NBC’s Tuesday-soon-to-be-Saturday night drama Smash should have been many things. If you recall, there was a media storm around its premiere, teasing songs galore and a realistic look at theatre in New York and lots of Katherine McPhee being adorable and more scarves than you can shake a stick at. The show was supposed to bring the network huge ratings and somehow save NBC (which I didn’t know needed saving). It was supposed to provide grown-ups with an alternative to Glee, and it was going to create a launching pad for a real-life musical about Marilyn Monroe.
As a theatre professional, I was hoping it would be my friend. I was hoping that, even if it became the underdog of NBC’s line-up, it would be the kind of show I could share with family and friends and be all “HEY LOOK. THAT. THAT RIGHT THERE. THAT’S WHAT I DO!” Instead, somewhere along the way, like Glee before it, Smash has become an evil, distorted view of the world with tangled plot lines and characters that make little to no sense.
All of this was semi-alright. If the theatre world needed some fake drama injected into it, alright. If there had to be some messing with the reality of things, I could understand. I could even be okay with 1960s sitcom-level “plot line amnesia” when here in the second season, major characters have fallen off the face of the Earth and Debra Messing’s pregnancy has ceased to exist. I guess all that could be forgiven–particularly with the promise of regular visits from Sean Hayes (who is hilarious) and Jessie L. Martin (whose voice is like liquid gold, and who is as beautiful now as he was twenty years ag0).
But then there was the dramaturg.
Tell me you know what a dramaturg is. Go ahead, try and lie to me. I know you don’t know (unless you do and then…uh…hire me?) and if you’ve been watching Smash, the good news is you still don’t know. Dramaturgs are awesome; that’s why I am one, and will continue to be one whether I am working or not. Dramaturgs are research assistants; they are chameleons who wear whatever color the director needs them to. On newer shows, they help with the development of the artistic vision and sometimes work with the playwright/composer/music director to sharpen the focus of the overall work at hand. If it’s a well-established piece, say Midsummer Night’s Dream and the director decides he wants it set in 1940’s Russia…the dramaturg works with that and helps the cast and crew understand why the director has made that decision.
No matter your role in a production, the dramaturg SHOULD BE YOUR FRIEND. We are smart, friendly people who love to learn, and are more than happy to talk to you about exactly why Captain America is important to your titular role in Antigone, if that is what the director wants. We are not puppets, and we are not here to steal your show. We are not secretly working behind your back to get the producer to hand the show over to us. That is not how contracts work. It is not how a union works. It is certainly not how licensing works.
I used to watch Smash with my boyfriend (who does NOT work in theatre) and his younger brother (who does). My boyfriend always rooted for the characters that the show clearly wanted him to root for; his brother and I consistently rooted for the “bad guys”. One day, as I was screaming at Katherine McPhee’s character for not bringing a pencil to rehearsal, I figured out what was going on.
The “bad guys” may have been causing a lot of domestic turmoil, but they were really good at their jobs. They were the kind of people I actually love working with, because I don’t CARE what happens outside the rehearsal room, so long as they take their blocking notes and show up on time. This, to me, is a problem, because now viewers are looking at characters like Megan Hilty’s Ivy, who, lets face it, kind of has a right to hate Katherine McPhee’s Karen, and demonizing her along with the dramaturg. It’s starting to drive me a little crazy.
Maybe I should change what I expect from Smash. Maybe I should just start accepting that people on TV regularly have choreographed stroke-induced visions that no one else notices. Sometimes those visions are super racist. Sometimes Jennifer Hudson shows up and is somehow incredibly uncomfortable on stage, even though she is apparently a Broadway star. Maybe Commodore Norrington is a playboy director who decides not to cast Megan Hilty in a musical about Marilyn Monroe, even though the two have exactly the same body type.
Or maybe, just MAYBE, the show could benefit from a dramaturg.