I’ve been watching Smash, because it’s trashy and fun. And, like many viewers, I’ve been saying “Wait. They’re auditioning without a script?” and “Hang on, who’s writing the book for this thing?”
Fair enough, Smash is a fantasy, and watching writers at work on a script is incredibly tedious. But the show has glossed over the near-impossibility of writing a decent musical about Marilyn Monroe. The characters of Julia and Tom, Broadway’s hottest songwriting couple, know that Monroe has been the subject of past flops, but they talked themselves out of that problem in the first episode with a hastily staged baseball number (also, incidentally, a feature of more flops than hits), and since then it’s been all systems go.
I’m going to take the task seriously, and really try to write an outline (as in place the scenes and songs) for a Marilyn musical.
First, Some Objections
1. Her story doesn’t sing.
I don’t mean it isn’t easy to place songs – it’s too easy, thanks to Monroe’s musical comedies, and her serenading of JFK in that breathless, highly imitable voice (go on, imagine listening to it all night). No, her story doesn’t sing, in that her life doesn’t have a single dramatic focus. Like many film actresses, she went from one project to another. Some films did well, others not. Husbands appeared. Husbands left. Her story is not like that in Evita: girl is born in poverty, sleeps her way upwards, gets married, grows powerful, becomes a paradox, dies of cancer. The only way to give Marilyn Monroe’s life a single dramatic focus is to, well, give her a single dramatic focus. We’re familiar with all the possibilities that offers, and that leads to the next objection.
2. We know too much. Way too much.
The strength of Evita is that she’s not a figure in popular culture. And if she is, it’s because of the musical. Monroe, on the other hand, is exhausted, and exhausting. We know about foster homes, abuse, early divorce, pin-ups, hair dye, the walk, the voice, bras in bed, more divorce, Strasbergs, barbiturates, lateness, Tony Curtis, Hitler, Kennedys, Sinatra, gangsters, death. We know it all, and it’s all been arranged in order to make sense so many times that even the ways of telling it are overly familiar: Marilyn Wanted to be Taken Seriously. Marilyn Just Wanted True Love. Marilyn Was a Proto-Feminist Victim of the System. Marilyn Was Trying to Please Daddy. All of which lead me to the biggest objection of all.
3. PEOPLE WHO GET EVERYTHING THEY WANT ARE SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPY.
This is, for me, why most stories of artists and showbiz types don’t work as bio-fiction. We spend the first hour watching them trying to get famous. They do pretty much whatever it takes. Why can’t the world see what they got? Then the world sees it! They’re famous! They’re beloved! But still not happy. The last hour is spent listening to them whine about how fame wasn’t what they expected. And I think: shut up, you brat. Get a real problem. If you hate it so much, retire. Take photographs of dogs. Care for the elderly. Become a swimming teacher. Because all non-showbiz lives are just as valid as yours, you pampered little wuss.
With those objections in mind, I’m still going to take a crack at it.