Spoilers Ahead, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’m not exactly sure why I watched the first episode of the new show Smash, which is set to premiere on February 6 but can currently be watched through Xfinity’s OnDemand for free. I mean I know why, my wife put it on while we were waiting for The Good Wife to start, but I don’t know why I finished it afterwards.
It’s actually a very good show, if a little unimaginative and safe in its execution. The writing, acting, and editing styles could have been lifted from any one-hour drama broadcast over the past ten years, and you’d never notice as long as the hair and fashion were kept up to date. That said, Katharine McPhee is actually a stand-out in terms of her acting (and singing, she is after all an American Idol runner-up), and Debra Messing is less annoying than I’ve ever seen her (though she inexplicably wears a scarf indoors all the damn time).
What I noticed while watching the pilot was a scene in which Katharine McPhee (I seriously can’t be bothered to learn their names, I’ve only seen one episode) auditions for a role in Marilyn, the Music, the fictional Broadway show that this whole series revolves around. There are a number of great lessons to be learned for actors of all types, but first let’s set the scene.
In the waiting room, she and we the audience realize that she is the only girl to show up not having dressed the part. Everyone else is dressed like Marilyn, but McPhee is in some… I don’t know, I’m not a fashion guy, just some regular street clothes. The girl who goes in before her sings some 50s Marilyn-style period song, while Katharine sings something contemporary. During her song she imagines her boyfriend seated before her, and despite the fact that there is only a piano for accompaniment she hears drums and full instrumental backing in her head.
She blows everyone away and gets a callback. Good times.
So what can we learn from this?
- Dressing the part – Everyone will do it for the first audition, so should you? There’s no right answer to that, as it will depend on the role and the market, but seriously ask that question before you put on a full tuxedo or that goalie mask, swim fins, and tutu that are on the breakdown.
- Song choice (or monologue choice, etc.) – Rather than sing something that Marilyn did, she chose a contemporary song that evoked images and memories of Marilyn Monroe. Anyone can sing “Happy Birthday” like Marilyn (and so did she, later in the episode). We could also fold into this how you might interpret the sides that are provided beforehand… are there beats that everyone and their brother would interpret the same way? How can you play them differently?
- Audience – McPhee didn’t just sing the song for the director and the writers, she had a real, tangible person in her mind and directed it to him (her boyfriend, in this case). This gave her the emotional core she needed to really dive into the song and let her feelings guide her performance, and ensured she wouldn’t feel silly doing all those hand motions that singers sometimes do.
- Know Your Material – This seems obvious but people ignore it all the time. Whether its a song, monologue, or sides you need to go in knowing the stuff cold. Yes, at a union audition you are supposed to get paid if they require you to memorize the lines beforehand. Too bad, do it anyway. You can’t start acting until you have the script out of your hands.
One other thing that came up was when she got the call back. She didn’t do “sexy” Marilyn for the audition, but she knew damn well that they would need to see “sexy” Marilyn for the callback. Playing against the role is great to get noticed and show the casting people that you have the confidence and skill to perform, but you will eventually need to show that you can also give them what they’re looking for. If they say that want Jim Carrey it may be fine to go into the first reading as Bob Newhart, but they’ll probably want to see Jim Carrey for the callback.
So why didn’t I love the show Smash overall? The ending. It went from being a standard TV drama with some musical numbers (that were fully integrated and motivated by the story), to a straight-up musical. I love musicals, I grew up in musicals, most of my technical experience is through running lights and stage managing for musicals… but I didn’t want this to be a boring old musical. People singing in the mirror for no good reason, cutting back and forth between people on opposite sides of town singing the same song… that’s the musical stuff that is old-fashioned and out of place, especially on TV. Hopefully they nip this in the bud for future episodes and get the show back the way it was for the first 40 minutes of the pilot.