It's curtain time for Marilyn's workshop -- and for Bernadette Peters as Ivy's undermining mom

By Hillary Busis
Updated March 20, 2012 at 06:00 AM EDT
Eric Liebowitz/NBC

Smash

S1 E7
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Damn, damn, damn, Smash! I’ve grown accustomed to your face. And when you present an episode that features Bernadette Peters absolutely murdering “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” plus a cameo from the Sex Couch, plus the greatest pan to Terrible Ellis in the history of ever, I have no choice but to be charmed. Honestly, I’m starting to love this show’s groan-worthy moments just as much as its legitimately great moments — although I must dock points for piling more misfortune on poor Ivy. But hey: That’s showbiz!

Tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night. Eileen’s band of merry misfits is presenting Marilyn: The Musical: The Workshop for an audience of powerful would-be investors, cuckolded husbands, and boring lawyer boyfriends. Though we’ve spent weeks listening to Smash‘s characters tell each other that their material is amazing, the workshop proves that Marilyn is still a long way from Broadway. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Fade in on a man with a hunger for Julia: Michael, who’s blatantly holding hands with his flame-haired Lady Chatterley in broad daylight. Their icky forbidden love is so scorching that it’s making the entire building feel as hot as Bali H’ai. Wait, just kidding: actually, the boiler’s just on the fritz. (How does Derek find out about this? Ellis tells him that he overheard the news. Of course.) Though Eileen is trying to get the problem fixed, the building’s manager isn’t exactly cooperating. Sounds like someone could use a talking-to from Lurch and his Frankenstein’s Monster fists.

Karen, meanwhile, is busy cutting a demo for the all-powerful but yet unseen Bobby Raskin. When she begins singing with her signature Broadway belt, a surly music producer snarls that she has to tone it down: “You trying to blow out my speakers?” Karen does as he says, dialing her theatricality back to Idol-approved levels and delivering a lovely, understated rendition of Colbie Caillat’s “Brighter Than the Sun.” Surly Producer suddenly straightens in his chair and looks sharply at her, as all mortals must when Karen bestows upon them the gift of song. By the end of it, he’s making moon eyes and telling her that he loves her. Now do you get why Ivy hates you, Karen?

Michael drags Julia into a seemingly empty room, and the two start furiously making out. By doing this in a studio stuffed with nosy, drama-craving theater people, they’re practically begging to get caught. Sure enough, Tom walks in as the couple is mid-smooch. All three sheepishly exit, and the camera slowly shifts over to a corner of the room… where, yup, Ellis happens to be standing. Guys, I can’t even tell you how hard I cackled at this. I sounded like Hecate sampling some particularly tasty eye-of-newt. The leisurely pan to Terrible Ellis might be the new Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes: It starts out funny, then gets frustrating, then gets absolutely freaking hilarious.

NEXT: Presenting! In person! That 5’3″ bundle of dynamite…

Karen tells Jessica that Bobby Raskin loved her recording so much that he wants her to come in for a face-to-face meeting. Getting famous is so easy! Bask in this attention for as long as you can, Iowa — because Bernadette is about to enter the building.

Broadway’s first lady is playing Leigh Conroy, an aging Broadway star who’s basically the fictional version of, well… Bernadette Peters. She’s crashing rehearsal, much to her daughter Ivy’s chagrin. As soon as Bobby spots her, he gasps and shouts “Sing something!” as though he’s being possessed by the ghost of theater geeks past. It’s a classic “don’t make me sing” moment. Before Ivy can blink, her mom’s busting out an impeccable performance of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” — and using her daughter as a stand-in for put-upon Louise. It sure ain’t subtle, but somehow, I don’t care.

After her final glory note fades away, everyone swarms Leigh. Suddenly, Ivy’s insecurities are starting to make a whole lot of sense. (Though would a famous actress’s daughter really be stuck hoofing in the chorus for 10 years?) At least Derek picks this moment to take Ivy aside and tell her that she’s wonderful in the show. There, now was that so hard?

When rehearsal actually starts, things are going smoothly until Michael’s clueless wife shows up with her baby in tow — you know, for maximum guilt. “The child thing never ceases to perplex me,” Derek remarks to no one. “Because you’re a reptile,” Tom replies without missing a beat. Julia, however, is decidedly warm-blooded. She’s so overcome by shame that she races out of the room, almost barfs, then tearfully tells Tom that she has to go home.

Unfortunately, retreating to Brooklyn doesn’t exactly make her feel better; when Julia gets there, she finds that Leo’s smoking pot with his friend Mason. Julia’s furious: “My workshop is tomorrow! You know what I’m in the middle of!” she yells at her son. Yes, Leo knows — and more importantly, he knows what’s in the middle of her. (Ew. Sorry.)

While the outer borough drama unfolds, Ellis pulls Eileen aside and starts actually revealing some of the dirt he’s been collecting for, I don’t know, a hundred years. But as he’s explaining about the affair, Eileen stops him cold. She tells him that though this is useful information, if she finds out that he’s spreading the story, he’ll “never work on this production or in this town again.” And lo, the angels sang, and there was peace on Earth!

NEXT: Except wait… Eileen and Terrible are still pals?

And then we learn that after rehearsal, Eileen goes drinking with Ellis at The Bushwack. What the what? I was sure she was going to banish him to the ninth circle, or something. At least the encounter helps Eileen find an illegal plumber to fix the malfunctioning boiler — Nick the Bartender, a.k.a. soap star Thorsten Kaye, knows a guy.

Ivy almost certainly wishes she were flirting with a hot European dude in a seedy Lower East Side bar. Instead, she’s listening to her mom say things like, “I was over getting nerves when I was your age — though, of course, you are used to the chorus.” Do the words “Mama’s all alone” mean nothing to Leigh? The would-be Marilyn ends up frustrated enough to pop a sleeping pill, meaning that we’ve got about two episodes before she completes her transformation into Judy Garland.

The night before the workshop, nobody gets any sleep — well, nobody but Leigh and Karen, who was probably attended by bluebirds until she drifted off. Iowa’s awoken by a call from Bobby Raskin’s office; he wants to meet with her that day. As in during the workshop. Bobby and Jessica urge her to miss the show, but Karen just can’t do it. Maybe that’s because she’s read the logline for next week’s episode. (Spoiler: “Derek recruits Karen to help him steal the musical from Tom and Julia.”)

As Eileen breaks into the boiler room, Derek asks Julia and Michael to work on Marilyn and Joe’s breakup scene. What he doesn’t know is that the lyricist and the actor have just, essentially, broken up; moments before, Julia told DiMaggio that Leo knows about their affair. They have an off-book argument in front of Derek; he thinks they’re just improvising and ends up putting it all in the show. Just wait until Joe and Marilyn start sniping about suggestive pie and Donny Hathaway.

As VIPs and Not So VIPs like Frank start filing into the rehearsal room, Ivy manages to fit in one last quick breakdown. Thankfully, trusty ol’ Tom is there to reassure her that everything will be fine, that she’s born to do this, and that she has “ice water in [her] veins.” Wait, why is that helpful? Their convo also manages to establish yet again that Not-Straight Sam is, emphatically, not straight, even though he likes sports, and everyone knows that only heterosexual men are permitted to like sports. When Tom glances at Sam after definitively learning that he’s gay, Sam is literally gesturing with a limp wrist. Yikes, guys.

Once the crowd has settled in, Derek apologizes for both their delayed start and the heat — though Bartender’s Friend is working on it, the building’s still at Once on This Island temps. After Leigh, clearly trying to make an entrance, saunters in, it’s finally time to begin. Cue the rise of an invisible curtain.

NEXT: They’ve got magic to do, just for us!

Worried that Ivy might blow a high note, or burst into tears, or spontaneously start screaming obscenities? Worry not, my friends: Our Marilyn is in the zone, nailing everything from “Let Me Be Your Star” to “Mambo” with ease. As she performs, we get a nifty peak into Karen’s head — where, of course, she’s imagining herself standing in Ivy’s place. Psst, writers: Make Karen a little more devious and a little less “paragon of virtue,” and she’ll instantly become 100% more interesting.

Things progress pretty smoothly, though Ivy does stumble a few times. (I blame Sex Couch.) The show’s chronology itself seems wonky — why is “The National Pastime,” which starts with Marilyn crowing about how she “just got a date with baseball’s Joltin’ Joe,” coming after “History Is Made at Night”? — but overall, the show seems to be gelling. At least, until Karen daydreams so hard that she tumbles off her stool, prompting Derek to call intermission.

Knowing how well Ivy reacts to pressure, the director chooses this very moment to destroy her confidence by demanding that she get her head in the game — and don’t be afraid to shoot the outside, J. Meanwhile, Michael and Julia have an intense confrontation in the hallway, but I’m so distracted by Debra Messing’s outfit that I can’t listen to their words. Does her shawl perfectly match her booger-colored dress? Wait, that isn’t a shawl at all? Those are sleeves somehow connected to the dress at the waist? Where’s William Ivey Long when you need him?

Marilyn‘s second act presumably contains “Never Met a Wolf” and “Let’s Be Bad,” but we don’t see snippets of either one. Instead, we watch Joe and Marilyn’s just-written breakup scene, which segues into a song we haven’t heard yet: “Lexington and 52nd Street,” a Michael Swift solo number. The title refers to the corner where Marilyn filmed The Seven Year Itch‘s famous subway grate scene. It isn’t nearly as catchy as Julia and Tom’s other tunes, though the part where the ensemble uses giant fans to blow up Ivy’s skirt is pretty cool. The real point of the song: Michael knows this is the end of his affair.

Unfortunately, that’s all we get of Marilyn. (Sorry, those who were yearning for appearances by Arthur Miller and JFK. Someday, the show will have more than two speaking characters.) After the crowd — including Nick the Bartender, who is clearly interested in examining Eileen’s plumbing — disperses, Derek tells the gang that they were terrific and he couldn’t be prouder. His tone suggests this may not be entirely true. Though Bobby still thinks Karen should have gone to Raskin, Iowa dreamily says she wouldn’t have missed the workshop for the world. Bobby and Jessica immediately mock her, earning four candy canes from me.

Though Leigh gives Ivy a “bravo,” she compliments the songs, the director, and the DiMaggio without saying one specific nice thing about her daughter. Ivy — still wacky from the prednisone, presumably — goes off on Mama, telling her that when she’s not totally ignoring her, she’s acting cruel. “You know who else had a mother like that?” Ivy asks. All together now: “Marilyn!” Mothers, be good to your daughters; if you aren’t, they’ll become drug-addicted disasters. Derek overhears the whole exchange, maybe because Ellis is busy plotting with his female girlfriend or something.

NEXT: Derek’s funniest lines. (Hint: There were a lot of them)

Back at Ivy’s apartment, a contrite Leigh tries to make peace. She gently tells her daughter that it’s tough to watch her perform; she never wanted Ivy to have to endure Broadway hardships. Leigh doesn’t say that it’s difficult to watch Ivy’s career soar while hers ends, but I think that’s also implied. Ivy has definitely been waiting her whole life to get this sort of validation. Even so, she stays stony-faced and doesn’t even say “goodbye” when Leigh leaves. Oh, Mama who bore her, who made her so sad!

The verdict about the workshop is in — and it’s not exactly good. Still, Eileen seems optimistic about the show’s future: The guy who represents Scarlett Johansson, Sutton Foster, and Michelle Williams attended the performance. When the stars’ names come up, Tom switches into fiercely protective mode and says that Ivy was terrific. But Derek doesn’t agree. I’m honestly not sure whether we’re supposed to think that Ivy actually wasn’t at the top of her game, or that Derek is biased against her for some reason.

According to the director, Ivy doesn’t know how not to blend in because she’s been in the ensemble for too long. Okay, he has to be nuts; that’s never been Ivy’s problem. Tom has an alternate theory: Derek is sabotaging Ivy because of the way she humiliated him last week. And then he finds a way to kill two problems with one stone: “I think the real problem is Michael Swift.” Julia, who’s been silent throughout the meeting, finally removes her shades and takes notice. When Eileen asks if she agrees with Tom, she stutters a bit, then gives her assent. That’s enough to make Derek stalk angrily out of the room.

When Julia arrives home that night, she finds Leo sullenly texting in the kitchen. Frank, meanwhile, is upstairs, “studying chemistry.” (Gotta say, I laughed at that line.) Leo is still determined to make his mother know how much he hates her… until she lets him know that Michael is being fired. Then the 16-year-old’s defenses break, and he and his mother share the sort of familial embrace Ivy and her mom are both yearning for. Aaaand… scene.

Phew! Onto Footlights:

– What happened to “Never Give All the Heart”? Did it make it into the show?

– Between “Oh, you as well?” and “Remember SARS?” and “Who the hell is that?”, Derek was really on fire tonight.

– A welcome dose of verisimilitude: Eileen says they won’t get investors based solely on the strength of the material. Hello, real world; we’ve missed you, sort of.

– There were also a few really cool shots in this episode — namely, the ensemble members popping up and down as they chat and stretch, and Ivy dressing down Leigh while standing in front of a mirrored wall.

– Leigh says traffic was never this bad when she lived in New York. “That’s why I said we should take the subway,” Ivy says through clenched teeth. I can’t even count how many times I’ve had this same conversation with my mother.

– Obviously Tom knows “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” by heart. He was probably humming it when he exited Mama Levitt’s womb.

– Does non-Destiny’s Child Michelle Williams even sing? Sources say… maybe.

– So is Some Like It Hot the only Marilyn movie Smash‘s producers could get the rights to, or what? This is the third time we’ve watched characters watching it.

– I forgot about the part in “The National Pastime” when the Yankees use their bats as ersatz penises. It almost, almost makes up for the fact that “Hot dogs!” didn’t make it into the medley.

Next week, we’ll watch Derek scheme to steal the show — literally. And while we wait to see what happens next, let’s chat: How did you like the workshop, as well as “The Workshop”?

Hillary on Twitter

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