SMASH Fact or Fiction? Episode 11 “The Movie Star”

Happy Thursday and welcome to the eleventh episode of SMASH Fact or Fiction?  Welcome to all you new readers, please take a moment to read the game rules before activating your buzzers.  Thanks to New York Magazine for naming this blog as “highbrow” and “brilliant” in their approval matrix.  http://nymag.com/arts/all/approvalmatrix/approval-matrix-2012-4-9/I’m thrilled to achieve such a high honor with my pooping rhino video link still intact.

Let’s get back to America’s favorite TV trivia game show. If you’ve missed the previous posts, check out Why Smash Matters and our first nine game shows, for the pilot episode  episode two episode three episode four, episode five, episode six, episode seven, episode eight   episode nine and episode ten.  If you are new to My Own Space the blog, my name is Sharon and I’ve been in pretty many Broadway shows.  I am also friends with Theresa Rebeck, the creator, writer, and all around guru of the show–so I am here to remind you that I am in total support of the fact that the show is, in fact,  a TV show–a fictional drama–not a documentary.  Right?  Right.  Good.  Please initialize your understanding of this fact here: ______.  We are not out to do anything except use the show as a launching point for fun conversation about the theater world.  Based on the success of A Chorus Line  and other backstage shows, we here at My Own Space assume there is a basic appreciation and curiosity of what happens behind the scenes on Broadway.  Or else, one might rightly ask, what in the world are you doing reading this blog.  Right?  Right.  If you can’t sing at least part of the song “Tomorrow”, you’re in the wrong place and should maybe try this instead.

Truth be told, you don’t really even need to watch the show to play along, but you might be confused at points and you will not win the grand prize which is hidden behind door number two and is probably VIP tickets to a movie opening.

Here we go.  Lights up…cue theme music….

I will make a series of statements based on events in this weeks episode, and then give my opinion on whether the statements are “fact” or “fiction”.  You play along.  Get your buzzers ready.

1)  An A-List star who can’t sing is hired to be the lead role in a major musical.  Fact or fiction?

Fact.  This absolutely happens, although it doesn’t always turn out well.  Let me name a few:

Lucille Ball in Wildcat (171 performances)

Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year (A respectable 770 performances)

Katharine Hepburn in Coco (329 performances)

Others are more successful.

Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard comes to mind, although Glenn Close had been in musicals previously.  In fact, the first musical I ever saw on Broadway was Barnum starring Jim Dale and…a singing Glenn Close.

Daniel Radcliffe in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  Despite being snubbed for a Tony nomination, he was terrific.

Sometimes the star starts the show in the out of town tryout, but is replaced before the show gets to Broadway.  This was the case with this year’s new show, Leap of Faith.  Brooke Shields did the out of town run, but was replaced by a non-household name (Jessica Phillips) when the show moved to Broadway.

If you want a great example of someone casting a name purely to cast a name and really not caring what they sound like–watch the Mamma Mia movie, specifically Pierce Brosnan singing “S.O.S.”.  I mean….he’s handsome….but….not a singer at all.  It’s painful.  Meryl Streep fares much better.  Not that she is the greatest singer, but she acts so well that I can forgive it.

In SMASH, Uma Thurman is cast in the show despite no one on the staff having heard her sing, including the producer.  As they said, “Her agent said she could sing”  and later in the episode alluded to her singing something else.  It made me wonder (and I don’t know the answer to this), has a major star ever been cast in the lead role of a major musical without anyone ever hearing them sing?  I find it very hard to believe.  Also stretching reality (but fun TV) was the rest of the cast cozying up to hear Uma Thurman sing for the first time–and it was the first time anyone had heard her sing.  Wouldn’t happen.  They would have a private rehearsal–just her–and then introduce her to the cast later.  No way would they risk the word of mouth hitting the streets via cast text messages to the entire Broadway community that an A-List star being paid a bajillion dollars in an already financially shaky production–is terrible.
2)  Being the understudy to an A-list star is a fun job.  Fact or fiction?

Fiction, and seriously, no one wants to do it and I will tell you why.

Imagine that you are the understudy for Daniel Radcliffe at How to Succeed.  Now imagine that he is sick, and there are 1,500 screaming 14-year-old girls who’ve come to see him.  Imagine the announcement that he is out of the show.  Imagine hearing the boos.  Imagine having to hold the show while people flock to the box office to get a refund.

Okay, scenario two (and this is what really happened).  Imagine understudying Daniel Radcliffe.  Imagine learning all the lines and all the blocking, and telling your agent, your mother, your boy/girlfriend that they should wait to see the show until he is out and you are on in the big fancy lead.  Imagine waiting everyday to see if your phone is going to ring saying he is out and you are on.  Imagine understudy rehearsal after understudy rehearsal where you polish and practice and you go home and you polish and practice, and months go by and you are still running lines and….he…never….ever….misses….a…..show.

It’s a big bummer for the understudy when there is a responsible A-list actor.

Also (one more thing and then I’ll get off it), I will say that I nodded my head in agreement when Ivy said something about if you don’t think you should be playing the role over the person you are understudying, there is something wrong with you.  True.  It doesn’t have to be in a hungerstudy kind of stalking way–no Tonya Harding hit her with a crow bar kind of thing, but yes.  You should think you should play the role.

BUT.  Anyone who understudies a lead knows that if you understudy a big hairy star, you aren’t going to get promoted to play the part when the big hairy star leaves.  Case in point.  Did Daniel Radcliffe’s understudies get promoted?  Nope.  It was the kid from Glee (who is a U of Michigan musical theater grad) and now it is that Jonas Brother (I forget which one.  Nick?)

3)  A-List actors get to dictate rewrites, keys of songs and otherwise involve themselves in the creation of a show to custom build it around themselves.  Fact or fiction?

Fact.  I asked this question on my Facebook wall to get a variety of responses from Broadway insiders who might have more scoop than I do on this subject (I’ve never been in a show with a major star, but I will tell you even the B-list stars I’ve worked with had creative input.)  The general consensus was a a pretty unqualified yes, and then people got specific.  I won’t out anyone, but I will give some safe examples.

Here are some quotes:

A current point of view:  “A certain star even had the book rewritten after the first previews. The star was upset that someone was getting laughs so he demanded all the laugh lines be given to his character instead. Needless to say it turned the show into a ridiculous mess that closed.”

From someone who worked with a big star many years ago:  ” It’s contractual. Final approval on script, “their” choreography, and often the number of songs or lines (a minimum guarantee) – all separate riders in the contract.”

A nay vote:  “Having just been through this not too long ago, not as much as you would think. They can tweek things to fit their personalities, but that’s about it, unless they are also producers.”

Dishy and specific:  “Jerry Lewis ran the show with Damn Yankees. It was a revival, but he told them how many encores, orchestrating, and staging. I imagine it depends on how A-list you are, and I am sure there is a top and bottom to that list as well.”

And in a new section, I am taking one question a week from a reader.  This one comes from Jeff, and does not have to do with SMASH.

Sharon…what ever happened to the show jacket craze of the 90’s!? You never see them these days…when I was seeing shows as a tween, I would be in awe as swarms of actors would walk by me in their show jacket. It was like a badge of distinction…like ‘look at me! I am on broadway’. I always wanted to have a jacket of my own. But, when I was finally a professional, forget it!…there were no more jackets! :) [BTW-did producers pay for the jackets for the company, or did the individual order and purchase them on their own?] Is there a show jacket equivalent today? What was it about broadway in 1993 that people wore those collectible varsity jackets?

An interesting observation, and something I thought about the other day when I was cleaning out a closet and came upon my old Les Miz jacket (denim with a leather collar–I bought it at Banana Republic and sent it to the monogram company, rather than using one of their jackets because they were all so ugly!)

I’m not sure what happened to the show jacket craze, but you are absolutely right.  When I moved to New York in 1991, show jackets were all the rage and worn with pride (usually by new cast members.  The older, more jaded actors wouldn’t be caught dead in them).  It was the VERY FIRST THING I DID when I got Les Miz and I waited with bated breath for it to come in.  I remember making fun of a poser-guy who walked around in a Phantom jacket although he’d never done it (which was snotty of me).  To answer one of your questions, the jackets were not paid for by the producers.  They did (usually) give you a thick terry cloth robe with your name embroidered on it as your “welcome to the company” gift.  Gifts from producers now are more varied.  I’ve received a water bottle, a rain jacket, numerous t-shirts, sweatshirts and luggage tags.  Friends of mine have script bags (like messenger bags) and umbrellas.  Baseball hats are popular.

Maybe it’s time to redesign show jackets and put them on trendier jackets.  My guess is that part of the reason why they died out is because the jackets themselves (not the design) were so ugly.

If you have a thought about the demise of the show jacket, write in!  If you have a question for next week, write in!

See you next week!

(For the next post in the SMASH series, go here)

(My latest series, “Let me Tell You What I Liked about….is now underway.  To read this week’s post, Let Me Tell You What I Liked About Newsies, go here.)


 

 

 

 

 

About Sharon Wheatley

Mother of Charlotte and Beatrix. Sometimes an actress. Sometimes a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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11 Responses to SMASH Fact or Fiction? Episode 11 “The Movie Star”

  1. Thom Warren says:

    Ok, first of all, I got turned on to this blog about three weeks ago and I’m completely hooked! Your clarity and sense of humor, all while totally honoring that Smash is – above all else – something really swell for the visibility of live theatre, and for keeping butts in the seats in the wake of some LOW RATINGS Tony telecasts…well it’s great!! And for the record, loved last years Tony show….hoping this year will match it! Anyhoo……my fave recent-ish story of an A-list celebrity being cast and fired – and a story I told my History of musical theatre students the other day – is Jenna Elfman in Nine, replacing Jane Krakowski. Now Jane, at the time, had won the Tony, and had a TV presence with Ally McBeal, but hadn’t done 30 Rock yet (I don’t think), whereas Jenna was a straight up TV star cause of Dharma and Greg. At her put -in, Chita leaned over to Sara Gettlefinger….hardly a household name, and Jenna’s understudy, and said “brush up on those lines”. She was on that night, and the following, and within three days the announcement was made that Sara would replace Jenna in the role permenantly. Now, do I think that NO ONE had EVER heard Jenna sing? Mmmm….no, but do I think that they moved forward with her, comfortable in the knowledge that she’d be fine…doubt it.

    As for show jackets….great question. I have too many to name: denim (bway debut), wool, wool with leather sleeves (the bulk of my sad collection), and even the uber-retro SATIN! Hells yeah.

    Keep writing, Sharon! You’re truly wonderful!

    Xo,
    Thom

    • toscaskiss32 says:

      Re. last year's Tonys: SUCH a huge improvement! (Sadly, I still have not gotten to see the whole thing since my designated recorder screwed up, and I had to be at another event, so I speak from having only seen numerous segments on youtube.) I don't know why, but they did a bunch of things I'd been whining for them to do for years (certainly not all, but many important ones):
      1. Move the show out of that RCMH barn, back into a theater that feels like a theater on the broadcast, with a feeling of intimacy (complaining that it's not technically a Broadway theater would be petty, and that doesn't really matter, as long as it feels right for TV).

      2. Put the focus on THEATER and BROADWAY, honoring and celebrating its past, present and future with the real people who make it happen, and DON'T stuff the evening w. any old movie, tv, reality, news or whatever kind of celebrity you can drag in, in a pathetic attempt to lure viewers who wouldn't be interested otherwise (especially since that ploy doesn't work anyway). If they don't have a bona fide connection to Broadway, they don't belong on the telecast (POSSIBLE, very rare exceptions MIGHT be allowed).

      3. Make good, smart selections of performances from nominated musicals, and don't have a parade of incoherent (or worse), cobbled together mashup-medlies.

      4. Have a host (though I rather like some of the 2-host teams from some years) who is quick-witted, funny, able to be serious, who understands that the evening is for celebrating, showing off and honoring Broadway, particularly the specific nominated folk and elements, and NOT about overdoing their own schtick. It's a fine line to walk, and I was not surprised that Neal P. Harris did such a fine job of it, for the most part (again, judging w'out having watched the entire show properly). Also, it looks like using the brilliant Lin Manuel-Miranda was a HUGE plus, which I hope is done again this year.

      5. Cut back on the onscreen graphics, which had gotten to a point where they obscured half the screen at times (especially with the addition of the now ubiquitous, never-absent network logo).

      6. Get a sound person/team who can do a good job, that you don't feel like hanging. (From what I heard and read, that aspect was much improved this year–how could it not be, after the previous year's debacle, and many prior years of bad sound?).

      There was more, but all in all, from what I got to see, lots was done right.

      Didn't care too much for including the song from SPIDERMAN, or from MEMPHIS (that song came across pretty lame the year before, when they won, and REALLY didn't need to be repeated, especially when time can't even be found to include some awards that should definitely be in the broadcast, like lifetime achievement, best score, choreography, etc.). I don't know what exactly they did to show off the plays, which is always a difficult thing to do effectively (though they've certainly done better some years than others, with that).

      ANYway…enough of that now.

    • toscaskiss32 says:

      Love your Chita quote (was that quote already made public?)

      How well I remember that whole Jenna Elfman episode, reading the gossip from halfway across the country (kind of figured that's what they were modeling the whole Uma T. character's arc on). Wasn't she also originally supposed to star in the SWEET CHARITY revival that ended up starring Miss Applegate? If not Jenna E., who was it? Some very sharp dish emanated from rehearsals of that as well. And, of course, Christina A. had lots of difficulties along the way, but apparently won folks over with her persistence and spirit. I remember her moments on that season's Tony broadcast ("falling" into the orchestra pit) as bright spots; she can be a pretty charming comedienne, and worked hard to raise the level of her dancing–no Gwen Verdon, but apparently a winning Charity nevertheless, in her way.

  2. Karen says:

    We had tickets to a Miss Saigon matinee a few weeks after it opened. When the announcement was made that Leah Salonga's alternate would be doing the performance, people booed. I have never felt so sorry for a performer as I did that poor young lady. We made a point of going to the stage door to tell her we thought she was wonderful. And she was.

    BTW, Glenn Close started with the Up with People tour as a singer.

  3. toscaskiss32 says:

    Re. "stars who can't sing," I'd disagree mildly with you on Daniel Radcliffe, by the few clips I've seen and heard. He sounds like not a great singer, but like he can gamely muddle through ok, carrying the tune, as opposed to your other examples, or to someone like Bette Davis (got to hear war stories about her attempt at a Broadway musical from one of the men in the dancing chorus, and the nightmare out of town previews).

    Also, re. Ms. Streep, I'll agree she's not the greatest singer, but I think she's got more than she could show in MAMMA MIA, judging from watching her in the charming Elizabeth Swados show adapted for television, ALICE AT THE PALACE, and that number that ends POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. I'd be interested to hear her in other music.

    Re. Glenn Close, she's managed, but isn't someone I'd want to hear very much of (and I'll never fully forgive her for that SOUTH PACIFIC travesty on ABC–sacrilege). Once, long ago, I was stoutly defending her singing, based on a recording of "With One Look" from a compilation CD promoting the local tour presenters' season. Eventually I found out that the singer on the recording (which didn't have singer credits anywhere) was in fact Betty Buckley–no wonder I thought she was good! That taught me not to make assumptions like that.

    Another good example of "star who can't really sing" would be Vivien Leigh. Who else?…

  4. Tania says:

    Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge?

  5. DoIHaveToGiveMyRealName? says:

    Sharon, I love your blog, and I think the comments are great, too.

    Just to carry forward the tales of stars who can’t sing, gee, how bout stars who can’t dance? There’s a whole boatload of them! (Renee Zellwegger)

    Showjackets? Maybe some clever wardrobe person could redesign one in the Desigual style– I agree the jacket styles haven’t progressed much, but I do miss them — they were like HS letter jackets for the actor in-crowd. And they had an inside pocket to discourage muggers – not as much of a consideration now, but a definite bonus in the nineties!

  6. Bobby says:

    Hi Sharon,

    Love your blog and look forward to reading it every week… BUT I will say as someone who did Damn Yankees with Jerry Lewis both on Broadway and on the national tour, that your comments about him running the show are not correct. Don't forget, he came in as a replacement and nothing at all was changed with the exception of adding in his "cane tricks" in the middle of Good Old Days. However, that was Robby Marshall's idea not his.

    Maybe what you heard has more to do with the tour… After he was offered the tour, the producers tried to cut the show back… cut a few performers and the size of the orchestra. He then insisted on keeping it the way it was saying something like, "That is the show your promised me, that is the show I'm going to do…" They also offered to bring the show to London with the whole cast, but then tried to say just Jerry and a few others and he refused. Basically, the only time he threw his weight around was to make sure the producers gave him what they promised. He was very protective of the whole company and we felt the same way about him. He was a total pleasure to work with.

    • sswheatley says:

      Hey–thanks for the clarification. I was going off of something someone else said, this is good to hear.

  7. LadyKat says:

    Just heard about your blog, and now I am a new fan! Great work, keep it up.

  8. Leah says:

    Re: show jackets – every time i run across my "Joseph" jacket from the 90's I cringe. Just like you I couldn't WAIT to get it when I joined the tour, and I wore it to DEATH once I got it!!! Now it just seems so tacky for a million different reasons (not to mention the fact that it would date me beyond belief, meow!!!) Regardless, it was my first show of that caliber, and I am still proud to have been a part of it.

    My jacket is UGLY, there is no doubt about it, but I still love it. Maybe I could take it to a tailor and have them make something a little cooler out of it.

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