (Megan Hilty) and the hot youngster Karen (Katharine McPhee) — to win the starring role as Marilyn Monroe in Bombshell is finally over, sort of. (Karen won, though Ivy’s still hanging around.) And the show has jettisoned some of the most tiresome soap-opera subplots — the romantic triangles and relationship crises that turned much of the first season into a kind of glitzed-up Days of Our Lives.

This season it’s all Broadway, almost all the time. Last year’s shows, I felt, were too inside-the-beltway for a mass television audience; but the insider references are even more egregious now. New York Post Broadway columnist Michael Riedel and Jujamcyn theater owner Jordan Roth made cameo appearances on the season’s first episode. The show’s new direction might be subtitled “Tales from the Broadway Unemployment Line.” While producer Eileen (Angelica Huston) tries to keep Bombshell afloat and foists a show doctor on writers Tom and Julia (Christian Borle and Debra Messing), nearly everyone else is looking for new work. Derek, the show’s director, is angling to get a job directing a revival of The Wiz. Ivy auditions for a big role in Les Liaisons Dangereuse. Karen, despite having just won the biggest role of her life, seems more intent on mentoring a surly young rock composer who, she’s convinced, has the next Rent tucked inside his piano bench.

The jumble of new subplots at least takes some of the onus off of Bombshell, whose generic brassy-Broadway numbers (written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) seem all too close to the mediocre stuff that actually does make it to Broadway. Yet the show still depends way too much on soap-opera tropes that were tired when Dynasty was king. Characters make intimate confessions in front of big crowds, or end arguments abruptly before the wronged party can explain, and whenever a character bops into a scene with a smile on her face, you can be sure bad news is just a few seconds away.

(READ: ‘Smash’ Ends Its First Season, With a Bombshell and a Whimper )

What’s more, for all its insider patois (“Word on the street is that you couldn’t hack it in Bombshell”), the show still plays like some eighth-grader’s fantasy of Broadway intrigue. Tom and Julia are offended at having to work with a show doctor they’ve never heard of — yet, after seeing his credits, they discover he’s worked secretly on almost every big show in town. (Where have they been? Boca Raton dinner theater?) To try to save her show from financial demise, Eileen crashes a Theater League benefit dinner and commandeers the stage with her cast, so they can bowl over the crowd with a number from Bombshell. (If producers could do uninvited commercials for their failing shows at theater benefits, the RSVP’s would be drying up fast.)

For sheer lunacy, however, it would be hard to top last week’s scene in which Tom and Julia barge into Derek’s rehearsal and insist that he stage a newly penned number for Bombshell. The rehearsal quickly becomes a kind of Grand Hotel of theater-world dysfunction. Tom and Julia watch nervously to see if their new number works (the cast appears to have learned it in five minutes). The producer of The Wiz picks that inopportune moment to stop by and see Derek’s work. The young wannabe-Rent composer drops in too, announcing his uninvited presence by launching a solo round of applause for the number, then stalking off, hurt because Derek doesn’t know who he is. Honestly, the kids today.

Actually, he should have been kicked out just for applauding. The supposedly game-changing new number for Bombshell is (guess what?) a seduction scene between Marilyn and Jack Kennedy, in which the President of the United States, to a sultry bossa-nova beat, woos Marilyn to run away with him … to someplace where there’s:

No FBI getting nervous
No CIA peeking through
I’ve got my own secret service
To take care of you.

Is this camp? Not according to Eileen, who loves it.  “Glamour, power, sex — it’s the new Broadway!” If I were Derek, I’d be dusting off my resume too. Judging by the sinking ratings, the whole Smash crew may soon be doing the same thing.