Screen: NBC

Hit List Rises From Smash's Ashes

One of Smash's fake musicals is now a real musical and it's...kind of great?

I loved Smash. I'm not even sure my viewing even qualified as hope-watching, because while it could be a deeply frustrating show with unquestionable room for improvement, I genuinely enjoyed it every week. I recognize that it wasn't necessarily good in most traditional senses of the word, but it had so many great parts that just never quite added up to a convincing whole. I could be as critical of the show as anyone, and as a theater professional definitely as nitpicky, but that was all part of the fun, and it was amazing to see a version of my world, and an art form I care about deeply, depicted on television, however soapified. My impression was that primetime soap fans didn't ever seem to care, while theater people seemed to want it to be a documentary. I happen to love trashy TV and musical theater, so I was pretty well in the tank for the show: it was telling an inherently dramatic story never really told on TV before, in an extremely ambitious way, with mostly unknown actors (as far as TV is concerned). It was shot on location in New York and it looked gorgeous. And, of course, each episode had at least one completely original song. 
 
One of the valiant, flawed, ambitious attempts to save Smash in its second season was the introduction of a new musical, Hit List. Hit List's songs were written by an assortment of young, up-and-coming musical theater writers, a bold choice by the show's team to bring a different sound to Smash and support musical theater's future. For those of us in the industry — and, ideally, for the show's fans too — hearing these songs on television was super-exciting. 

It also made not one lick of sense. Many of Hit List's songs, unlike Bombshell's, had actually been written for other projects or as standalone cabaret songs, and you could tell they didn't really go together. Smash never tried too hard to make Hit List make sense, which I think is actually better than forcing an explanation that would have made the audience think too hard about it. We were asked to take for granted that Hit List was brilliant, and given just enough information about Hit List's story to make it seem like it might be a real show.

And here's the thing: now it sort of is. And this week, I saw it live at 54 Below, a New York City cabaret that bills itself as "Broadway's Nightclub."

Photo: Adam Grosswirth

Photo: Adam Grosswirth

This is maybe the weirdest way a cult TV show has ever been revived, but it makes sense. Obviously, there are only a few shows that could support this, and no one's clamoring for Cop Rock Live! 54 Below plays host to Broadway stars, but it's also become a haven for young composers and singers, including many of the writers and stars of Hit List. Its relatively new Director of Programming (who, full disclosure, is a friend) is a Smash superfan and (I say this with love and respect) a crazy person. In a Vulture interview as Smash was ending, Josh Safran (Season 2's head writer) outlined Hit List's supposed plot and said he'd love to do a concert in a cabaret venue someday. I don't know if anyone thought it would ever actually happen. But my crazy friend? She gets shit done.

What I'm not sure anyone was expecting was for both shows to sell out in an hour. They added a third that sold just as fast. I'm told there were 200 people on the waiting list, including NBC executives who didn't act quickly enough to get their VIP tickets. It's a small venue, so it's not like the 450 or so people who saw Hit List could have saved Smash's ratings. Still, for cabaret, these are Patti LuPone numbers. Then it turned out that Smash writer Julia Brownell had written a book for the musical; that songs not heard on the TV show would be included; and that despite the music stands and a stage smaller than my living room, this would be more than just a concert of the songs.

Photo: Adam Grosswirth

Photo: Adam Grosswirth

So there I was on Monday night, with a sold-out crowd for what had become a presentation of a world-premiere musical. Jeremy Jordan, Andy Mientus, and Krysta Rodriguez (also a friend) reprised their roles from Smash and Hit List (Mientus's Smash character didn't actually perform in Hit List, but here he played someone we hadn't seen on the TV version...and given that Jordan's Hit List character was a thinly veiled version of his Smash character, it made sense to have Mientus do the same...it's all a little confusingly meta, though). Katharine McPhee wasn’t available, so Karen/Amanda was played by the phenomenal Carrie Manolakos. If you haven’t heard of her, you should. (If you have, it’s probably because of her cover of "Creep" that went viral last year.)

What surprised me most was how much of it did make sense, without any retconning (or possibly with extremely successful retconning). A scene would be set ("a Hollywood party, all the guests are dresed in white") and I'd realize we had seen that scene on Smash, we just hadn't known what it meant. In brief: Amanda (Manolakos), an aspiring singer, fails at life and plans to kill herself, but is stopped by Jesse (Jordan), an aspiring songwriter who has failed at life in the past. They fall in love, but she steals his songs and fakes her death, reinventing herself as Nina Hope (in case you're keeping track, this was now Carrie Manolakos as Kat McPhee as Karen Cartwright as Amanda as Nina Hope...I said it was confusing). Nina unseats the reigning pop superstar, The Diva (Rodriguez). Jesse decides that the cutthroat Hollywood life isn't for him and goes home, leaving Nina/Amanda without any good songs. Her downfall ensues. She goes home and reunites with Jesse, and they start over again, performing as themselves. But The Diva, disgraced and unhinged, tracks Amanda down and kills her. Jesse is sad. 

Honestly, it's so much better than that sounds. The music feels surprisingly of a piece, like a young musical theater writer version of Mamma Mia (and I mean that as a compliment, I swear). The simplicity of the story added a layer of truth to the arc of the show on Smash: a show by young, exciting, unknown writers, with young, exciting, unknown talent (and Karen) about people struggling for their art and becoming famous and dying shares a lot of DNA with shows like Rent, but with opportunities for spectacle in the form of VMA performances by the pop-star characters. It might not last but it would definitely appeal to young fans the way it did in the world of Smash.

Smash, like almost any art about art, suffered a lot from the problem of telling the audience how great everything and everyone was without ever showing us a ton of evidence for it. It was hard, for example, to have so much plot revolving around the problems of Bombshell's book when all we'd ever seen were its musical numbers. So to see Hit List almost fully formed and actually good was like the ultimate in hope-watching. Not to mention being in a room full of people who loved Smash as much as I did, including some of the ones who had made it happen. There was a dash of camp in the concert (Ann Harada introduced it in character as Linda, the side-eye-giving stage manager...of Bombshell but never mind) that let everyone know we were on the same page. We all knew Smash was not without its faults, and that it was okay to laugh at them as long as we were celebrating what made it great at the same time.

For Game Show Week we list:

Game shows on which Karen, Jimmy, and Kyle would excel!

  • American Idol
  • The Sing-Off
  • The Weakest Link
  • Severe Family Feud
  • Who Wants To Be The Surliest?
  • Wipeout (by a bus)
  • (In) Jeopardy (of getting hit by a bus)

Discussion

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